Dec. 15, 1999
In the 1990's, UCLA emerged as a consistent power, winning an NCAA title in 1997 and claiming five Pac-10 Championships and seven regional titles. The opening decade of the 21st century looks even more promising as the 2000 squad begins the millennium with a talented squad that will again contend for an NCAA championship.
UCLA fine-tuned its reputation for being a dynamic, expressive and highly-skilled team during this last decade. Expect that reputation to become even more enhanced under the leadership of senior All-Americans Heidi Moneymaker and Lena Degteva and junior All-American Mohini Bhardwaj.
Moneymaker comes off an exceptional 1999 season in which she won the Pac-10 and Region 1 all-around titles, was named the Region 1 Gymnast of the Year, earned the maximum five first-team All-America honors at the NCAA Championships and won the national vault title. The senior co-captain also accomplished another first by representing the United States at the World University Games and competing at the USA Championships.
The two-time NCAA champion has no intentions of letting her gymnastics career fade into the sunset of her senior year. She is working on new skills this season and plans to continue to compete after the season.
"Heidi's competitive drive to continue to excel has inspired her teammates and gymnasts nationwide," said UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos.
Also inspirational has been Moneymaker's work ethic. Says Kondos, "As Kerri Strug put it her freshman year, I've never seen anyone work as hard as Heidi Moneymaker. She continues to have the same work ethic her senior year."
Another hard worker on the Bruin squad is eight-time All-American Degteva. The senior co-captain competed at the World University Games for Canada, placing an all-time Canadian-best 13th at the all-around finals. In each of the past two seasons, Degteva has competed all-around in all but three meets, yet has shown no signs of wear and tear. Like Moneymaker, Degteva is working on new skills, and she plans on competing four tumbling passes on floor.
What makes Degteva stand out in Kondos' mind is her demeanor. "Lena is the perfect example of what a student-athlete at UCLA is about," Kondos says. "Not only is she an outstanding competitor and tremendous athlete, but she is also gracious, humble and kind."
Another pleasure for Kondos has been Bhardwaj, whom Kondos calls "the most talented gymnast we've ever had at UCLA." Bhardwaj has struggled with early-season injuries in each of her previous two seasons, but when healthy, the junior has proven herself, with scores of 9.9 or greater in all four events.
The four-time All-American was UCLA?s third World University Games competitor. She qualified for the all-around finals with a 14th-place showing in the team prelims but withdrew from the finals with an injury.
"Mohini has come into her own during the last two and a half years," said Kondos. "She's much more content with herself and has worked through a lot of struggles in the maturing process. She is an absolute pleasure to have in the gym and on the team."
As the only upperclassmen on this young Bruin squad, these three seniors are expected to provide leadership and experience to their younger teammates. What has been a pleasant surprise was the emergence of one of the underclassmen as a bona-fide team leader. Sophomore walk-on Stephanie Johnson was voted one of three UCLA captains along with Moneymaker and Degteva. Says Kondos, "Stephanie has been very valuable outside the gym, helping to direct and guide the younger gymnasts." Kondos is also expecting bigger things from Johnson in the gym. "Stephanie is a totally different gymnast this year," she proclaimed. "She has worked extra hard in the off-season and has come in a totally different athlete."
Fellow sophomore Lindsey Dong has also continued her strong work-ethic. As a freshman, Dong was a constant in the vault lineup and also competed on floor. Throughout last season, Dong improved each meet and learned a 10.0 start value vault, a Phelps midway through the year. She scored a career-high 9.85 in the leadoff position with that vault at the Pac-10 Championships.
"Lindsey is coming off a freshman year in which she had a lot of success," said Kondos. "She had to step in at key moments for us and came through each time. She has the confidence now to compete at the collegiate level."
Valerie Velasco also stepped in time and again at key moments, competing all-around four weeks in a row while the Bruins were nursing some major injuries. The sophomore walk-on established a career-best 38.85 in the all-around and set career-highs in all three meets in which she competed at the Pac-10 Championships. Even with all of her success in 1999, Kondos believes that there is much more in store for Velasco in the future. "Valerie probably has the most untapped talent of anyone on the team," Kondos said. "She continues to learn and perfect new skills and is in tremendous physical shape. She really proved herself last year and will continue to impress us throughout her career."
Injured a year ago with a torn ACL, Amy Young hopes to return to the competitive form that saw her make the U.S. National Team in 1997. Due to her knee injury, she will be limited to bars and beam, but it is on those two events that she has impressed throughout her career. The redshirt freshman has an innovative bar routine that is stocked with inverts and German Giants. "Amy does a lot of unique skills, especially on bars," said Kondos. "She is exceptionally beautiful in her gymnastics."
UCLA's freshman class comes in as one of the most highly-touted classes in history with the addition of several national champions to the Bruin squad.
