ATHENS — Katie Heenan thought winning the 2005 NCAA championship as a freshman might be a career highlight. Instead, it has become an April tradition.
Heenan and three other Georgia seniors will open their bid for their fourth straight team title tonight. Utah, which finished second to the Gym Dogs the last two years, had the longest run with five straight NCAA titles from 1982-86.
Georgia, the No. 1 seed, has the home floor advantage as 12 teams will compete tonight to advance to Friday’s Super Six.
"My senior class couldn’t have asked for anything more," Heenan said Wednesday. "In 2005, when we won our first one, we thought that was great. We’re going in this year with three behind us, going for our fourth."
The Georgia gymnasts wore plastic fedoras that had "Hat Trick" written on the band after winning last year’s championship in Salt Lake City. This year’s motto has been "Back 4 More."
"To do it in front of our hometown crowd would be absolutely amazing," Heenan said.
Florida is the No. 2 seed, followed by LSU, Stanford, Utah and Alabama.
Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan and many of her peers said Wednesday there is increased parity in a sport that has been exceptionally top-heavy. Only four teams have won championships: Utah (9), Georgia (8), UCLA (5) and Alabama (4).
This is the fourth time Georgia has hosted the championships. It won the 1989 championship at Stegeman Coliseum but lost the last two years the event was held in Athens. UCLA edged Georgia in 2001, the last year the meet was held in Athens.
Yoculan said Wednesday she was outcoached by UCLA’s Valorie Kondos Field in the 2001 meet in Athens, but added that would not happen again this week.
"Game on," Kondos Field replied.
UCLA is the No. 9 seed.
Georgia has been ranked No. 1 all but two weeks this season, but it had to overcome the loss of junior Courtney Kupets to a ruptured Achilles in March.
Injuries are common in gymnastics, but the loss of Kupets, the NCAA all-around champion the last two years, could have crushed the hopes for a fourth straight title. Georgia lost at Michigan on March 7, its first meet without Kupets.
"The day she got hurt, it was very devastating, no doubt about it," Yoculan said. "You don’t replace a 9.975 with the seventh person in your lineup."
Georgia hasn’t lost again, hitting a high point with its 197.775 to win the Northeast Regional at Penn State on April 12. It was Georgia’s 20th regional win in Yoculan’s 25 years as coach.
"You get stronger through adversity," said Yoculan, who this year announced she will retire after the 2009 season. "I feel (the Kupets injury) was the turning point. We really didn’t have the cohesiveness we needed up until that point."
Now Georgia comes into the meet with the confidence, bordering on cockiness, that has been Yoculan’s trademark.
"I don’t want to sound boastful," said sophomore Grace Taylor. "I understand that it’s not like we’re unbeatable. It’s not like that. It’s just that we can win and we have more than just a chance, we have a good chance."
Added Heenan: "We’re trying to hit 24 of 24 routines and if it all comes together I believe we will win."
Arkansas, making its second NCAA appearance, gives the Southeastern Conference five teams — almost half of the field.
Utah, the only team to qualify for each of the 27 NCAA championships, will join Georgia, UCLA, Stanford, Michigan and Denver in tonight’s evening session.
Tonight’s SEC-heavy first session will include Florida, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon State and Oklahoma. Three teams will advance from each session.
Georgia won the March 29 SEC championships on March 29 in Duluth, Ga., but finished only .025 ahead of Alabama and Florida, the smallest margin of victory in SEC history.
Yoculan predicted an SEC team would win the NCAA title but wouldn’t guarantee a Georgia win.
Alabama, in its 26th straight NCAA meet, won its last title in 2002.
"I feel that qualifying for nationals this year is just as exciting as qualifying 26 years ago," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson.
Utah finished the regular season ranked No. 2 and didn’t count a fall all season.
"Our team is determined and they are a close group," said Utah coach Greg Marsden. "We did not choose a captain this year because we wanted everyone to take part in becoming leaders. They have done a great job of doing that and the result has been a very consistent year. We feel that we are in a good place and we hope to have a great weekend."