GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The message from coaches and players was clear: Nerves ruled in the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships preliminary competition Thursday.
They expect the team finals to be much different.
The top two seeds, UCLA and Florida, faltered early before rallying late to seal berths in the Super Six.
In its first NCAA championship appearance, Missouri (194.600) finished last of the six teams in the evening session. Senior gymnast Sarah Shire scored a 9.900 on the floor exercise and a 9.925 on the vault, which set new Missouri NCAA records in both events and earned her All-America honors. However, after being ranked among the top in the country in the all-around, Shire put up an unusually low beam score and placed 14th in the all-around competition with a score of 39.000.
The Bruins (196.875), fifth-seeded Utah (196.625) and fourth-seeded Oklahoma (196.55) advanced from the afternoon session. Third-seeded Alabama (196.85) won the evening session, and host Florida (196.775) and sixth-seeded Stanford (196.3) also advanced to the finals.
“The pressure that people feel to advance is tremendous,” Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of teams — and I hope ours — relax tomorrow night and just really enjoy doing their best gymnastics.”
Stanford senior Carly Janiga added: “Super Six is awesome because there’s nothing left to qualify for. It’s just all out on the last day of the year.”
UCLA struggled on the uneven bars and posted a 49.125, the team’s third-worst total of the season, despite leading the nation on it for most of the season. That was followed by 48.975 on balance beam, leaving the Bruins tied for third midway through the meet.
They responded with session-high scores on their last two rotations, floor (49.375) and vault (49.4), to earn a finals berth for the first time since 2007.
UCLA was led by its three all-around competitors — Vanessa Zamarripa (39.425), Anna Li (39.375) and Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs (39.35) — all of whom placed in the top seven overall during the afternoon session.
“If you would’ve told me the result about 45 minutes ago, I would’ve felt a lot better,” UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “In hindsight, I’m kind of glad we struggled a little bit on the first two things because it’s nice to be able to get that out of your system and move on.”
The second-seeded Gators sat in fourth halfway through their session but finished strong with session-high scores on the floor exercise (49.275) and vault (49.425) to earn their fifth straight Super Six berth.
“This was our worst competition of the year in certain areas as far as consistency from top to bottom,” Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said. “I think they got the jitters out today. They know that they’re going to throw all that away and come back tomorrow and just go out and do what they’re capable of doing.”
Two teams won’t have a second change chance after shaky performances on the balance beam on their final rotations. LSU and Missouri were both in contention for a finals berth before posting 48.625 and 48.45, respectively, on the beam.
One bright spot for LSU was senior Susan Jackson, the Southeastern Conference gymnast of the year, winning a school-record 11th all-around title this season with a 39.625, edging Arkansas’ Casey Jo Magee (39.55). Jackson started the day with a 9.85 on the floor, then had a 9.95 on vault, a 9.925 on the uneven bars and a 9.9 on the beam.
It is a bittersweet feeling for Jackson, whose college career ended a day earlier than she had hoped.
“It’s very surreal,” Jackson said. “We were going strong then beam — I don’t know what happened.”
Oklahoma took advantage of LSU’s miscues to earn its first Super Six berth in program history. The Sooners trailed LSU by 0.1 points with one event left and posted a 49.25 on the floor. The Sooners had been the only team to not lose a meet all season before Thursday.
Coach K.J. Kindler expects her team to be more relaxed in the finals.
“In some instances, I think we were trying a bit too hard. It was important for these guys to make this,” Kindler said. “They had a lot of faith, but it was also a big dream. The dream is a reality.”