Duke eager to make Huntsman Center debut

Published: Thursday, Feb. 10 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Although both of her parents went to BYU, a young Jessica Duke cherished the Friday nights she spent at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center watching the Ute gymnasts.

As a member of the Olympus School of Gymnastics team, she often sat in the stands as a Ute fan and even got to sit a few times on the competitive floor as a "flasher," one of the kids who show the scores after each routine.

"I did (that) a couple of times and got close to the gymnasts and felt really special," said Duke

Duke is now a Ute freshman who will likely get to compete Friday for the first time on the Huntsman Center floor. She'll face BYU, the school of her parents, her older brother and — soon — a younger brother. It's a team with several of her former Olympus teammates on it — and one that tried to recruit her.

Unbeaten (5-0) and No. 1-ranked Utah meets the 7-1, 13th-ranked Cougars at 7 p.m., and U. coach Greg Marsden said Duke will probably at least vault and could compete on floor or bars, depending upon Utah's injury situation.

Duke missed the early season with an injury herself, bone spurs in an ankle that began hurting her just before Christmas break. It's an ongoing problem that has eased a bit with rest. It will likely require offseason surgery, as the same injury did for Ute senior Annabeth Eberle last spring.

So when Duke likely makes her home competitive debut Friday — she competed on bars (9.725) at Utah State on Jan. 14 and vaulted (9.75) last Saturday at Minnesota and did exhibition routines at home against Michigan — it will be a special moment that she's been awaiting five weeks longer than she expected.

"It was really disappointing because I was hoping to compete that first meet," she said, "but I understood. I knew I had a whole season — and a full four years — ahead of me to compete.

"If I compete, it will definitely be a thrill in front of all those hometown fans. I have special feelings about going against (BYU) because a few of my old teammates are on the team, and it's exciting competing against them."

Duke said she's "really close" to the Cougars' Dayna Smart, Cassie Myers and Aimee Walker Pond.

On such a big night for her, at least Duke is familiar with being on the Huntsman Center floor with 10,000 or more cheering fans. "It's incredible," she said of the atmosphere. "We moved to Utah when I was 9, and we came every year with my club to a lot of the meets.

"I just loved coming. It was what we did Fridays after workouts. I always wanted to be a Ute."

Her favorites included Theresa Kulikowski, Shannon Bowles, Angie Leonard and Eberle. "I loved watching her — I love watching her now. She's amazing," said Duke, who, with her parents, made an unofficial visit to Utah to meet Marsden and convince him to recruit the 2000 Junior Olympics national all-around champion and international elite qualifier, whose career was interrupted by injuries.

"They just really laid it out on the line that she'd always followed our program," said Marsden, "and despite the fact (her parents) went to BYU and most of their family went to BYU, this was the team she really wanted to be on — so she is."

"I really liked the coaches and their attitude toward everything. And the history here of gymnastics," said Duke of the program that has 10 national team championships, twice as many as any other team.

Her BYU parents — her mother, Joy, is from Springville and her father, Jeff, is a Bostonian who went cross country for school — had no objections to Jessica's attending the U. "They wanted me to go to the best program I could go to. They support me 100 percent," Duke said, noting her father even "was excited for Utah for the football team this year because they did so well."

Even though she hasn't competed much yet, her parents, three brothers and two sisters are Utes for the meets.

Friday against the Cougars, there will be no dilemma. "They'll cheer for me and Utah, definitely," she said.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com

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