The April 9 NCAA North Central women's gymnastics regional at No. 1-ranked University of Utah will reunite the Utes with Brigham Young and Southern Utah.
But for the first time since the NCAA began trying to equalize its regional fields by sending its highest seeded teams out of their traditional regions in 1999, Ray Corn's Utah State team will be sent out of the area because it is ranked in the top 18 seeds.
The Aggies, 8-8 and ranked 16th, are headed for the Central Region at Alabama, and for this USU team that Corn says is "not only the best but the most consistent team in 28 years," being sent out of its comfort zone is a tremendous honor.
"What an exciting time," Corn said. While he adds, "I wish I was BYU going to Utah" and not having to travel a long distance, "this is a first for our program to be nationally seeded and going out of region," and that speaks volumes for how far the Aggies have come since injury and illness gave them a 0-4 start.
The top two finishers in each of the six April 9 regionals advance to the 2005 NCAA Championships at Auburn University April 21-23.
Each regional has three teams that finished the regular season ranked in the top 18 and the next-highest three ranked teams from within their regular region.
The Aggies coming off their first-ever Western Gymnastics Conference championship Friday and 8-4 since their poor start are grouped with host Alabama, ranked fourth, and No. 9 Iowa State as the seeded teams at the Tuscaloosa regional. The three local teams in that region are nationals-host Auburn, ranked No. 21, No. 23 Kentucky and No. 27 Kent State.
At Utah, the top-ranked Utes get the Nos. 12 and 13 seeds Oregon State and BYU, which moved up one place after Saturday's season-high 196.825 in a loss in Provo to Utah (197.45) plus North Central region regulars Minnesota, Southern Utah and Iowa. The Gophers finished the season ranked 20th, the Thunderbirds 22nd and the Hawkeyes 36th.
The top 18 teams are distributed by an "S" curve with Nos. 1-12-13 grouped, Nos. 2-11-14 together, Nos. 3-10-15 and so on. When seeded teams host regionals like Utah, Alabama, Nebraska and Florida are this year or in the case of extreme travel hardship, the NCAA will occasionally change the groupings.
This year, things are about as close to plan as they've ever been, though Penn State and Central Michigan have to travel with No. 2 UCLA to Washington. The only other choice would have been to send two-time defending NCAA champion UCLA to New Hampshire.
"It's what I expected," said Utah coach Greg Marsden about both his home regional field and the fields elsewhere. He says they're all pretty equally stocked, though the West at Seattle could be the toughest if unseeded Stanford overcomes some of its many injury problems. It has been a regular at nationals the past five years and was expected to be there again in the preseason.
"There are a lot of good teams out there, but I feel good about ours," said Marsden. "Like I said the other night, if we do our job, I didn't really care who was sent here."
That said, he adds that there's little room for error for any of the top teams. Of those coming to the Huntsman Center, Oregon State can be tough, "BYU made it close the other night, took us to the last event," Minnesota is experienced and comes from a traditionally low-scoring area, and Southern Utah is "very impressive."
SUU has two wins over BYU, one over No. 17 Denver and lost by .1 point to No. 10 Oklahoma March 18. "He feels this is the best team he's had," Marsden said of SUU coach Scott Bauman.
"I do," said Bauman, doing backflips himself over going to the Utah regional. Of course, he'd like to be in the top 18 but says going to Alabama or somewhere east would hurt the budget so much he might get into trouble and that Salt Lake was the T-Bird target all year.
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