Ute gymnasts hope to make most of bid

Ute gymnasts hope to conquer nerves, advance to Super 6

Published: Thursday, April 13 2006 1:19 p.m. MDT

It very nearly happened to Georgia last year. It did happen to UCLA and Stanford last Saturday.

Reputation means nothing. Once you get to the NCAA gymnastics regional meets — which gain parity every year with teams like Denver, Auburn, Iowa State, Oregon State and Arkansas recently jumping into the mix, or nearly so — it's just survival.

The Utes were in good company last Saturday at Michigan when they let their nerves nearly get the best of them.

UCLA has won four NCAA championships since 2000, and it doesn't even get to try this year after being knocked out in a regional by Florida and Arkansas. Stanford has been to four NCAA championships since 2000, finishing as high as third, but it was pushed out of contention last week at its own regional by Oregon State, desperate to make nationals because it hosts the 2006 NCAA championships next Thursday through Saturday in Corvallis.

Last year, Georgia made nationals as the 12th seed because Denver had three falls in its last regional event and didn't eliminate the Gym Dogs, who went on to seize their sixth national championship in 2005.

"It's regionals. You know that if you blow it, it's over," said Ute coach Greg Marsden on Tuesday.

Said freshman Kristina Baskett: "(it was) Just the whole aura of the team, we knew a lot was riding on it. It wasn't our night, I guess. People making little mistakes."

Utah advanced by finishing second to Michigan in the Northeast Regional but will be the 11th seed due to a low regional score (195.70). Nerves and errors almost cost the Utes a 31st straight trip to the national finals.

"You know what's at stake. You make a mistake, you don't move on," Marsden said, understanding of why the Utes started so slowly. They were only .12 point ahead of third-place Auburn halfway through the meet and then started their third event, beam, with two falls that placed history in jeopardy.

Utah's the only team to have qualified for the national championships every year for the last 31 years.

"If they (Auburn) hit bars and then go do their job on beam, we go home," Marsden said. "Fortunately for us, they had three falls on bars and weren't particularly good on beam, so in the end, it didn't look that close."

"There was a general sense of nervousness amongst the group, especially after vault," said Ute senior co-captain Kristen Riffanacht. Vault was Utah's second event, and the Utes had a bye afterward, knowing Auburn was right there.

"I'd say we were a little bit shaky, but typically we can turn it on when we need to," Riffanacht said.

This time, that didn't happen until after the two beam falls. "I could feel the nerves from everybody," Riffanacht said.

Baskett, who had one of the falls, didn't seem permanently scarred. "It got a little nerve-wracking in the middle, and we just had to hold it together until the end of the meet," she said.

There will be some pressure next Thursday, too, as Utah competes in the afternoon session of team preliminaries hoping to make the Super Six national-championship finals on Friday for the sixth straight year and 11th time in the 13 years since that format was adopted.

And Utah starts on beam — the event on which it had difficulty last week. Teams opening on vault, bars or floor can perhaps channel that nervous energy, but beam requires precise control.

"We're just going to have to create a self-ritual: 'This is what I do every single time before a routine,' " said Riffanacht, "so that when we get to a meet, you snap back into that ritual mode and do your beam routine like you do in practice."

Added Baskett: "We know we can do it. Just hopefully we got all the mistakes out by now. We have nothing to lose. We're going in as the 11th seed."


E-mail: lham@desnews.com

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