UCLA Gymnastics Team Opens 2009 Season At Utah

Jan. 6, 2009

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Bruins Open 2009 Season In Utah -- The UCLA gymnastics team, ranked No. 4 in the pre-season coaches poll, will open the 2009 season at No. 2 Utah on Friday, Jan. 9 at 7 pm MT. The meet will take place at the Huntsman Center on the Utah campus.

Live Coverage -- Utah will provide a free live video broadcast, in addition to live scoring, at utahutes.com.

In The Rankings -- UCLA opens the season ranked No. 4 in the pre-season coaches poll and received four first-place votes. The Bruins will face nine of the Top 25 teams this season, including Top 10 teams in No. 1 Georgia at home and No. 2 Utah, No. 5 Stanford and No. 9 Oregon State on the road.

Best Of The West -- Friday's meet between UCLA and Utah is a battle between West Coast powerhouses. UCLA and Utah are two of only four teams ever to win the NCAA Championship (Georgia and Alabama are the other two). The Bruins have captured five titles (1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004), while Utah has won nine (1982-86, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995). Utah is the only school to have qualified for every NCAA Championship, and they have finished second the last three seasons. UCLA has 24 NCAA Championship appearances and 13 Pac-10 Championships.

About The Utes -- Utah returns five All-Americans from last season's squad that placed second at the NCAA Championships. Leading the way is seven-time All-American and 2006 NCAA Uneven Bars Champion Kristina Baskett. Also back for Utah are a pair of Olympians in Daria Bijak (2008 German Olympic team) and Gael Mackie (2004 Canadian Olympic team). The Utes are coached by Greg Marsden.

The Series With Utah -- Utah holds a 22-2 regular season record against the Bruins, with UCLA's only two wins coming on Jan. 10, 2003 in Utah (197.225-196.75 to snap the longest home-court winning streak in the history of NCAA sports) and on Jan. 21, 2001 in Los Angeles (197.5-195.7). Utah won the dual meet in Los Angeles a year ago, 197.450-195.825, after a shaky beam set and injuries to Brittani McCullough and Anna Li on floor exercise. The last time the two teams met in Utah, the Utes won a competitive matchup, 196.325-195.975 in 2007.

Youth Is Served -- With seven freshmen and five sophomores on a 16-member squad, the 2009 Bruins are undoubtedly a young team. The underclassmen, particularly the freshmen, will see significant action early on as the Bruin veterans nurse injuries. Senior Ariana Berlin will be limited in competition this weekend with a sore knee. Senior Melissa Chan is out after undergoing surgery in December to remove bone spurs in her ankle. Junior Anna Li and redshirt sophomore Britanni McCullough also had bone spurs removed in the fall and are questionable on one or two events on Friday.

The majority of the lineup will likely be filled with freshmen. Fortunately for the Bruins, those freshmen are ultra-talented and seasoned competitors such as 2008 Olympian Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, World Cup competitor Aisha Gerber, three-time Level 10 national all-around champion Vanessa Zamarripa and four-time Level 10 national qualifiers Kaelie Baer and Tauny Frattone. The sophomore class also boasts seasoned competitors, as Mizuki Sato and Niki Tom each competed in the postseason in 2008. Marci Bernholtz also has 'big-game' experience, having competed in two World Championships for Canada.

Comforte Retires Due To Injury -- Senior Kristina Comforte has retired from gymnastics due to a labrum tear in her left shoulder and will move into a coaching role as an undergraduate assistant coach. Comforte was a five-time All-American during her three seasons of competition. Last season, she earned All-America honors on all three events on which she competed (vault, bars and beam) and was the NCAA runner-up on uneven bars. She also captured the balance beam title at the 2008 NCAA Southeast Regional Championships and earned Pac-10 All-Academic honors. As a freshman in 2006, she earned NCAA runner-up honors on vault and first-team All-America status in the all-around and on vault.

The three-time U.S. National Team member from Burr Ridge, IL was the last Bruin to score a perfect 10, receiving the mark on vault at Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 3, 2006. She had career-high marks of 9.95 on uneven bars, 9.9 on balance beam and floor exercise and 39.525 in the all-around.

2009 UCLA Season Outlook -- Early on in preseason training, it became evident to the UCLA coaching staff that this 2009 Bruin squad had that something special. As the season kicks off, that perception has not waned one bit. The Bruins look every bit a strong, deep and cohesive unit with an unparalleled spark, enthusiasm and energy that they hope will take them to an NCAA Championship.

UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field has lauded her team's character and cohesiveness as big strengths for the squad. 'This team is very even in personality, demeanor and character,' she noted. 'They are very much a 'team'. They are all extremely coachable. That is our strength - the character of each of the individuals and how they combine to make up a team.'

The sheer numbers of the team will also benefit the Bruins as they go through the rigors of the regular season. With a 16-member squad, competition will be fierce for spots in the line-up, and with several upperclassmen working through preseason injuries, the underclassmen, which make up more than half of the team, will play big roles early on.

Leading this youthful squad are seniors Ariana Berlin and Melissa Chan. Berlin personifies the heart of a champion, battling through adversity to compete in every meet of her collegiate career. She has been UCLA's rock in many ways and will go down as one of the most consistent Bruin gymnasts ever, hitting 95% of her career routines without a fall. She enters the 2009 season looking as strong as ever. Chan has battled injuries throughout her career and will be out for the early part of the season after having bone spurs removed from her ankle. When healthy, she has been a fierce competitor, particularly on balance beam, where she has posted a high of 9.95. Chan saw most of her competition time last season on vault and floor.

