Michael Brandy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It's not like the Ute gymnasts are shouting, "We're No. 5" from the rooftops or anything.
But for a proud Utah program reloading with a six-shooter full of freshmen, their best athlete out for most of the year, others injured half the season and a couple of seniors who'd previously had little chance to show what they could do in their careers, finishing fifth last weekend in the NCAA championships was a huge accomplishment.
One of coach Greg Marsden's two 2011 season highlights, he said.
However, now it's done.
Marsden is already challenging this group — that did as well as it could through a difficult 2011 season and capped it off by unexpectedly making the NCAA Super Six team finals — to make an even bigger commitment for next year as it moves into the Pac-12.
"We hit (all) 24 routines (in the Super Six) and still finished fifth," Marsden said. "So now they've got to decide if they want to do what it takes to eliminate some of the little deductions and be much more precise.
"That step, to go from fifth to contending, to be one of the top two or three teams, that is the hardest step to make.
"But do I think they can? Absolutely," he said.
All six freshmen were good this year but can improve. Upperclassmen and coaches can too, he said. Everybody must "make a tremendous commitment to facing the things that are hardest for them and making that a strength.
"If we can do that, we can get better. If we can add half a 10th to every routine, we can be in contention," said Marsden, whose program has been a contender in nearly all of his 36 seasons as Utah's coach.
"It was a surprisingly good season," he said. "I never would have guessed that we would have been as consistent right from the get-go and as competitive as we were."
The Utes, who had just 10 athletes on scholarship, opened 2011 with Marsden's other highlight — beating defending-champion/top-ranked UCLA in the Huntsman Center and then winning at arch-rival Georgia, "where we hadn't won in forever," he said.
Then top all-arounder Kyndal Robarts was lost to a season-ending knee injury before the third meet, which could easily have disrupted the team, but it did not. Instead, it allowed others to soar.
Seniors Jacq Johnson and Gael Mackie, in the shadows for three injury-plagued years, stepped up to each have their best seasons. Junior all-arounder Stephanie McAllister (39.475 high) and freshman all-arounder Corrie Lothrop (39.50 high) kept things rolling, Lothrop helping as much as she could the second half of the season despite a floating chip in an ankle that will require surgery.
Freshmen Nansy Damianova and Mary Beth Lofgren were regulars in three events. Junior Cortni Beers was strong on bars and beam, freshman Lia Del Priore was a regular on vault and floor. Before she broke a foot, sophomore Fumina Kobayashi was the steady beam leadoff hitter, and freshman Victoria Shanley provided strong vault scores when her bad shin and back allowed.
The upperclassmen embraced the freshmen, perhaps knowing how much they'd need them to accomplish anything, and the freshmen didn't let anything bother them.
They came together as a 8-3 team that went the entire season without having to count a fall and never lost by more than .325 of a point in the regular season.
Then the Utes squeezed through their NCAA regional despite a poor start on beam. And they held on in the NCAA team preliminaries against higher-ranked opponents that had beaten them in the regular season (Florida, Oregon State) to make it through to the NCAA Super Six team championships.
So, yes, finishing fifth in the nation was something to celebrate.
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