GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the first time since 2004, the NCAA women's gymnastics champion will definitely not be Georgia.
The Gym Dogs won't even be there, snapping a 26-year streak of making the championships after losing a tiebreaker to Oregon State at a regional tournament in Columbia.
"Every coach knows you are one illness, one sprained ankle, one problem away from not getting to the championship," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson, who has led the Crimson Tide to 28 consecutive championship meets. "I never take this event for granted, even after all these years."
Missouri, ranked No. 15 in the country, won the meet held on its campus and advanced to the championship for the first time in school history.
UCLA headlines the Thursday afternoon session that also includes Oklahoma, Utah, Oregon State, LSU and Nebraska. Host Florida will compete in the evening along with Alabama, Stanford, Arkansas, Missouri and Michigan.
The top three teams from each session advance to the Super Six on Friday, the final year for the format. The NCAA will switch to a four-team final beginning in 2011.
The individual all-around champion will be decided Thursday and individual event finals will be Saturday.
Only four schools have ever won the national championship — Georgia, Utah, UCLA and Alabama — but this year may be one of the most wide-open competitions, even if top-seeded UCLA comes in as the slight favorite.
"It's not just Georgia left out of this dance," UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field said. "There's a lot of parity in the country now. The parity is getting better every year."
The Bruins know all about it. UCLA failed to qualify last season.
"It was horrible, but it was the best thing for the sport," Field said. "What happened after that was you start second-guessing yourself. 'What did we do wrong? What are other people doing?' You start looking for answers, and you try to fix things when you just have to realize it's just the nature of sport."
But UCLA doesn't look like the unstoppable force Georgia had been the past five seasons. Third-seeded Alabama and fourth-seeded Oklahoma finished ahead of UCLA in the regular season, and second-seeded Florida will be competing in its home gym.
"Make no doubt about it — a university hosts the national championship to have the opportunity to win," Patterson said. "Any team that is going to defeat Florida is going to be that much better than the University of Florida because I think the fans and the outreach of hosting it.
"We've hosted three and we've won three. I will tell you it's a tremendous feeling, but there is definitely a great deal or pressure you have to deal with as well."
Florida coach Rhonda Faehn believes her team will treat it just like a home dual meet and won't feel any added pressure.
"This team is really special out of all the teams that I've coached in that they don't really look at all the other things they can't control or that don't concern them," Faehn said.
"They just really go out and have fun and do their job."