SALT LAKE CITY —The potential for a difficult season stares an oh-so-young Utah gymnastics team in the face as it prepares to host top-ranked, defending NCAA champion UCLA in the Huntsman Center on Friday night at 7 to open a tough 2011 schedule.
But also looking in on the fifth-ranked Utes is strong promise, with a freshmen class that includes 2008 Canadian Olympian Nansy Damianova and 2008 U.S. Olympic Team alternate Corrie Lothrop.
Co-coach Megan Marsden admits she transitioned from last April's NCAA championships, where the Utes finished sixth, to thinking with some reservation about the 2011 squad that is half freshmen.
"I was dreading it. I felt like it was going to be almost an insurmountable challenge to bring that many freshmen along," she said.
But after four months of pre
season work, "It's been a pleasant surprise," Marsden said. "It's just been a better year than what we thought it was going to be with so many new kids."
She credits seniors Kyndal Robarts, Gael Mackie and Jacq Johnson, along with junior Cortni Beers — Utah's new leadership council — for making the transition to college easier for the freshmen by genuinely befriending them.
"We have a good atmosphere and really great chemistry," said Robarts, the unquestioned on-floor leader and role model, a first-team All-American vaulter who was 2010 NCAA regional beam and all-around runner-up. "And so far, it's been the most fun preseason that I've had.
"The new girls bring a lot of energy, and it's fresh, and they work really hard — and they're good, too, so it's really encouraging. It makes being in here fun."
Mackie, a 2004 Canadian Olympian and later a member of her country's World Championships team, and Johnson, a two-year member of Team USA who was on the 2006 World Championships team, agree about this team's tight bonds.
And they are a big part of that.
Mackie's career has been fraught with injury, and last summer at her family's cabin, she stepped wrong and badly injured her good ankle. The other ankle kept her out of most events last year. But she's training all events again now and hopes to make big strides.
Co-coach Greg Marsden said she's already contributed in a way he never expected.
"She has taken some of the freshmen under her wing," he said. "It really surprised me. I didn't see this part of Gael until this year," he said.
"It makes me feel good, having a role like that," said Mackie.
"I think, with it being my last year, it kind of hit me. I remember as a freshman what the seniors were like, and I just kind of felt comfortable with that role, whereas before, I was the one that needed a leader."
Johnson, who's also never reached her potential because of injuries, reported to camp in the best shape of anyone on the team, giving them all something to think about.
"She won all of our strength testing when we reported back. She blew everybody else away on the total," said Greg Marsden, now in his 36th year as the Utes' coach.
"It is my last season, and I just wanted to put in everything I had over the summer to get into the best shape I could be so that I could have a really good senior season," said Johnson, who's, "Knock on wood, healthy for once."
Leadership brings with it accountability, and Robarts, Mackie and Johnson appear ready for that.
"Yeah, that's OK with me," said Robarts.
Mackie said thinking about the whole group during meets should help her, too.
"Sometimes in a meet situation, if I think about myself too much, I'll get nervous," she said. "But if I'm helping other people out, it helps me do better, too."
"The leadership council has given me confidence to perform well," added Johnson, who worked hard last summer to refine her routines into something that can add to the team's scores. She may even get to vault, which she and Greg Marsden never envisioned.
Another strong performer is junior Stephanie McAllister, considered among the nation's better all-arounders.
The Ute freshmen, in addition to Lothrop and Damianova, include U.S. Junior Olympians Lia Del Priore, Victoria Shanley and Salt Laker Mary Beth Lofgren, plus Level 10 state bars champion Hailee Hansen of Bountiful.
Shanley is out now with mononucleosis, and last week Utah lost another freshman, Alyssa Gale, to retirement due to uncorrectable knee injuries. She will become a manager.
Two of last year's freshmen, Katelyn Mohr and Meg Whitney, transferred to other schools to get more competing time.
Lothrop will compete in the all-around tonight, with Damianova on all but beam and Lofgren on all but bars, meaning freshmen should do 10 of Utah's 24 routines; they also hold three of four alternate spots.
That leaves the coaches — including new assistant Tom Farden — kind of wishin' and hopin' to start 2011.
"An unknown quantity at this point," said Greg Marsden. "You've got to go out and stay on the apparatus and do your thing, but we're capable of being a good team. We're just not a very deep team right now."
If Shanley can recover, it will help.
Megan Marsden lauds the freshmen's work ethic.
"They absorb and live up to whatever they're supposed to bring to the table, and I like that," she said. "I do think the sky could be the limit with that kind of an attitude — but we have not competed a routine yet.
"That's where we are right now."
Seniors — Jacqueline Johnson (Ohio), Gael Mackie (British Columbia, Canada), Kyndal Robarts (Texas).
Juniors — Cortni Beers (Oklahoma), Stephanie McAllister (Indiana).
Sophomores — Fumina Kobayashi (Utah).
Freshmen — Nansy Damianova (Quebec, Canada), Lia Del Priore Pennsylvania), Hailee Hansen (Utah), Mary Beth Lofgren (Utah), Corrie Lothrop (Massachusetts), Victoria Shanley (Colorado).
2011 Utah gymnastics schedule
Date opponent (preseason rank) time
Jan. 7 UCLA (1) 7 p.m.
Jan. 15 at Georgia (7) 2 p.m.
Jan. 22 at Nebraska (10) 6 p.m.
Jan. 28 Stanford (6) 7 p.m.
Feb. 4 Arizona State (25) 7 p.m.
Feb. 11 Washington (21) 7 p.m.
Feb. 18 Michigan (9) 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 at Utah State (54) 7 p.m.
March 4 Florida (3) 7 p.m.
March 12 at Oregon State (8) 8 p.m.
March 18 at BYU (26) 7 p.m.
April 2 at NCAA Regionals TBD
March 15-17 at NCAA Championships, Cleveland, Ohio TBD
Red Rocks season-opener
No. 1 UCLA at No. 5 Utah
Tonight, 7 p.m.