It was a perfect start and finish for Courtney Kupets, and a perfect ending to Suzanne Yoculan’s 26-year career at Georgia.The Gym Dogs sent out their retiring coach with a fifth straight national title and record 10th overall at the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships on Friday night.
“It really is a magical team that has so much fortitude and just love for the sport and passion, and they never quit,” Yoculan said. “I feel blessed, and I actually lived it every day being around them, and that’s the thing I’m going to miss the most.”
The Gym Dogs also are going to miss Kupets. The senior from Athens, Ga., who won her third all-around title in four years on Thursday, opened the evening with a 10 on the uneven bars and wrapped up her collegiate career with a 10 on the vault.
As Kupets stuck her final landing, Yoculan pumped her fist, let out a “Yes,” and raced to embrace the woman Alabama coach Sarah Patterson calls the “queen of college gymnastics.”
Tiffany Tolnay, a star in her own right who was overshadowed by Kupets here, followed with a 9.95 to give Georgia a season-high 49.625 in the event.
Georgia finished with a four-event score of 197.825, its second highest of the year and better than the 197.450 it posted at last year’s national meet. Alabama, which upset Georgia at the Southeastern Conference meet, was runner-up with a season-high 197.575.
“I told the ladies to go out there and have their best performance and if there is a better team out there, make them beat you,” Patterson said. “That’s exactly what we did. It’s just that Georgia was on.”
Utah, second the last three years, was third with 197.425. Florida (196.725), Arkansas (196.475) and LSU (196.375) followed as the SEC sent five of its seven gymnastics programs to the Super Six, an unprecedented feat for a conference.
Kupets, a 2004 Olympic medalist and the SEC Gymnast of the Year, recorded 10s seven times this season, with three of them coming in her last five events. She finished Thursday’s preliminary with a perfect score on the balance beam.
“Even if you didn’t know the score, you could feel the pressure and you had to go all-out,” she said. “That’s what I did, and it paid off.”
The Gym Dogs got off to a rough start Friday when leadoff gymnast Marcia Newby fell off the uneven bars and posted a 9.45. Newby ran back to her teammates saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Her mistake was all but forgotten a few minutes later.
After Kupets’ stuck her landing, her teammates and the Gym Dogs’ pom-pon-waving fans raised their hands, fingers pointed skyward, and chanted “10-10-10,” imploring the judges to reward her flawless routine. When the 10s went up, the fans started “woofing” in celebration.
If there was a lull in the Gym Dogs’ performance, it came on the beam. But they finished the event strong, with Kupets posting a 9.95 and Courtney McCool a 9.9.
“Just incredible fight, from the mistake on the first event and the kind of pressure we felt,” Yoculan said. “We battled back on the uneven bars. The balance beam – shaky, shaky, shaky and more shaky. A lot of people might have lost confidence in us after that, but this team never doubted themselves.”
The Gym Dogs exploded in the floor exercise, with no Gym Dog scoring lower than 9.9. Kupets – who else? – led the way with a 9.95.
After Georgia’s big finish on the vault, Alabama went into its final event, the floor, needing to score 49.75 to tie the Gym Dogs. The Tide scored 49.5.
“There was something special in the air when we went to floor and vault,” Yoculan said. “When Abby [Stack] started us with a 9.9 on floor, I knew that was it. It felt like it was going to be our meet at that point.”
So did Tolnay.
“Abby started us off on floor, and that builds momentum the next two rotations,” she said. “It was hit after hit after hit.”
Yoculan announced last year that this would be her last season in coaching. Though the gymnasts didn’t dwell on her pending retirement, Grace Taylor said she and her teammates were driven to give her the ultimate going-away present.
“We all wanted to send Suzanne back with something to remember,” Taylor said. “It was an amazing championship. It couldn’t get better than this. It was beautiful, and we’re so honored that we got to be part of this last year for her.”
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press)