Utah's gymnastics team may have already beaten No. 1-ranked Georgia and been ranked second all season, but coach Greg Marsden remains guarded about the Utes' chances of winning that elusive 11th national championship on Friday at Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum.
The meet begins with team preliminaries on Thursday, with Utah in the evening session of the NCAA championships with the Gym Dogs, Stanford, UCLA, Michigan and Denver. Southern Utah at-large competitor Elise Wheeler will compete for the all-around championship also on Thursday, rotating in the evening session with Georgia.
In the afternoon session are Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Arkansas and Oregon State.
The top three teams in each session advance to Friday night's Super Six team championships.
The all-around title with Utah senior Ashley Postell the favorite as the nation's No. 1-ranked all-arounder, beam-walker and vaulter will be decided in Thursday's sessions.
"I think realistically it's going to be a very daunting task to go there against a very good Georgia team who is three-time defending champions and is going to have their crowd there," Marsden said before departing for Georgia.
"And you've got Florida, who is also an excellent team who I think a lot of people would like to see break the stranglehold that the four powers have had, so I think it's going to be hard for any team that's not in the SEC to go take that trophy out of there."
Utah, Georgia, Alabama and UCLA are the only teams to have ever won NCAA championships. Utah has nine NCAA titles and one AIAW championship from 1981, the year before the NCAA took over as the main governing body in women's sports.
Utah is the only team to have qualified for all 27 NCAA championships.
It placed second to Georgia in each of the last two years.
While Marsden is a bit pessimistic, Ute junior Kristina Baskett, who was already bouncing with energy for the meet on Monday, has a little brighter outlook.
"I think we should (win)," she said. "Yeah, I think so, but I might be biased. It's hard because every team out there works hard to win a national championship, and there's a lot of teams that could. Every team thinks they should. It's my team, and I think my team should win.
"I think we have to be our best, really, to have the best meet we've had all season," she added.
Baskett said she's a little tired of being the bridesmaid."We've been there, we've done that. I'd like to move up, and this year would be a good year, especially with the seniors, Jess (Duke), who lives and breathes Utah pride. And they've all worked hard, and they've been so close for three years that it would be really good."
POSTELL'S LAST RUN: Postell is one of the finest gymnasts ever in Utah's program and does not have a title. Theresa Kulikowski never got one, but Missy Marlowe, Suzanne Metz and Megan Marsden, Utah's other top all-arounders in history, got championships.
"She deserves it. She's earned it," said Baskett. "This year she's put it all together, and she's done more than her part for the team. We want it to build for our team and our success. We care about each other individually as well as a team. We all are pulling for her to win.""I want not just Ashley but (fellow seniors) Jess and Katie (Kivisto) to have one, too," said freshman Kyndal Robarts, "because to be a part of this program is to say a lot, but to say, 'I was part of Utah gymnastics and got a championship' would just be amazing. I want to help everybody on the team to be able to say that."
SPECIAL: This 2008 Ute group seems special to those on it and around it, most of the athletes having endured a very tough 2007 season that saw Utah get it together in the postseason and win the West Regional and place a somewhat unexpected second at nationals in the Huntsman Center.
"Yes, I think everybody feels it," Baskett said about the group and its tightness. "It's sad, you guys," she added, thinking about this week's competition being the last for the group.
Baskett said winning and tradition are the big reasons she came to Utah, and she thinks it's the same with her teammates.
Robarts is also aware of Utah's history. "Yeah, for sure. You hear about everything. Everybody knows that this is the gymnastics place, even though we haven't won a championship since '95.
"It still has that 'This is where college gymnastics comes from"' reputation.
BARS: Utah begins Thursday's competition on bars after a bye in the first rotation, the same order that gave it trouble in the regional meet, but no one seems to expect more of the same this time, partly because there won't be any snowstorms in Atlanta keeping the Utes' flight from getting in, as happened in Minnesota for the regional. That meant the Utes got less of a warmup on the bars, and they were the portable kind held down by water jugs instead of bolted to the floor, so they were bouncier."I think a real workout day ahead of time will help us," said bars coach Jeff Graba, adding the Utes have worked on their mental approach to the event and should be fine.
VAULT: The Utes have been the nation's top-ranked vault team, and they hope their variety of vaults impresses judges who will see a dozen teams mainly doing Yurchenko fulls. Utah can throw three or four or more different vaults.
"I've always thought that was good for our team just because they're not going to be looking at Yurchenko fulls from every girl," said Baskett, "and I think the Yurchenko fulls we do have are one of the better ones that you can do. I mean, Ashley's is OK (heavy sarcasm)."Marsden noted it's a little unusual for Utah to be strong on the power events, but, "If we're really on and cranking, probably vault and floor (are our best), which hasn't always been what we're known for but this year we've been good on those power events. Our difficulty is good, composition is good. Those are our strengths, although beam and bars are not particularly a weakness," he said