Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — With six freshmen, Utah's gymnastics coaches had no concrete idea what to expect in their 2011 season opener Friday night at the Huntsman Center against top-ranked, defending NCAA-champion UCLA.
What they got was an upset victory, 195.70-195.30, that could be quite the springboard for the rest of the season and maybe beyond as the next time they're in a dual meet with UCLA, it will be as a member of the Pac-12 in 2012.
Utah nudged a UCLA team that was saving a little bit of itself for Sunday's Pac-10 Showcase meet with all seven conference gym programs competing — but still was trying to win Friday, said coach Valorie Kondos Field.
"We had to be very careful with our lineup," Kondos Field said, but she said the loss came "not intentionally, gee.
"There was nothing that I wasn't pleased with," she added, noting composure from her veterans "and the freshmen had a ball.
"This rivalry gets our team going. We almost had it, and then we let it go."
It was pretty much the same for the Utes, ranked fifth in the preseason, thought they didn't let it go.
"I can't even explain the feeling," said Ute junior Stephanie McAllister, who won the all-around with 39.175 to 39.025 for freshman teammate Corrie Lothrop's 39.025 and a 38.675 for the only Bruin who did all four events, Elyse Hoffner-Hibbs.
"I think it's fair to say we had relatively low expectations because we had so many freshmen and everything," said a bubbling McAllister, whose team led for most of the meet. "Our goal was also not to be perfect but do what we do every day in practice, and I think we did an awesome job of that."
Utah coach Greg Marsden wasn't about to get all giddy about winning. In fact, he said he expected it to be close and go down to the last event, even if 10 of his 24 routines were being done by freshmen.
"It's the first meet for both of us, and both of us did a good job," he said of the two rival teams. "Both of us have to get better.
Marsden added, "It's exciting. We're going to celebrate tonight —this is what you want to do — but we're not going to make more of it than it is. But we'll enjoy it."
The Utes opened with the best event score for either team for the night, 49.275 on vault, as senior Kyndal Robarts popped 9.925, the only score in the 9.90s of the night for either team. And the Utes pretty much held that kind of margin through the night, not folding with their youth.
Robarts, who does only three events much of the time, also had 9.85 on beam and 9.725 on floor.
McAlister vaulted to 9.85 and finished the night with 9.85 on floor, including opening that routine with a new full-in that Marsden said she's worked hard on.
Lothrop, Utah's most-heralded of the freshmen, opened her collegiate career with a 9.825 vault but scored in the 9.70s in her other three events.
"She has the potential to be a big scorer for us really on all four events," said Marsden. "She did a good job, but believe me, she's going to get a lot better."
Marsden said five of the freshmen came to campus last June to begin early training, and that seemed to make some difference. "They really bonded and became very close very quickly," he said. That and the newly implemented "big-sister" program, pairing a freshman with an upperclassman to teach them about Utah tradition and expectations, helped make the team into one able to just live in the moment and take events as they came rather than getting nervous about having 12,445 people and the defending national champions watching them.
Marsden had wondered how they might handle that and was pleased with the way they passed their first test.
Now, though, they have to go to Georgia and Nebraska on back-to-back weekends and do it again.
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