One of the strangest years in 31 seasons of Ute gymnastics was also uplifting and provided plenty of hope for 2007, when Utah hosts the NCAA championships for the first time since 1999 and when it will have its largest-ever freshman class six which collectively is considered among the nation's best classes.
"Every year is a little different, and this one was certainly unique," said coach Greg Marsden of a team that may not have reached its full potential because of a habit of messing up early, then roaring back, if not to win then at least to survive.
The postseason truly told the story of these Utes they advanced to the national championships despite having the 11th-best regional score of the 12 teams that made it to Corvalis, Ore.
They advanced to last Friday's Super Six NCAA team championships with the sixth-best qualifying score in Thursday's preliminaries.
After a poor opening on Friday their 48.95 on bars was 19th of the 24 event totals in the Super Six they began to crank it, led by sophomore Ashley Postell, who finished second in the NCAA all-around championships on Thursday and had back-to-back 39.525s in the team competitions.
The Utes thought they'd moved up to third, only to take second exactly where they'd been ranked much of the year when Alabama had beam falls in the final rotation while Utah was on a bye.
"While we didn't win it, we went up another notch," Marsden noted. Utah was third in 2005.
In individual-event finals on Saturday, freshman Kristina Baskett tied Georgia Olympian Courtney Kupets for the NCAA bars championship, an event that had often frightened Baskett into inconsistency before she reached college.
Throughout the season the Utes won 11 meets, lost by .025 at home to powerful two-time NCAA champion Georgia and lost at Florida when the Gators had their best meet of the season.
But they challenged themselves in just about every meet, especially on the road. They counted falls in every road meet up until Florida (March 17), yet they won every one of those meets in which they counted falls because Nina Kim, Nicolle Ford or Gritt Hofmann was able to right things and keep the situation from escalating.
If there weren't falls, there were issues getting used to the new code of points it changes after each Olympics from technicalities to judges' individual interpretations and preferences.
"It was frustrating to not be able to get over that hump and completely do what we were fully capable of," said Marsden, "but at the same time, it was rewarding to have a team that stayed so positive and battled all the way through. The positive was they never gave up."
Injuries were a big part of the inconsistency, starting with Postell, who ultimately took second in the NCAA all-around and scored 39.55 in team prelims and the Super Six, and senior Kristen Riffanacht trying to come back from preseason injuries. It took nearly half the season for them to return to full competitive shape.
Just after the team came back from Christmas vacation, Rachel Tidd finally made the tough decision to retire before her junior season because of the back pain she'd endured for a year. A top all-arounder even with a bad back, Tidd's departure was expected but took a toll on depth, especially on her specialty, bars.
Had Tidd been available and healthy, Marsden says the Utes "would have been able to hang with anybody," and he includes unbeaten, back-to-back NCAA champ Georgia.
When senior Natalie Nicoloff and sophomore Katie Kivisto suffered season-ending elbow injuries in late February and early March, bars depth was really compromised, though senior Dominique D'Oliveira came back from a fall at regionals with two strong routines at nationals.
Further, much-improved senior Gabi Onodi battled illness, injuries and mishaps all season but put together back-to-back 9.80s on beam at nationals.
The seniors "had ups and downs throughout their careers," Marsden said, "but really came together at championships and did a magnificent job."
Though Utah had its biggest senior class ever five due to Hofmann's extra year of eligibility, youth also factored into Ute frustrations. "The majority of our routines were from the younger athletes," said Marsden, "and that can create inconsistency."
It also creates hope for next year, since only seven of the 24 routines from the nationals lineup will be lost to graduation three by Hofmann, two by Riffanacht and one each from Onodi and D'Oliveira.
The five graduations plus Tidd's retirement bring on recruits Daria Bijak, Chelsea Coleman, Jaime Deetscreek, Annie DiLuzio, Stephanie Neff and Sarah Shire. One national publication late last year called this the nation's top incoming class, and Marsden has called it maybe Utah's best, though he knows that's "on paper" and it will take some work to integrate so many new personalities, egos and skills. "You never know till you know. Transition can be difficult," he said, but it looks like there'll be more talent and certainly more depth.
Shire is a four-year member of the U.S. national team, and Neff and DiLuzio are two-year members.
Shire and DiLuzio, with no Olympics to point for, are taking it easy this year so they'll be in good shape mentally and physically when they join the Utes, Marsden said.
Neff and Deetscreek are going to the Junior Olympic nationals, and Marsden says Coleman "is a little bit of a sleeper. She's going to surprise people" as she's been out with a knee injury that should be healed by fall.
Bijak, the German national champion, was eighth all-around at the 2005 World Championships, 20th all-around at the 2003 Worlds. (Postell was 2002 World beam champion.)Walk-on Beth Rizzo should also be "new" in 2007 after redshirting her freshman season.
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