CORVALLIS, Ore. It has been 11 years since the University of Utah won a national gymnastics championship. Its next national title will be its 11th.
Eleven is supposed to be a lucky number, and Ute coach Greg Marsden seems to feel it would take just that luck for his team or any other to be able to beat a primed University of Georgia this week in the 2006 NCAA women's gymnastics championships at Oregon State University.
While Gill Coliseum on the OSU campus is a place the Utes have had good karma in past NCAA championships, winning here with Missy Marlowe, Shelly Schaerrer and Kristen Kenoyer in 1990 to break a three-year title drought, Marsden wasn't overly optimistic Tuesday about his team's chances.
"No, that's not my expectation going into this one," he said Tuesday at the Salt Lake airport as the Utes were traveling to Corvallis.
"I think our injuries have hurt us, and our lack of depth hurts us, and we haven't been as consistent as I'd hoped we'd become.
"I'm realistic. It's not impossible, but I think it's improbable."
Utah will have one final workout today and begins competition Thursday in the team preliminaries at 2 p.m. MDT. There are six teams in the afternoon session and six in the evening session, and the top three teams from each of Thursday's session meet in Friday night's Super Six team championships. Individual-event finals are Saturday. The individual all-around title is decided Thursday.
Marsden's reasoning is that Utah has yet to have a terrific meet away from home and that top-ranked, 21-0 defending-champion Georgia has nearly all of its people back with more experience from the 2005 title team plus strong freshmen Courtney Kupets, a 2004 Olympian, and Tiffany Tolnay, a three-time Junior Olympic national all-around champion.
Coaches from other teams look at the Utes and the way they lost 197.10-197.075 in the Huntsman Center to Georgia on March 6 and say the Utes are the best hope there is to defeat the Gym Dogs.
It was easily Georgia's closest meet of the season, .025 point, and Georgia has met most of the 11 other teams that are gathering here for the championships Alabama, Florida, LSU, Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. Some of them, it's beaten twice. The only two from this finals field the Gym Dogs haven't conquered so far this season are Arizona State and Iowa State.
Marsden isn't so sure Utah can beat Georgia if both teams are at their best.
"I think Georgia is the pre-eminent favorite, and barring them opening the door and letting somebody else in, I think they just have too much strength and too much depth," he said.
This is a change from last year, when Marsden and his team figured 10 years was long enough to wait to win again and openly thought they could. Of course, they had Rachel Tidd then, and even with a sore back that would eventually force her to retire after her sophomore season, she finished 12th (39.40) in last year's NCAA all-around and scored 39.50 in the Super Six championship finals to help the Utes to third place despite an injury to Ashley Postell.
The 2005 Utes, with Tidd, may have been a better, deeper team than this year's club that has battled numerous injuries all season and is quite thin in its bars lineup due to injuries.
Marsden's athletes aren't talking much about the title, either.
"We always try to win nationals, of course," said fifth-year senior and three-event star Gritt Hofmann. "But I think putting pressure on us because it is the last one (her final meet) is not making it better, easier.
"I just try to stay relaxed, have fun with it, hit my stuff and then at the end see what happens."
Still, knowing the Utes came close on March 6 despite some mistakes, Hofmann said, "We have the chances to do it. If you have a good day, everything is possible."
Fellow senior Kristen Riffanacht is another who'd just like to see what Utah's best effort is worth.
"We know we're good," she said. "It's always in the back of your mind, thinking about winning, but for us right now, we need to just go in there not stress."
Sophomore Postell, the 2002 world beam champion and a former teammate of Georgia's Kupets, is of the same low-key opinion."I think right now we're just going in there and trying to do the best we can. We'd like to win," Postell said. "But that's not what we're focusing on. We definitely know we're a team that can be way up there, but we can't really focus on that because that just sidetracks us and gets us really nervous."
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