Anna Li and Brittani McCullough are both coming off preseason surgeries to remove bone spurs and are expected to return to all-around action by mid-season. Both are sensational all-around competitors who are capable of 9.9+ routines on all four events. Li hit the ground running in 2008, winning the all-around in five of the first six meets of the season, scoring a 9.975 on uneven bars and recording career-bests on floor exercise after upgrading to a double layout mount. Injuries in February slowed her momentum, but she finished the year earning first-team All-America honors on uneven bars. McCullough, the 2008 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, also had a strong start to the season, placing in the Top 3 in the all-around in six of seven meets. Her season came to a crashing halt on Mar. 9, however, when she suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. McCullough is recovered from the Achilles injury and is progressing well towards her return.

The surprise of the preseason has been the emergence of the sophomore class. All five sophomores worked hard in the off-season and come in looking better than ever. Most improved amongst the group is Marci Bernholtz, who Kondos Field says is going through 'the exact opposite of a sophomore slump.' Bernholtz has blossomed since last season, when she was mostly a beam specialist. This year, after working hard in the off-season to strengthen her knee, she is now fully training on all four events and has shown big improvements in her tumbling and consistency. Mizuki Sato and Niki Tom had strong freshman campaigns and look even stronger in 2009. Although neither have yet to compete in the all-around, both are strong on all four events. Sato is one of the Bruins' top returners on floor exercise and will challenge for competition time on the other three events with her big skills. Tom was a regular on balance beam and a frequent contributor on floor exercise last year and has upgraded her routines to bring in the bigger scores. Allison Taylor saw limited action last season on uneven bars as she dealt with a foot injury, but enters the 2009 season healthy and is looking to contribute on bars and floor exercise. Talia Kushynski sat out the summer with a stress reaction in her back but has come back strong and is expected to dazzle once again on floor with her edgy dance skills and improved tumbling.

The 2009 freshman class is remarkable not only in size but in stature. The seven-member class boasts a 2008 Olympian, a Canadian National Team member, a three-time Level 10 national all-around champion, two four-time Level 10 national qualifiers and a walk-on who could challenge all of them for a spot in the lineup on vault and floor. Fresh off a 16th-place all-around finish at the Olympic Games, Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs is poised to become one of UCLA Gymnastics' all-time greats with her world-class skills and consistency. She was one of Canada's all-time greats, becoming the first Canadian woman ever to win a World Championship medal when she captured bronze on the balance beam in 2006. Hopfner-Hibbs should make an immediate impact in the all-around. Aisha Gerber is another world-class athlete, having represented Canada at World Cup meets and becoming the first Canadian woman to medal at the America Cup (bronze in the all-around in 2006). She has a style reminiscent of former Bruin great Yvonne Tousek and will be another strong all-around contributor.

Vanessa Zamarripa is someone who Kondos Field says is 'probably the most talented athlete in UCLA gymnastics history.' Zamarripa won a total of nine Level 10 individual national titles from 2003-07, including three all-around crowns, and is expected to continue her success at the collegiate level. Four-time Level 10 National qualifiers Kaelie Baer and Tauny Frattone each bring big, powerful gymnastics skills and will both be looked upon to compete on all four events for the Bruins. Both suffered significant ankle injuries at JO Nationals in May and were not fully recovered from those injuries when preseason began but have since regained their strength for the start of the season.

UCLA has a long-standing track record of turning walk-ons into big-time contributors, a la Ariana Berlin and Niki Tom, and Alyssa Pritchett looks to be the next walk-on success story. Pritchett is a vault and floor exercise specialist with big skills (Tsukahara layout full on vault and a full-in on floor) and outstanding performance quality. Tiffany Hyland, an uneven bars specialist who placed third in the all-around at the 2008 South African National Championships, also looks to contribute. She has learned new skills, including a Deltchev, since arriving at UCLA and has also impressed with her work-rate and effort.

With big skills, dynamic routines, dazzling choreography, and an unwavering team spirit, the 2009 Bruins have all of the tools to bring back another title to Westwood.

'The combination of the talent that we have added to the team, the improvement of our returnees, and the character of each of these team members as individuals has brought this group a feeling of tremendous daily accomplishments,' Kondos Field said. 'To be able to maintain this energy and keep our team healthy are the ingredients we are looking for to win a sixth national championship.'

Looking Ahead -- UCLA will host Arizona in the John Wooden Challenge on Sunday, Jan. 18 at 2 pm. The John Wooden Challenge is named after the legendary UCLA basketball coach and celebrates athletic and academic excellence. Team posters will be distributed, and the Bruin team will sign autographs after the meet.

UCLA-Georgia Meet On Live TV -- UCLA's Mar. 8 home meet against four-time defending NCAA champion Georgia will be broadcast live on FSN Prime Ticket.

Season Tickets On Sale Now -- Tickets for the 2009 season are on sale now for UCLA's five regular season home meets - Jan. 18 vs. Arizona, Jan. 25 vs. California, Feb. 15 vs. Washington/Boise State/Cal State Fullerton, Mar. 8 vs. Georgia and Mar. 15 vs. Nebraska. All home meets take place in Pauley Pavilion at 2 pm. Season tickets in the lower level are on sale for $35, while single-meet tickets start at $8 for adults. Tickets can be purchased online at www.tickets.ucla.edu or by phone at 310-UCLA-WIN.

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