Expectations for the 1997 UCLA Bruins were at an all-time high after the 1996 team placed second at the NCAA Championships. Those expectations were further increased by UCLA's first-ever pre-season No. 1 ranking. But the Bruins, under 1996 National Coach of the Year Valorie Kondos, never let the pressure get to them. UCLAs calm confidence held through the entire season.
And what a season it was. Numerous records were broken by the team and by individuals. The first of those records was set at UCLAs opening meet at Cal State Fullerton. Determined not to repeat last year's stunning upset by the Titans, UCLA came away with a 191.5-189.175 victory and scored its highest season-opening team total ever. Freshman Lena Degteva won the all-around with a 38.5, and senior Leah Homma won all three events in which she entered.
The focus of that opening week, however, was definitely on three-time NCAA Champion Georgia, which the Bruins would meet just two days after facing Fullerton. The Bruins pulled out all the stops in facing the Gym Dogs, scoring a 195.625, then the Bruins' fifth-highest score of all time. Georgia was even more impressive, however, winning the dual meet with a 196.95. For UCLA, Stella Umeh placed second in the all-around (39.05) and won the floor title with a Pauley Pavilion record-tying 9.95. That meet was costly for Umeh, however, when she injured her back on a vault in warm-ups. She finished the competition but was unable to compete after that for a full month.
The following week, UCLA traveled to Stanford to face the highly-regarded Cardinal. Paced by excellent performances from Kiralee Hayashi and Leah Homma, the Bruins won the meet handily, 195.625-193.225. Hayashi won the floor with a career-high 9.925 and placed second in the all-around with a 39.375, just ahead of Homma, who scored a 39.2.
The next week proved to be difficult for the Bruins at Arizona State. Not only was Umeh out of the competition with her back injury, but head coach Valorie Kondos did not travel with the team due to an illness. After breaking 49 on both vault and bars, the Bruins were plagued by discrepancies in start values on floor and scored just a 47.525 with just one fall. UCLA lost that meet 195.1-194.45.
The Bruins quickly turned it around at their annual UCLA Invitational, winning the team title for the sixth consecutive year with a meet record 195.15. LSU placed a distant second with 192.725. Leah Homma won the all-around, tying her meet record with a 39.45. Homma also won the bars and beam, while Amy Smith won the vault and floor titles.
Just as in the previous year, the win at the UCLA Invitational started the Bruins on a lengthy winning streak. After coming from behind in the last rotation to beat BYU 194.125-193.7, the Bruins had the best regular season meet of their season at the Magical Classic. UCLA scored its second-highest team score ever with a 196.925 to take first place. The night was truly magical for the Bruins and especially for senior Leah Homma, who scored her first-ever perfect 10.0 on vault. Homma became the fifth Bruin to ever score a perfect 10 and the third to do so on vault. Her 10 led the Bruins to a season-high vault score of 49.4 (third-highest in school history). Homma placed first on all three events in which she competed, scoring a pair of 9.95s on bars and beam. Fellow Canadian Lena Degteva also had a career meet, scoring career-highs in the all-around (39.4), vault (9.8), bars (9.925) and floor (9.9).
Next up for UCLA was the Bruin Classic, which the Bruins won over Pac-10 rival Washington, Boise State and Cal State Fullerton. Stella Umeh made her return to all-around competition, placing fifth with a 38.825 and earning runner-up honors on floor with a 9.8. Leah Homma won the bars with a 9.925, and Luisa Portocarrero won the beam with a 9.9.
The Shanico Inn-vite was another record-breaker, as the Bruins broke the school bars record with a 49.475. Career-highs from Lisa Hiley (9.875 in the leadoff position) and Deborah Mink (9.925), as well as a 9.95 from Leah Homma, helped the Bruins achieve the record. Umeh won the all-around with a 39.325, followed by Kiralee Hayashi (39.3). The Bruins won the meet with a score of 196.5.
Leah Homma dominated the Pac-10 Championships, setting meet records with wins in the all-around (39.725) and on bars with her second career 10.0. Homma led the Bruins to their seventh Pac-10 crown in 11 years with a team total of 196.55. The senior from Toronto, Ontario was also named the Pac-10 Gymnast of the Year for the second time in her career. Amy Smith won a share of the floor title as well.
Strong performances on vault (49.275), bars (49.35) and beam (49.475) helped propel the Bruins to their fifth consecutive West Regional title. The Bruins, which scored a meet-record 196.3, showed their depth in talent, as three different gymnasts won individual titles Amy Smith (vault), Heidi Moneymaker (bars) and Lena Degteva (beam) with 9.95s.