By John Lohn
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., March 16. GEORGIA and Auburn. Or, will it be Auburn, followed by Georgia? The order of finish at the NCAA Division I Women's Championships is almost guaranteed to be one of those options.
For the first time, the NCAA Champs will be hosted by Purdue University. But, that's about the only thing different about the competition, which begins Thursday. At the top of the team standings, the familiar contenders should fall into place.
Auburn is chasing a fourth consecutive championship, a feat previously accomplished by only Texas (1984-88) and Stanford (1992-96). As for Georgia, the Bulldogs are looking for their first crown since 2001. Georgia also won in 1999 and 2000.
Heading into the weekend, Auburn and Georgia have gone for a split decision. While the Bulldogs topped the Tigers in dual-meet action, Auburn took top honors at the Southeastern Conference Championships.
Auburn is headlined by Kirsty Coventry, the defending NCAA champion in the 200 backstroke and three-time medalist at last summer's Athens Olympics, where Coventry represented Zimbabwe. Margaret Hoelzer, meanwhile, is the reigning champion in the 200 freestyle.
For Georgia, Kara Lynn Joyce is expected to push for records in the sprint-freestyle events and will be complemented by Amanda Weir. Joyce is the defending champ in the 50 and 100 freestyles. More, Mary DeScenza is the defender in the 200 butterfly.
While Georgia and Auburn are the frontrunners, count Arizona, Texas and Florida as contenders to finish in the top five. Whitney Myers is a returning scorer in three events for Arizona and Sarah Wanezek (sprints/fly) powers Texas. Florida should benefit from breaststroker Vipa Bernhardt.
The Stanford banner will be carried by Dana Kirk and Caroline Bruce, a pair of Olympians. Kirk is a threat to win the butterfly events and Bruce is the favorite to prevail in the breaststroke disciplines.