SALT LAKE CITY — For much of this season, Utah's gymnasts have heard the whispers that they're just not as good a team as usual, that they've been ranked ninth (ninth!) for three weeks in a row.
Well, in a heated four-way meet that came down to the last few gymnasts Friday night before 14,411 fans in the Huntsman Center, Utah did what it could to dispel some of those notions.
"I think we're getting closer to the team we can be," said Ute senior Daria Bijak, who has been sick all week but who ignored her illness to win the all-around with a career-high 39.575 that included a career-best 9.95 on bars and a stuck vault .
She helped lead the Utes to a season-best 196.975 against a 196.65 from eighth-ranked Oregon State, a season-high 196.025 for No. 21 Southern Utah and a 195.70 from No. 18 Penn State in a competitive meet that saw the Utes pull it out with another big floor set, just like last week.
"It's not just saying we can compete with Georgia and UCLA and all the other teams," Bijak said. "I think we can, and tonight I think we proved that we're moving to the right direction."
The Utes opened by tying their season high on vault (49.325) and scoring their season high on bars (49.25). The faltered a bit on beam but came back with 49.40 on floor to seize a meet in which they'd held just a .2 advantage over Oregon State after three events. OSU finished up with 49.275 on vault to keep the pressure on.
Meanwhile, SUU overtook Penn State on the final event, SUU getting 49.10 on bars while the Lions had 48.675 on beam.
Bijak, who practiced lightly only two times this week and was put under anesthetic Wednesday to have her stomach scoped due to an ulcer, in addition to an upset stomach that lasted since last Friday, said again that it perhaps helped her to be sick because she didn't worry about trying to be great.
"Dari does better when she has a lot of other drama going on that gets her mind off trying to be so perfect," said co-coach Megan Marsden. That's often when Bijak does her best work, she said. "Maybe she'll figure it out before she's done."
Bijak scored a 9.925 on floor — she didn't even know if she'd be able to compete floor because she was weak — to give her the best all-around total of her career, beating out SUU's Elise Wheeler (39.50).
Bijak was most proud, however, of her unique vault that she finally landed the way she wanted to. "I cannot do this vault any better," she said.
"In all these four years, I just wanted to stick my vault in front of this crowd in the Huntsman Center," she said, laughing and adding, "I don't know. It happened. So I'm ready to retire. It's all I wanted."
She did tack on, "I'm not done yet."
Fellow senior Annie DiLuzio had a 9.925 vault and a 9.95 floor, coming back strong after falling from beam. "I had my moment where I was really upset with myself — and then have to move forward because I have to be there to cheer for the team and help all the other girls that are after me on beam. And I still have to do my job and get a big score," she said.
Junior Kyndal Robarts chipped in a 9.90 on beam, tying a career high, and she added a 9.90 floor and finished third in the all-around at 39.45 — her career high.
Both Bijak and DiLuzio liked the chaos of the quad meet, particularly because they could go right away rather than waiting for the other team to do its event, as in dual meets.
That bodes well, said Marsden, for the postseason, but regional and national meets are the same format — as soon as the judges' scores are flashed, the next person on the event can start.
"This group of girls actually performs better without time to think," she said. "With the stuff that really counts (postseason meets), that's the kind of format it is."
The Utes go to a pressure cooker of another kind next Friday when they are at fourth-ranked Florida for the Gators' senior night. It's the site of the 2010 NCAA Championships April 22-24, so having a good experience and getting comfortable in Gainesville is important.
"We need heated contests where girls have to fight for a win," said Marsden. "That will be tough on their floor, senior night. I'm going to challenge the girls to take it on and see what they can do with it."