SALT LAKE CITY — A Ute gymnastics team that has been feeling the pressure — especially the balance beamers — of being the lowest-ranked Utah team ever may have turned a corner Tuesday in its last hard practice before Saturday's 6 p.m., six-team NCAA North Central Regional meet at its own Huntsman Center.
Utah also suffered another injury, though. Junior Jacq Johnson fell Tuesday after a vault and bruised her tailbone badly enough that she will miss the regional.
Coach Greg Marsden said his 10th-ranked team has been tight, feeling the burden of trying to qualify for the 2010 NCAA championships — April 22-24 at Florida — just a little more than most Ute teams.
In its previous 34 seasons, Utah has never not qualified for nationals.
It is the only team to have qualified for every NCAA championship meet since that governing body took over from the AIAW in 1982.
On Tuesday, Marsden had some straight talk for his team about the meaning of it all, and perhaps it helped.
"We had a great beam workout," he said. "It's a work in progress. I feel like we had kind of a breakthrough (Tuesday). I feel like we're in a good place right now."
Utah's vault (49.35), bars (49.425) and floor (49.40) squads are coming off their season-highs in the last meet of the regular season, but beam — where nerves are most evident — again saw two falls and a 48.85. And that score was that high only because Kyndal Robarts ended it with a career-high 9.925.
Marsden told the beam team: "You guys are just so worried about failing you won't allow yourself to succeed. You're so fearful of making a mistake."
"To me," he said, "it's them trying too hard rather than just relaxing and competing with confidence and competing like they train."
He said he hopes his 35 years of experience counts for something and that he's learned that the sun still comes up the next day, and people get on with their lives no matter how the season ends.
"If we have a good meet, we'll qualify. If we don't, we may not, but it's not as big a deal as everybody's trying to make you think it is," he told them. "It's true. That's what I have learned.
"Whether we win the whole thing, or we don't even go, it's the same thing the next year. We've got to get up and get ready and do it all over again. Some of them will go on to the rest of their lives, and the rest of us will use that as a motivation to move forward."
Some beam routines have been altered in the past two weeks to make people more comfortable.
Stephanie McAllister's combination has been changed.
"We feel like her routine now is a routine she can do even on her worst day, and that gives her confidence," said co-coach/beam coach Megan Marsden. "And it gives me confidence that we've got someone starting off our beam that can get up and strut and hit their thing.
"And Daria (Biiak), we pulled the jump combination out. She had more things than she really needed, and there was one jump combination that was giving her fits, so we decided to just go without it."
Just as Johnson goes down, sophomore all-arounder McAllister comes back from a shoulder injury and was "95-100 percent" Tuesday, said Greg Marsden. Also back from a lengthy injury is Gael Mackie on bars. Salt Lake freshman Fumina Kobayashi will be in the beam lineup for the second straight meet. Cortni Beers is scheduled for bars only. Her back began bothering her late last week.
Utah will have to place in the top two Saturday to advance. Florida (ranked fourth) is the top seed in this regional. Utah is the second seed, Auburn third, Boise State fourth, Denver fifth and Washington sixth.
"It's a tough region," said Greg Marsden. "All six teams are in the top 23, and I think they're all dangerous enough that if they're on that night and any of the teams have any problems, that they could move ahead of them.
North Central Regional
(National ranking in parentheses)
1. Florida (4)
2. Utah (10)
3. Auburn (16)
4. Boise State (19)
5. Denver (22)
6. Washington (23)
1. Heather Heinrich, Utah State
2. Jenna Dudley, Air Force
3. Lyndsie Boone, Utah State
4. Brittany Dutton, Air ForceComment on this story
5. Meghan Hargens, Wisconsin-Stout
Alt. — Amanda Watamaniuk, Utah State
Alt. — Naomi DeLara, Wisconsin-Stout*