Leading the way amongst the newcomers is 1995 U.S. balance beam champion, Pan Am Games gold medalist and World Championship bronze medalist Doni Thompson. After quitting gymnastics in 1995, Thompson has returned with a renewed love for the sport. Although she has not competed in a meet for nearly five years, Thompson's experience and fierce competitiveness will take her through any early jitters she may have. "Doni is very excited to start competing, and she rises to the occasion when put in a competitive situation," says Kondos. "Her killer competitive instinct is going to help this team so much." Thompson has also regained much of her skills she had during her national team years.
UCLA's second national champion in the 2000 freshman class is Sarah Deegan, the 1997 Canadian all-around champion and the 1995 Canadian junior all-around and floor champion. Like Thompson, Deegan has also competed in a World Championship, leading Canada in 1997. Deegan is following in the footsteps of fellow Canadians Leah Homma, Stella Umeh and Degteva who have had immense success in the 1990's at UCLA. Says Kondos, "Sarah definitely blends power and grace beautifully."
Nineteen-ninety-eight Level 10 national all-around, vault and beam champion Onnie Willis brings a charismatic presence to the Bruin squad. "She is as beautiful as she is talented," raves Kondos. "Onnie is extremely charismatic and has a great no-nonsense personality. We anticipate her being a strong all-around competitor for us." Willis was a member of the 1996 U.S. Junior National Team and competed in three U.S. Championships in her career.
Another strong all-around will be Kristin Parker, the 1999 Level 10 national bars champion. Parker is not only a stand-out on bars but a tremendous vaulter as well. With Parker, looks may be deceiving. "When you see Kristin, you see this petite, sweet, blue-eyed blonde. But she is the most powerful gymnast we have," Kondos claims. "Her power is obvious on all four events, especially vault and bars."
To complement Parker's power is the grace and classical elegance of Malia Jones, a six-time Nevada state Level 10 all-around champion and the 1999 Regional beam champ. The Bruins will look to Jones to fill the void left by the consistent Susie Erickson, UCLA's rock on beam the past four years. Says Kondos, "Malia is the biggest surprise of the freshman class. She has already proven to be the most durable and consistent freshman."
UCLA's depth took a hit in the off-season when freshman Carly Raab went down with a torn ACL. Raab, who had Top 10 finishes in the all-around and bars at the 1998 Level 10 Nationals, will be missed on the competition floor, but Kondos feels that her contributions will remain. "Before her injury, Carly was such a tremendous example of living life to its fullest," Kondos explains. "She was always in a good mood, worked hard and saw the positive side to things. She quickly became a team standout because of her attitude. Since her injury, she has exuded the same attitude towards her rehab, and her exuberance for her teammates hasn't waned."
Two members of last year's freshman class are also out for the year. Alison Stoner, a major contributor on floor last season with a 9.74 average, will sit out this year after major knee surgery last April. She has continued her rehab and "has been a tremendous help to the staff and her teammates in the gym, particularly with the choreography," according to Kondos.
UCLA also loses the services of Kaitie Dyson on the competition floor after she was forced to injury retire due to back problems. But the Bruins do retain her knowledge and expertise in the gym as an undergraduate assistant. "Kaitie brings a lot of knowledge to her role as coach, having competed elite for five years," said Kondos. "She knows what is needed to compete at a high level both physically and mentally."
Competing at a high level is something UCLA will have to do all season. The Bruins will be tested right from the get-go, travelling to Athens, Ga. for the Super Six Challenge Jan. 8 against the top teams in the nation - two-time defending champion Georgia, 1999 runner-up Michigan, 1998 runner-up Florida, three-time NCAA Champion Alabama and 1999 NCAA sixth-place finisher Nebraska. UCLA also travels to 10-time national champion Utah Feb. 14 for a dual meet. The Bruins' home schedule includes dual meets with 1998 Pac-10 Champion Stanford and 1999 NCAA fourth-place finisher Arizona State, as well as invitational meets that include 1999 Pac-10 runner-up Oregon State and Michigan.
"We open this year against five other top teams," said Kondos. "It's a great opportunity for us to see where we stand early on. This NCAA-type environment will help us in April in the post-season, as will the meet in Utah. These high-pressure meets can only help us in the long-run."
With a challenging schedule, a wealth of talent and a proven coaching staff that includes two-time National Coach of the Year Kondos, West Region Assistant Coach of the Year Randy Lane, former U.S. National Team coach Steve Gerlach and former U.S. National Team member Dyson, the 2000 Bruins are ready to build up the tradition their predecessors have established.
"It's hard to believe that with all of the success we?ve had in the past, we have a team this year that's more talented," said Kondos. "Not only that, but they are also working well together to reach their common goal to win a championship."
"There's a sense of hunger in the gym," she continues. "The younger-classmen are concerned about living up to the reputation the upperclassmen have set. They are working really hard, and you can see them pushing themselves every day to achieve more. You can tell they have their teammates at the forefront of their minds. They want to be the best for the sake of their team."