Huskies host No. 1 UCLA in gymnastics home opener
Washington gymnasts hoping to build toward appearance at NCAA national meet for first time since 1998.
Special to The Seattle Times
UCLA @ UW, 7 p.m.
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The Washington gymnastics team, with a goal of appearing in the NCAA meet as a team for the first time since 1998, hosts No. 1-ranked UCLA in its home opener at 7 p.m. Friday at Edmundson Pavilion.
The 22nd-ranked Huskies have competed in three road meets, winning at unranked Michigan State on Jan. 6 before getting edged by a pair of top-15 squads (No. 12 Stanford, No. 13 Boise State) the past two weekends.
Twelve teams qualify for the national meet on April 20 — the top two finishers in each of six regional meets. Boosting UW's chances: Washington hosts one of the regionals on April 7.
"We have the potential," said sixth-year coach Joanne Bowers, whose 2011 squad let a second-place position slip away in its final rotation at last year's regional, finishing third in a six-team field. "We have a lot of talented gymnasts in every event, and we need to keep focused on improving each week so we can peak at the end of the year when it's most important."
The Huskies put up a season-best score of 195.725 Sunday at Stanford, trailing the Cardinal by just .20 of a point.
"It was such a team effort," Bowers said. "Everyone contributed. That's what we need to be successful."
Key performers include senior Ruby Engreitz, an Inglemoor grad, junior Lauren Rogers and freshman McKenzie Fechter. Against Stanford, Rogers (39.175) and Engreitz (39.1) both posted season highs in the all-around and Fechter scored 9.85 on floor.
Sophomore Aliza Vaccher, who placed 19th in all-around at the NCAA meet last year (39.075), is rebounding from fall ankle surgery and competed in her first all-around against Stanford, posting a 39.05.
"Having Aliza back in the all-around is very important to the success of our team," Bowers said. "With the success she had last year as a freshman, hopefully, she can just keep getting better."
Senior Amanda Cline is an ace on vault (she won at Stanford with a 9.875) and junior Paige Bixler excels on beam (9.85 at Stanford).
Bowers also applauds the work of junior Meg Whitney on beam and vault. Senior Hatsune Akaogi, a star all-around performer before she tore an Achilles tendon in Week 3 of 2011, is back competing on beam and bars. "It has been a real boost getting Hats back on two events," Bowers said.
"There are so many little places where I think we can improve, it's exciting to think how far we can go this year," Bowers said. "At Stanford we saw how good we can be. We have the potential. Now we're excited, and we have two-thirds of our season to show it."
• UCLA posted the nation's best score (197.575) of the season last week vs. San Jose State. Bowers says UW's schedule, which includes eight top-20 teams, is ranked the fifth-toughest in Division I.
"I schedule tough teams intentionally," she said. "The better teams you face, the better you do. We know we have to get up for those teams. Our team will perform stronger and better with a quality opponent, so our scores will be better."
• Future UW home meets: Feb. 3 vs. 10th-ranked Oregon State; Feb. 17 vs. No. 17 Louisiana State and Seattle Pacific; March 2 vs. Arizona State; March 9 vs. San Jose State and Central Michigan. All five home meets will be shown on a tape-delay basis on UWTV (Channel 27). The UCLA meet will air Feb. 3.
• Bowers, who has resuscitated a descending UW program since she arrived six years ago, has a sky's-the-limit view of this squad. "I truly believe this program can be nationally competitive," she said. "We're always striving for that. We definitely have the talent to do it if everyone keeps showing the progress we expect."