SALT LAKE CITY — It's rare that a Utah gymnastics team goes to the NCAA championships in a genuine underdog role, but that's the case this week as the Utes head for Gainesville, Fla., facing an uphill battle when they hit the floor at Florida on Thursday at 11 a.m. MDT in the team preliminaries.
The top three teams from each of Thursday's preliminary sessions advance to Friday's Super Six NCAA team championships.
Not being one of the favorites gives the current Utes — who were ranked 10th until a strong regional performance vaulted them to a fifth-place seeding for nationals — a little different feeling than usual.
"It's definitely more fun to feel like you have a chance to overachieve than to be concerned about underachieving," said coach Greg Marsden, whose teams have qualified for the national championships all 35 years of their existence — an unmatched record that seemed in some peril earlier this month before they had a strong showing in the Salt Lake City regional.
"We were ranked 10th or 11th, some people wondered whether we'd make it to nationals, and that kind of thing, and we've done that."
"I have mixed feelings about it," said co-coach Megan Marsden. "You want to be one of the teams that is definitely in the hunt. At the same time, for 15 years, we've been trying to win another (Utah owns 10 national team championships but none since 1995), and in some ways, it's kind of nice to be able to kind of truly admit that that might be just a tad beyond what's realistic for this group of athletes — and that's OK.
"What we're excited about is that they seem to be coming around at the end of the season, there's been some improvements in their approach, and we are going to be at the championships, and I think we have a shot to be there on the night that they determine the champion. That is always our goal as a program."
Now, if it seems the coaches are talking down Utah's chances, bear in mind that this approach has worked recently. Prior to the April 10 regional, Greg Marsden asked his athletes about their mental state, and some said they felt a lot of pressure before the regional to make sure they weren't the first Ute team in history to not advance to the national championships.
Marsden essentially gave them permission to fail, told them the program would survive, the sun would come up, and they'd all be fine if that happened. It didn't. Instead, they had their best meet of the year.
"I think we've got that big monkey off our back, and now, hopefully we can go and compete well and see how far we go," said Greg Marsden.
Not that pressure is ever off — Greg Marsden notes that regionals seem to be the biggest pressure meet of the year until it's time for team preliminaries, and then for qualifiers, the Super Six is the biggest pressure cooker of all — but that thought of messing up Ute history is all gone, and the gymnasts seem relaxed. Which is a good thing because they readily admit they do their best when they're loose and enjoying things.
"Definitely. We're going to nationals, we're happy about that, and I think we'll just focus to do a good job and we'll see how it goes. It's like no pressure," said senior Daria Bijak, who was an Olympian and World Championship team member for Germany who leads the Utes with six All-America certificates and a No. 11 current ranking in the all-around.
"It seems like everybody is in a good mood and excited to go, and I think that helps a lot. I'm just excited to compete again." Bijak said.
"There's still pressure — what we put on ourselves — but not as much as before regionals," said senior Annie DiLuzio. "There's not really any expectations, so just go in there, hit our routines, kind of do our own thing and focus on us, and if that's good enough to make it to the second night, that's awesome.
"We need to make sure we have fun with it and enjoy every moment, be goofy and having fun and joking around and then focus when it's your turn to go."
Jamie Deetscreek says she gets so into herself during meets she has to consciously think about enjoying things, but she's ready for that.
"I think now it's just fun from here on out," said the senior, who has been sick for the last week, as has sophomore Stephanie McAllister.
Utah's other woes have been a slight Achilles strain for senior Beth Rizzo and junior Kyndal Robarts' ankle that was sprained at the regional.
Robarts has been practicing normally, and it was left up to Rizzo how much she'd work out prior to Thursday.
"You can tell that everybody's heart is in it," said Deetscreek, "and I just think that that's a good feeling going into this last meet. I just think we're all enjoying being around each other, and we really want each other to succeed, and I think that's going to be great for our whole team and performance at the end."
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Bijak, Deetscreek, DiLuzio and Rizzo were all freshmen (Rizzo a redshirt freshman) the last time Utah was a bit of an underdog with a team led by Ashley Postell, Nicolle Ford and Kristina Baskett that hadn't put together a full meet all season until it did so to start the postseason. The 2007 Utes went to the postseason ranked seventh but won the regional at Cal and tied for the highest regional score in the country, then remained strong in the national championships, finishing second on their own Huntsman Center floor.
So the four seniors do have some experience to draw on, and they're hoping that perhaps that and having no more monkey riding their backs will lead to their best performance of the season.
NCAA Gymnastics Championships
Gainesville, Fla., 11 a.m. MDT
Afternoon session: Utah, UCLA, Oklahoma, Oregon State, LSU and Nebraska