When Danna Durante was hired less than a year ago to take over Georgia’s bruised and battered gymnastics program, she had no thoughts of a major overhaul or big change in philosophy to revive the Gym Dogs.
“Georgia has such a storied history rich in tradition and success, I just wanted to learn as much as I could about that history and build relationships with the young people on the team, that was Priority No. 1 for me,” she said. “It takes time to put a mark on a program, it’s hard to do that in a year, and I just wanted them to compete with passion and heart.”
Her tactic apparently has worked. Georgia, which won 10 NCAA titles under Suzanne Yoculan but struggled to maintain that success under her successor Jay Clark, once again appears a legitimate threat for the national title as the NCAA Championships begin at UCLA on Friday.
As a fourth seed and the second-highest seed in its session, Georgia is expected to reach the Super Six finals for the first time since winning the championship in 2009, Yoculan’s final season.
Georgia failed to qualify for the NCAAs in 2010 and finished tied for ninth with Arkansas in 2011, and they finished a disappointing 11th in 2012 when the championships were held a short distance away from Athens in Duluth.
That result sealed Clark’s fate, as he resigned shortly after the championships.
Clark now is an assistant at LSU, which is in Georgia’s preliminary session as the fifth seed along with top-seeded Florida, eighth-seeded Minnesota, ninth-seeded Stanford and 12th-seeded Illinois.
In keeping with her theme when she was hired, Durante has no designs or set goals for the Gym Dogs.
Just being a part of a field that coaches say is the toughest yet is an achievement in itself, she said.
“We have 15 women working hard who are passionate and excited, and our goal is to do our best, nothing less and nothing more than that,” she said.
Durante credited seniors Christa Tanella and Shayla Worley for leading the program’s revival.
“Christa came in highly recruited and she had some things on her list she hadn’t accomplished and she came in working incredibly hard this year,” Durante said. One of the biggest things she realized was she couldn’t just talk the talk, she had to walk it, and she fully embraced that and has led by her actions.
“If the athletes don’t buy into what you are trying to do, you can be sunk from the beginning,” Durante said. “Those two really helped.”
Instead of sinking, Georgia feels it is rising.
A solid meet by the Gym Dogs should advance Georgia them to the Super Six, although nothing can be taken for granted, especially since the season has served up a number of surprises.
For instance, Utah upset second-ranked Florida in the last meet of the season. Michigan beat UCLA at home. Oregon State and Nebraska won their league titles, but didn’t even qualify for nationals, and Arkansas and Illinois scored upsets to join the elite field of 12 teams in Los Angeles.
As the two-time defending champion, Alabama can’t be underestimated, but SEC-foe Florida appears to be the biggest threat.
The Gators have been favored before but choked under pressure, including the 2010 NCAAs when they hosted and tumbled to sixth.
Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said the Gators eliminated some of their riskier skills, but still are aggressive.
“We wanted to make a balance with the performance factor and the execution,” she said. “We’re hoping we found that balance that allows them to feel comfortable and confident out there.”
As for the Gym Dogs, being among the favorites once more is a rewarding feeling the team is embracing, Durante said.
“It has been an exciting year no question, full of learning and grow on a number of levels,” she said. “You could view it as pressure, but I don’t, I viewed this as an opportunity.”
Friday-Sunday, at UCLA
Live streaming: www.ncaa.com
Live scoring: www.uclabruins.com
3 p.m. session: Florida, Georgia, LSU, Minnesota, Stanford, Illinois
9 p.m. session: Oklahoma, Alabama, UCLA, Michigan, Utah, Arkansas