The Oklahoma women are favored to win the 2017 NCAA Championships, which is hardly an overstatement. The only meet they have lost in the past three years was to LSU, their first meet of the 2016 season. OU won its first NCAA title in 2014, when it tied Florida.
The Sooners went undefeated in 2015 and the pressure increased with every victory and eventually cost them back-to-back championships. They finished third, behind Florida and Utah.
"Even though we were winning by tenths, it still held a lot of weight on their shoulders," said Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler (pictured with Maggie Nichols). "And though we didn't emphasize it, I think they felt it."
2015 also was the year that Utah came within 0.5 of earning its elusive 10th NCAA crown, which would have been a fitting end for head coach Greg Marsden, who retired after 40 years. Just days after Florida's win, head coach Rhonda Faehn resigned to become Sr. Vice President of the Women's Program at USA Gymnastics. The Gators quickly hired Auburn assistant Jenny Rowland, but Florida finished fourth in 2016.
Kindler has built a strong program at OU in 11 years. LSU's D-D Breaux has done the same over four decades, and is coming off a victory at the highly competitive SEC Championships and a program-best runner-up finish at the 2016 NCAAs. LSU's only loss this season was to Oklahoma, a quad meet held in St. Charles, Mo., which is not too far from St. Louis, where the NCAA Championships begin on Friday, April 14.
Oklahoma is undefeated again this season, but perhaps the Sooners have learned to use that accomplishment to their advantage. The team also has a chance to go 1-2 in the all-around with top-ranked Maggie Nichols and Chayse Capps (No. 3), the latter placing second to Florida's Bridget Sloan last year. Utah's MyKayla Skinner is ranked No. 2.
Washington's first-year head coach Elise Ray can certainly feel proud in qualifying her team to the big dance. Word has it that she sought advice from Kindler, which proved to be a good move.
Beyond the OU-LSU battle that definitely could materialize, other teams to watch will be Florida, Utah, Michigan and UCLA. The bottom half of the rankings include Denver, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Washington and Oregon State.
ESPN will be televising the women's NCAA Championships. Check your local listings.