Monday, April 22

UCLA gymnastics looks to flip the odds at NCAA championships

UCLA will need strong individual performances from gymnasts like redshirt junior Samantha Peszek as the Bruins head to Alabama for the NCAA championships. (Tim Bradbury/Daily Bruin senior staff)

UCLA will need strong individual performances from gymnasts like redshirt junior Samantha Peszek as the Bruins head to Alabama for the NCAA championships. (Tim Bradbury/Daily Bruin senior staff)

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UCLA Gymnastics: Three Keys to NCAA Championship No. 111

1. Going 24 for 24 routines: The Bruins can’t afford a single mistake – even if the mistake doesn’t contribute to their team score, their play-not-to-lose mentality will sink them in the competition. When an athlete has already fallen and the Bruins’ safety net is gone, they tend to tense up and get inside their own heads.

2. A full roster: UCLA had three crucial athletes miss practice this week from illness and injury the week leading up their trip to Alabama. The team needs those three athletes to not only compete but also show no signs of rust if it wants to emulate the seventh seed University of Connecticut men’s basketball team and turn its eighth seed into a title.

3. A season high score: Coach Valorie Kondos Field is famous for getting her team to peak at the right point in the season and the Bruins need another year of the same or they will be unable to keep up with their competition – five teams above them have scored more than 198 at least once – while UCLA hasn’t managed anything over 197.500. Given the strength of the field, this year’s title could very well go to whichever team scores over 198 – or just gets closest to it. Either way, UCLA needs more than 197.500.

Two weeks ago, amid all the noise of the finale of this year’s rambunctious and upset-ridden March Madness, the NCAA women’s gymnastics tournament quietly began.

Exactly like in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the best collegiate teams traveled across the country, competed across conference boundaries and fought to avoid single-elimination and stay in the hunt for an NCAA title.

In those regional competitions, UCLA did enough to progress to Friday’s semifinal. But they will be underdogs progressing to the final and even bigger underdogs to win the NCAA title.

And this is not March Madness – rankings and seedings tend to predict a team’s finish within two or three places.

There were six regional competitions, with six teams each, in which the top two teams from each advanced to Friday’s semifinal. The 12 teams that did advance are ranked No. 1 through No. 11 with only one team outside the top 12, No. 15 Penn State, making the semifinal – and its upset was over No. 12 Oregon State.

Overall, in six different locations and in a competition featuring 36 different teams, only one top-25 team lost when it wasn’t expected.

This isn’t to say that the NCAA women’s gymnastics final isn’t completely without upsets. Last year, the Bruins were seeded sixth and placed fourth – mobility is possible, but not like it is in the men’s basketball tournament.

With that in mind, as UCLA squares off in Birmingham, Ala., in the last weekend of 2014 NCAA gymnastics, its goals are more focused on leaving the tournament pleased with their 2014 season rather than with UCLA’s 111th NCAA title, said coach Valorie Kondos Field.

But she also said the team will still try for the upset.

“We know that we’re the underdogs going in. It’s our meet to win, it’s everybody else’s to lose and that’s a nice pressure to not have on yourself,” Kondos Field said. “We won our first championship (as underdogs).”

This year, however, the Bruins are somewhat larger underdogs than when the second-seeded 1997 UCLA team upset the favorite, Georgia. To even progress to the final, they would need to upset one of the three higher-seeded teams in their semifinal and fend off No. 9 Nebraska.

Despite the low odds, redshirt sophomore Ellette Craddock said she’s not thinking about the other teams or rankings.

“When it comes down to it, you’re up against yourself and you want to do the best you can as a team so it doesn’t make a difference to focus on other teams,” Craddock said. “It may seem head to head when you’re watching it, but when you’re competing and in the bubble, you’re with yourself and with the team.”

So though the team may not leave Birmingham with a team title in hand, individual titles are still very much in reach for several of UCLA’s gymnastics, such as redshirt junior Samantha Peszek.

Peszek, who may not compete in her final season of eligibility next year, has won three of the four all-around competitions she’s competed in this season. On top of that, this season she’s managed a perfect 10 on bars and is ranked No. 5 nationally on beam.

“I finally feel comfortable, in shape and healthy enough to compete all-around to the best of my ability,” Peszek said. “If I have a great night I could take it, but I think there’s also a lot of other girls that have competed all season that have looked just as good.”

So this weekend, though the Bruins will try to turn their No. 8 seed into an NCAA title like the No. 7 seed UConn Huskies did in March Madness, their NCAA title hopes will weigh more heavily on the shoulders of individual competitors rather than the team as a whole.

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