Armed with the excitement on campus from the football team's attention-grabbing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last week, the second-ranked University of Utah gymnastics team opens its 2009 season tonight at 7 against No. 4 UCLA in the Huntsman Center on a real high.
"I think it's a good sign Utah can compete with the SEC (Southeast Conference)," said senior Kristina Baskett, the Utes' top all-arounder. The SEC has some of the country's top football and gymnastics teams. "I think it was really good for them. It's good for our school, which is therefore good for us. It was like motivation for us, that if they can do it, we can do it, you know?"
"They (the football team) just set us up. Go, Utah," said senior Nina Kim, who has blossomed into a strong leadership role and a much stronger gymnast than she's ever been, said coach Greg Marsden.
"She's just a different person.
I've never seen her so ready," he said one of the reasons the Utes think they'll be just fine carrying on this season after losing 20-time All-American Ashley Postell and two other seniors to graduation, as well as the loss of junior Stephanie Neff to medical retirement.
"We miss them. They'll never be able to be replaced. But I think we'll be just fine," said Kim. "I think season and postseason will be just fine because we know we have to lift our own weights, and we can't do it without each other."
Tonight is the sixth time in the last seven years the two national powers, UCLA and Utah, have opened the season against each other, 2008 being the only exception. Utah, Georgia, UCLA and Alabama are the only teams to have ever won NCAA championships.
Last year, the Utes beat two-time defending NCAA champion Georgia in the season opener in the Huntsman, 196.30-196.20, and the Gym Dogs went on to win their third straight national title.
The Utes have finished No. 2 to Georgia for three straight years but carry hope thanks in part to the football team of doing better this season, even without Postell's tremendous scores.
"I love how they proved everybody wrong," Kim said of the footballers and of trying to follow in their footsteps. "I was just like, 'You know what? New year our year.'"
Baskett and Marsden see big improvement from a number of Utes, such as Kim, Jamie Deetscreek and Daria Bijak, with sophomores Gael Mackie and Jacquelyn Johnson finally healthy and expected to make big contributions.
Junior Annie DiLuzio is coming back from offseason ankle surgery but will be tough, Marsden said. Junior Beth Rizzo is now on scholarship and will want to show herself worthy, and freshmen Cortni Beers and Stephanie McAllister complete Utah's lineup through the first few meets. Beers should help immediately on bars and beam, and Marsden said he's comfortable using McAllister whenever he needs to, through he'd like to bring her along slowly.
Baskett bronze medalist in the 2008 NCAA all-around and silver medalist in the 2008 NCAA vault, as well as 2006 NCAA champion on bars has been ready for her senior season ever since finishing up the national championships last spring.
"I love performing. This is my favorite part of the year," she said.
While many seniors feel pressure and doubt, Baskett said, "Of course our bodies ache and feel old, but I feel really confident; I feel really at peace with where I am right now. I'm not all stressed out about things."
She said maturity allows her to know that she will get to where she wants to be by season's end.
"It's kind of nice to not be like a big stressball."
It's also nice that Utah's team is very close-knit.
"We all get along, we're all friends," said Bijak, who will start fairly slowly because she's had no rest for more than a year due to being an all-arounder in the 2008 Olympics for Germany. She said she has no mental burnout from the long haul, but Marsden is cautious about physical fatigue.
Utah has only 10 competitors due to Neff's retirement and a recent shoulder injury (torn labrum) to sophomore Kyndal Robarts. Marsden was feeling more positive by Thursday that Robarts may be back in at vault before too long and said she might even start some preliminary vault work in the next few days.
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UCLA has again been hit with a blow. It has had many injury problems over the last few years, and on Monday coach Valorie Kondos Field announced that senior Kristina Comforte, a five-time All-American, has retired due to a torn labrum and will be an assistant coach.
Marsden said UCLA, with seven freshmen, has perhaps the best recruiting class in the country this season, which could make the Bruins the country's most-improved team.
"I feel good about our readiness, but it certainly will be a challenge," Marsden said about tonight.