The 2008 Ute gymnastics season was so harmonious and gratifying that starting the year off in January by beating No. 1-ranked Georgia the three-time defending NCAA champion that would its fourth straight title last week hardly stands out.
"That was fun, but I wouldn't say that that was any more or less of a highlight than a lot of other meets throughout the year," said Utah coach Greg Marsden, who completed his 33rd year with Utah's third straight second-place finish and Ashley Postell and Kristina Baskett taking second and third in the all-around at the NCAA championships last weekend. (Baskett's left-ankle injury in last Saturday's NCAA event finals seems to be bone bruises from jamming the foot into the floor mat, and they should heal.)
"It was a great season. I couldn't ask more from my team this year," said Marsden. "It was one of the most enjoyable, rewarding seasons that I've had in a while. It was just a great group of kids that worked hard and never gave up and never let me down or themselves."
Asked the high points for 2008 were, he simply couldn't pick out any. "The year was a highlight. They were just so pleasant and so fun and so consistent. Every meet was fun. Even the loss," said Marsden.
Utah was 12-1 in the regular season, 10-0 until going to No. 3-ranked Florida and absorbing a 197.70-196.875 loss. "None of us felt bad after the loss. We went on the road in a tough situation and had a good meet," Marsden said.
The Utes won the North Central Regional, moved up from third after two rotations to second place in the NCAA team preliminaries and then came from a tie for fourth after the first rotation in the Super Six championships to a second-place finish behind Georgia in the closest NCAA finals since 2002, 197.45-197.125.
Ashley Postell concluded her career with her third straight second-place finish in the NCAA all-around with Baskett tying for third. For the third straight year, Postell was the best individual gymnast in the Super Six team championships when it counts most scoring 39.75. That's 9.95s on vault, bars and floor and 9.90 on beam.
She is the only 20-time All-American in NCAA women's gymnastics history. That's every event every year.
Postell owns or shares all five of Utah's major gymnastics records with 30 career all-around titles, 11 all-around wins in a single season (2008, tied with Suzanne Metz, 1995), 47 single-season event wins (2008), 120 career event wins and the 20 All-America certificates.
Postell has toyed with the idea of trying to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team but recently decided against it and Marsden thinks that's going to stick. "Ashley is at peace with things. I think she's finally able to let that demon go," he said. "I think she's matured enough that she realizes it doesn't define her. I think she's ready to begin to focus on what comes next, and I think that's healthy."
He has taken some calls from entities that may afford her the chance to perform and tour and make a little money doing it, though Marsden hopes she will focus most on finishing her degree.
Replacing Postell and fellow seniors Katie Kivisto and Jessica Duke, who meant a lot in terms of leadership and friendship and always being ready to step in is daunting.
"You don't replace Ashley," Marsden said. "I can see a variety of people who can improve and make greater contributions next year in different events, and that's what it's going to take.
"Kris is a great example. Each year she has improved and become more confident and been more of a presence, and that's reflected by her third-place finish in the all-around and the fact she was in three event finals. That's an example of how people can develop into that leadership-on-the-floor role."
Fellow junior Nina Kim also grew. She had foot, ankle and illness troubles after regaining an all-around role early in the season, and Marsden was impressed that she stuck her vault both nights in NCAA team competition. "I'm telling you, it was painful," he said. "That ankle never was right." He sees Kim stepping into a senior leadership role in 2009 like Postell this year. He saw Kim do leadership things "that she never would have done in the earlier Nina."
Annie DiLuzio, Jamie Deetscreek, Kyndal Robarts and Gael Mackie were also solid all season, though each was hampered by injuries or illness. Stephanie Neff and Jacq Johnson missed much and all of the season, respectively, with injuries, but Marsden sees big roles for them.
All of them need to make big summer/fall commitments to keep Utah at this level. "I don't have any reason to think that they won't do that," Marsden said.
Marsden doesn't know what Daria Bijak will be able to do early in the 2009 season. She plans to compete for her native Germany in the 2008 Summer Olympics. She still has to qualify for her national team and will have to start training soon. Once her preseason ankle injuries were resolved, she became a steady all-arounder usually hitting 39.25-plus most of the season.
Marsden supports her Olympic quest but is apprehensive. "It will be a grueling process," he said. She has some history of injury, and she will need a mental and physical break next fall, as Ute team training begins. He may hold her to conditioning and strengthening exercises then. Marsden expects some degree of burnout, "but I think she loves the sport and would recover from that," he said.Utah will have two incoming freshmen in two-year U.S. National team member and Junior Olympic all-around champion Cortni Beers and two-time J.O. national champion Stephanie McAllister, but Marsden can't predict their team roles yet.