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Utah Utes gymnastics: Lackluster regional hurts U.'s national seed

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2008 12:38 a.m. MDT

For the last several years, regional scores didn't matter that much, as long as a team finished in the advancing top two in its region.

But this season, the NCAA re-instituted the National Qualifying Score, adding the regional score to the Regional Qualifying Score, and that means Utah's low regional score from Saturday in Minneapolis hurts it somewhat in the seeding for the 2008 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at Georgia April 24-26.

The nation's second-ranked team most of the season, the Utes go into nationals as the No. 5 seed, and that means they will compete in team preliminaries in the evening session against No. 1 Georgia, No. 4 Stanford, No. 8 Michigan, No. 9 UCLA and No. 12 Denver.

Southern Utah sophomore at-large all-around competitor Elise Wheeler will rotate with No. 1 Georgia on Thursday, April 24, in the evening session. No other individuals or teams from Utah qualified for nationals.

The afternoon session consists of No. 2 seed Florida, No. 3 LSU, No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Oregon State, No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 11 Arkansas.

The top three teams from the afternoon and top three from the evening session advance to Friday night's Super Six national championships.

The individual all-around championship will be decided in Thursday's rounds, as will qualifiers for the Saturday-night individual event championships.

Usually, Utah coach Greg Marsden prefers to compete in the afternoon preliminaries because it gives more recovery time, allows teams to get evening meals and after-competition treatments at a more reasonable hour and because it's harder for athletes to fall asleep after the evening session because they're still "wired" for several hours.

But with this team, he sees some advantages to being on the floor in the evening preliminary with the top-ranked home team because it will be the electric kind of atmosphere in which the 2008 Utes shine. "We thrive in that kind of environment. You don't get that same kind of energy in the afternoon session," Marsden said.

"If we're there to be competitive for the championship, it shouldn't matter," he said about competing in a session with the favorites as well as improving Stanford and perennial contenders UCLA and Michigan. "Just get into finals and be better the second night," he said of the task at the preliminaries.

"There's 12 really good teams out there," said junior Kristina Baskett, "so no matter what the draw, we're going to be going against the top 12 teams in the country. Whoever is our session, we have to do the best we can — enough to qualify — but at this time of year, we should be solid and should be up-to-par and then keep if rolling to the next day at team finals, hopefully."

Even if Utah is seeded fifth instead of second, as it's been ranked much of the season, it should be quite competitive for the national championship if it performs up to capabilities.

"This is the best team we've had in a while," said Marsden.

"But with that said, to go into the SEC (Southeast Conference territory), they're going to have all the advantages," such as crowds and familiarity with facilities for Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas.

Utah will start competition with a bye then open on bars, giving it a chance for a do-over of sorts since that's exactly how the Utes began last Saturday's regional. They had a number of errors in that first event, leading to their 196.95 regional score that was only seventh-highest in the country.

"That's a good thing more than a bad thing," said Kristina Baskett, one of several Utes who had mistakes on bars in the regional. She scored 9.825 but was the 2006 NCAA co-champion on bars. "We finished really strong on vault at regionals, so I think it's a very good thing.

"We like that rotation."

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