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Utah Utes gymnastics: Red Rocks looking to dethrone Georgia

By Linda Hamilton

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 16 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan is congratuated by Utah coach Greg Marsden after a meet in the Huntsman Center back in 2006.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Utah coach Greg Marsden has spent much of this week apparently commiserating with Georgia and its flamboyant-dressing and outspoken coach, Suzanne Yoculan, who is retiring after this weekend's 2009 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at the University of Nebraska.

Marsden has "been in Suzanne's dress, shoes, I've been in her stilettos," he stammered at Wednesday's press conference.

Georgia is four-time defending NCAA champion and, with its next title, it will break Utah's record of nine NCAA titles. (Utah has 10 national championships, including one in the AIAW before the NCAA took over.)

As the Gym Dogs go for those lofty marks and absorb Yoculan's retirement after 26 very successful seasons in Athens, Marsden said he's been there, done that, and knows the feeling.

Of course, he's not retiring yet, but Utah won six straight titles, a streak ended by Yoculan's first championship in 1987, and it has the 10 national titles. The Utes have been second the last three years.

From personal experience, Marsden said, the pressure's all on Georgia today when the team preliminaries begin.

Top-seeded Georgia will compete in the noon MDT session at Bob Devaney Center with fourth-seeded LSU, No. 5 Florida, No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 9 Stanford and No. 12 Penn State for the three slots that advance to Friday night's Super Six national championships.

Second-seeded Utah is in tonight's session that begins at 6 MDT. Vying with the Utes for the other three slots in the Super Six are No. 3 seed Alabama, No. 5 Oregon State, No. 7 UCLA, No. 10 Arkansas and No. 11 Illinois.

The individual all-around championship — with Ute seniors Kristina Baskett (No. 2-ranked) and Nina Kim (sixth-ranked) among the top contenders led by No. 1 Courtney Kupets of Georgia, a two-time winner so far — will be decided through today's competitions.

"Although it's been a while," said Marsden in Wednesday's press conference — Utah hasn't won a title since 1995 — "I've been in Suzanne's, uh, dress, or shoes, before. I've been in her stilettos before, and it's tough.

"Five in a row, 10 championships, the seniors on the team have never not won a championship.

"As good as all those things are, the other side of the two-edged sword is the pressure builds on you," Marsden said, trying to plant seeds of doubt for his biggest adversary. "You feel like all you can do is meet expectations.

"The position the rest of us are in is much more fun. We've got everything to gain and nothing to lose."

Of course, Yoculan would have none of it.

"First of all, I'm not sure what he means by that," she said. "He likes to, like, play me, you know?"

The two most successful coaches in NCAA women's gymnastics have had many such discussions, many of them in fun but a few of them pretty pointed, too.

"I feel like pressure's on everybody else who's never been No. 1," Yoculan said. "They have something to prove.

"Logic and emotion gives you success, and certainly there's some emotion that goes with defending a title four years in a row, but you have to just keep that under control. We've been able to do that other years, so there's no reason to think we can do that we can't do it this year.

"I don't feel like Georgia has one thing that they have to prove to anyone."

Gym Dog senior Tiffany Tolnay said the team has approached the whole season as fun and plans to keep it that way this week.

"The senior class has adopted Suzanne as our fifth senior this year," she said. "We're really excited for her. The girls are really excited just to hopefully put her out on top."

In a sport that requires as much concentration as any out there, that kind of control that Yoculan alluded to is one of the biggest assets, and it's something the Utes think they have, too. Their pressure comes from wanting to break their own silver streak — three straight seconds.

"We kind of deserve the pressure because we worked really hard, and I think we should look at it in a positive way," said Kim, who expects to perform at 100 percent or nearly so after spending nearly two weeks ill with influenza. The rest of the team is relatively healthy, though Marsden said a few seemed to be coming down with colds. That's not as bad as the flu, he said.

"We're ready. We feel good about it," said Baskett, who said, "This is probably the best I've felt in my gymnastics career. My mind is healthy, I'm healthy physically and I'm the strongest I've been in my gymnastics career."

The talk at the press conferences mainly centered on the nation's top two teams, but Yoculan said, "There are four to six other teams that can win this competition. It's not a Georgia-Utah meet at all."

And Marsden agreed that almost any of the 12 coaches who sat at the dais Wednesday have a chance.

Utah, Georgia, Alabama and UCLA are the only teams to have ever won an NCAA women's gymnastics title.

"There's a lot of teams that could definitely challenge for that position," said Stanford coach Kristen Smyth, whose team nearly nosed Utah out of second place last year, finishing third. "And eventually it will happen. Whether it's sooner or later, I do not know. There are a lot of good teams out there."

"There's nothing better than seeing new teams come in," said. She noted that nobody can take team preliminaries for granted any more. It takes maximum effort just to reach the Super Six.

Marsden sees 'Bama, UCLA, LSU and Stanford as among the more dangerous teams and doesn't count out Florida, which is also strengthening after a year of injury.

"Until we actually get it done," Marsden said, "they're (Georgia) the champions, and everybody else is trying to knock them off."

E-Mail: lham@desnews.com

2009 NCAA Women'sGymnastics Championships

Where: Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln, Neb.

When: Today-Saturday

Teams competing: Utah, UCLA, Illinois, Oregon State, Arkansas, Alabama, Stanford, Penn State, Oklahoma, LSU, Georgia, Florida

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