First title since 1999 for Bulldogs

Updated: April 23, 2005, 12:09 AM ET
Associated Press

AUBURN, Ala. – Georgia stumbled into the NCAA women's gymnastics championships. The GymDogs regained their footing in time for another title.

Georgia won its sixth championship Friday night, ending UCLA's two-year reign and rebounding with a flourish from a nightmarish regional that had the GymDogs at the bottom of the 12 qualifying teams.

Clearly, it hadn't diminished their confidence.

"Regionals to me was a fluke," coach Suzanne Yoculan said. "Lightning does not strike twice. I didn't make a big deal of it."

She did make a big deal out of the title, triumphantly crowing "from worst to best."

Georgia captured its first title since 1999 despite having to replace eight scholarship gymnasts after last season and losing four consecutive meets for the first time in Yoculan's 22-year tenure.

Freshman Katie Heenan scored 9.95s on the vault and beam and finished with a season-high all-around score of 39.725 to lead Georgia.

It was clear early no school would be breaking through to win an event dominated by UCLA, Georgia, Alabama and Utah since it began in 1982. Michigan (196.575) and Nebraska (196.425) rounded out the six-team finals.

The GymDogs had a bye in the fifth of six rotations when the Bruins opened the beam competition with a fall and struggled to a 48.925. That allowed Alabama to overtake UCLA for second and took much of the pressure off Georgia in the final rotation on the bars.

UCLA and Alabama had to hope for Georgia to falter on the bars, but it didn't happen.

In fact, Georgia apparently got all its troubles out of the way at regionals, where the team had three falls on the balance beam and squeaked in with the lowest qualifying score of the 12-team field. The GymDogs had the top score of Thursday's preliminaries, a then-season-high 197.35, and followed with an even better performance.

If they were going to have a misstep it was most likely to come on the first event, the balance beam. Instead, the GymDogs posted the highest score of the finals on the event at 49.35.

"If we hit on the beam," Michelle Emmons said, "we knew we'd be fine."

UCLA's Kristen Maloney and Alabama's Ashley Miles both scored perfect 10s on the floor, Miles' first of the year. Miles, a three-time NCAA champion, also finished the meet with a 10 on the vault.

Maloney was already only the fourth gymnast in NCAA history to get perfect scores in all four events.

The fifth-year senior also finished second in the all-around Thursday behind teammate Tasha Schwikert and Friday night's 39.725 by her and Heenan would have tied for the title.

UCLA had three Olympians while Alabama and Michigan each had one. Yoculan was more interested in counting team titles than Olympians, though.

"We may not have the best athletes in our lineup like an Ashley Miles or an Olympian, but we have a total team," she said. "We really emphasize that we have a total team.

"The team just believed. They believed right from the beginning that we could win this thing," she added.

Alabama appeared to slip out of contention after a poor beam performance but climbed back to second after a pep talk from coach Sarah Patterson in the locker room.

"She just told us the meet's not over until it's over, there's no fat lady singing," Miles said. "We could easily have given up and been fifth or sixth position, but we didn't."

And Georgia didn't fade after losing to Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and Alabama – all among the initial 12-team field – in February.

"It was after that fourth loss things really turned around for this team," Yoculan said. "The adversity really forced them to improve. That was the turning point for us."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press