It has been 10 years since the most successful collegiate women's gymnastics program in the NCAA has won a national team championship.
"It's been too long," said Greg Marsden, who has coached the team for all 30 of its years.
But first, the Utes, who have a No. 1 ranking and seem capable of winning their 11th national championship but first since 1995, have a little thing called the NCAA North Central Regional to get through.
That is tonight at 6 in Utah's own Huntsman Center, when the heavily favored Utes vie with 12th-ranked Oregon State, the second seed for this meet; 13th-ranked BYU, the No. 3 regional seed; 20th-ranked Minnesota, 22nd-ranked Southern Utah and 36th-ranked Iowa for the region's two advancing spots in the April 21-23 NCAA championships at Auburn in Alabama.
The teams that finish first and second tonight punch their tickets for Auburn, and the other four complete their 2005 seasons.
BYU and Southern Utah each have some injury issues involving some of their best all-arounders.
BYU senior Jaime Mabray (39.50 season best) hyperextended a knee Monday and is hoping to do at least two events tonight, thanks to anti-inflamatories. Y. senior Marie-Helene Claveau (39.375) has dealt all season with a stress fracture in a shin that has flared up again. She is on anti-inflamatories and practiced Thursday for the first time in 10 days.
SUU sophomore Sheena Shaw (39.375) rolled an ankle nine days ago. She is planning to compete, but, "That's sheer toughness," said coach Scott Bauman, adding that having her active tonight would "allow us to throw out our very best lineup."
Utah is the prohibitive favorite tonight and has never not qualified for the national finals, with a nationwide record of 30 consecutive appearances.
But there's always the chance of errors piling up.
"There's always a little anxiety," Marsden said. "Anything can happen. We expect the best, but I've been doing this long enough to know that's why they make us compete. We're not a shoo-in if we don't have a good meet."
They've had some problems on bars in road meets road teams start on bars, as the Utes will tonight through an NCAA random draw with non-counting falls and inconsistent performances a couple of times. Starting on bars did them in during the last two NCAA championships as well, with back-to-back sixth-place finishes.
Then again, at times this season, the Utes have ranked No. 1 on bars, led by sophomore Rachel Tidd, who ranked No. 1 for several weeks before back spasms and an ear infection that prompted headaches slowed her a bit. Tidd's back is a little sore now, but she expects to compete in the all-around.
Marsden asked his team the last two regular-season meets to come out strong and put the competition away early. Utah did that both at home against Washington and at BYU when it started on bars, so perhaps the problem is solved.
"It's a good rotation," said senior Annabeth Eberle. "Really good."
She likes it that Utah gets into the meet immediately and doesn't have a bye until it has completed bars and beam, then ends the meet on a bye. The night doesn't seem so long that way, and it's easier to maintain concentration.
Eberle said the Utes spent a week breaking their routines down into pieces during practices, only doing half routines at a time and "focusing in on the little details of the skills." That has been Utah's biggest need eliminating small deductions.
"Mentally, I think it's all there," Eberle said of the Utes' mind-set.
"I think we're at a very good place," Marsden said.
"Nobody's good enough that they can just go in there and take it for granted," said BYU coach Brad Cattermole, though he and SUU's Bauman say Utah should win, and they'd like to have the other qualifying spot. Oregon State will be a roadblock for it, and Minnesota is a possibility.
"It'll come down to who hits, who's on. The team that has that kind of meet is the team that goes to nationals," said Cattermole. "Any of us could beat any of us on a given day."Comment on this story
In addition to Mabray's and Claveau's woes, BYU recently lost freshman Cassie Meyers, who subluxed a shoulder and is definitely out.
Mabray is a key for BYU, Cattermole said, calling her the quarterback of the team. "We can't afford to lose her."The Cougars have been inconsistent on bars, and that has led to several of their losses. When bars goes well, BYU often does. "We can be very good or very bad," Cattermole said. "It's been a weird year on bars. But nobody's going to feel sorry for us."