For UCLA gymnastics, the stakes at the NCAA semifinals were higher than ever.
Only four teams advance to the championship, not six as in previous years. And the Bruins aim to defend last year’s national title while also keeping their emotions in check as they bid farewell to coach Valorie Kondos Field, who is retiring at the season’s end.
Watching UCLA compete Friday, any pressure the Bruins were feeling was nearly unnoticeable.
But the NCAA semifinal was not UCLA’s best showing. Kyla Ross failed to record a perfect score of 10 for the first time in 11 meets, and senior Katelyn Ohashi’s score in floor exercise was her lowest of the season, 9.925.
But the team was solid, with only two scores below 9.8 and no major mistakes in its routines.
The Bruins placed first with a score of 197.675, advancing to the national championship meet on Saturday. They will face top-ranked Oklahoma, Louisiana State and Denver.
Oklahoma and UCLA are the heavy favorites to win, after the Bruins edged out the Sooners by .0375 to take last year’s national championship.
“I think we held back,” Ohashi said of Friday’s meet. “It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. So it’s almost encouraging for tomorrow, because I think we’re just going to go out and it’s just going to be all fun and games.”
In the new NCAA championship format, advancing is harder than it used to be.
“It is much more nerve-wracking,” Kondos Field said of the new format. “Oh my gosh.”
However, the Bruins still maintained their trademark composure, dancing and laughing in between routines. Kondos Field even sported shiny blue sunglasses before the competition began.
Led by Ross’ 9.95 on vault, the Bruins were in third after the first rotation with a team score of 49.2875. But on the uneven bars they stuck landing after landing, starting with Margzetta Frazier’s leadoff 9.9 performance. Three Bruins scored 9.9 or better in that rotation to score 49.4375, sending the team to first place.
UCLA relinquished the lead to Louisiana State on the balance beam but was still in second place. No UCLA gymnast scored below 9.8 on beam, but only Ohashi and Ross earned 9.9 or better. The Bruins trailed the Tigers by .0125 entering the final rotation — floor.
“We always think of floor as a floor party,” Kondos Field said. “So it’s hard not to get up and really perform your best.”
This is how the Bruins have handled pressure all season — by enjoying the moment. Ohashi didn’t even check the scoreboard until the meet had ended, which was only partly intentional. Even though sophomore Nia Dennis competed on floor as a late substitution for Frazier, she had no concerns.
“I was just very excited to even get the opportunity to be in the floor lineup again,” Dennis said, “because the team is so strong on floor.”
UCLA didn’t disappoint, earning a score of 49.6125 to secure a comfortable first-place finish ahead of Louisiana State. Four gymnasts scored 9.9 or better, as Ross led the competition with a 9.95 in the rotation.
Ross tied for first on vault and floor. She led the all-around contest after the first semifinal with a score of 39.6625. But that was before Oklahoma junior Maggie Nichols stepped up to the floor at the close of the second semifinal.
Nichols had not competed on floor or in the all-around all season as she recovered from a heel injury. She made her season all-around debut Friday, earning a score of 39.7125 to win the individual title.
Ohashi placed third in floor exercise and third on the beam while teammate Gracie Kramer was second on the floor.
Saturday’s meet will be Kondos Field’s last as the team’s coach, but that was not on the Bruins’ minds Friday.
They were too busy enjoying each other’s company, savoring all the little moments before they are gone.