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UCLA will face top-ranked Oklahoma in rematch of last year's national gymnastics championship

UCLA will face top-ranked Oklahoma in rematch of last year's national gymnastics championship
UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi competes during the Bruins' season-opening meet in Los Angeles on Jan. 4. (Don Liebig / Tribune News Service)

When UCLA secured its seventh national gymnastics championship last April, Katelyn Ohashi watched as her teammates embraced and cried, overcome with joy.

“The way the meet was going, no one would have guessed at all that we were gonna come out on top,” Ohashi said. “And that made it all the more exciting.”

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The Bruins surrounded the trophy leaping, crying and pumping their fists. Then came the tears Ohashi finally shed in an interview, when the victory began to feel real.

Oklahoma’s gymnasts watched UCLA senior Christine Peng-Peng Lee’s title-clinching beam routine from the opposite side of the gym. The Sooners had entered the final rotation leading UCLA by .175, but the Bruins closed the gap on the balance beam. Lee needed to score at least 9.975 for UCLA to win; she got a perfect 10.

Once the results were revealed, the Sooners cried too. But for a different reason.

The two teams’ fates were separated by a margin of .0375.

“It came down to the tiniest of tiny things,” Oklahoma senior Nicole Lehrmann said.

The team watched footage from the championship at a gymnastics camp during preseason. UCLA started the 2019 season by unveiling the banner in Pauley Pavilion.

There is little separating No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 UCLA again this season. Both teams are undefeated, and they are the only two teams in the nation to score higher than 198 points in multiple meets. Both have two gymnasts ranked in the top 10 nationally on the floor, beam and uneven bars.

On Sunday, they clash for the first time since the last year’s championship.

“Between these two teams, I feel like we bring each other up,” Lehrmann said, “and we can really just bring out, you know, some fantastic gymnastics in each other.”

Both times the Bruins and Sooners faced off last season, a tenth of a point or less determined the winner. Oklahoma junior Jade Degouveia expects the meet at Oklahoma on Sunday will depend on the fine details. Lehrmann said the outcome is a toss-up.

“We just got to see who shows up that day, who’s feeling it,” Lehrmann said.

Last year, Oklahoma received a painful lesson on the importance of the details, one the coaches have emphasized since the first day of preseason. The Sooners walked into the locker room before their first practice to find four tank tops laid in front of each locker.

The shirts were similar to the ones they received at the start of every season, with words such as, “Squad” across the front and “Oklahoma Gymnastics” on the back. But across the bottom of this season’s shirt, on the back, were five small letters that didn’t seem to make sense — “#PZTSF.”

One gymnast deciphered it that afternoon, and the meaning spread by word of mouth to the rest of the team. It was an acronym for “point zero three seven five,” Oklahoma’s margin of defeat to UCLA in the championship meet.

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“I personally loved it,” Degouveia said. “I thought it was really smart, and I thought that it was a good and strategic way to kind of get under people’s skin a little bit … and just remind us how much exactly we lost by.”

In the preseason, the letters became a rallying cry. During team meetings, weekly sprint workouts and strength training exercises, someone would shout it to implore the Sooners to work even harder. Lehrmann used it as a reminder to remain focused in practice, no matter how repetitive the movements became.

“It basically stands for, you know, never getting comfortable,” Lehrmann said.

Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler has only mentioned “PZTSF” once since the season started — on a morning practice the day after another successful meet. The Sooners were huddled on the floor when Kindler brought it up.

“She kind of just said, ‘Remember now?’ ” Lehrmann recalled. “‘We can’t get comfortable with where we’re at. We have to keep pushing. There’s always ways we can get better.’”

The Sooners will carry that mentality into Sunday’s meet against UCLA. Last year’s regular-season matchup on Super Bowl Sunday featured four consecutive perfect 10s in the final rotation, in front of a Pauley Pavilion crowd of more than 9,000.

Oklahoma has sold more than 3,000 tickets for the UCLA meet Sunday, a figure close to the team’s average home attendance.

“If we do what we’re capable of, I think we’ll take the win, for sure,” junior Maggie Nichols said.

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