LINCOLN, Neb. — For an entire year — starting after finishing second for the third straight time to Georgia at the 2008 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at Georgia — Utah's team had dared to dream of something better.
It did everything it could think of, from a full summer of voluntary offseason training with the football team to most of the team seeing well-known Ute sports psychologist Dr. Keith Henschen regularly to everybody hanging around together out of the gym to the leaders thinking up all kinds of motivational ideas and ways to bind the team even closer.
Through the whole season, it worked and they made few mistakes. Utah could hardly have done another thing to be ready for this weekend's 2009 championships.
But on this weekend, second-ranked Utah was not up to the task of beating Georgia and its retiring coach Suzanne Yoculan, and on the final rotation Friday night of the 2009 NCAA Championships at Nebraska, the Utes slipped behind surging Alabama to finish third.
Top-ranked, top-seeded Georgia won its fifth straight NCAA championship and 10th overall, tying Utah's record of 10 national titles (one under the AIAW), to send Yoculan and remarkable seniors Courtney Kupets and Tiffany Tolnay out of the program on the highest of highs.
The Gym Dogs totaled 197.825, finishing with 49.625 on vault and then sitting on a bye in the final rotation, knowing Utah and Alabama would have to total much higher than the Georgia vault score on their last events to be able to catch them.
'Bama scored 49.50 on floor to overtake Utah (which had scored 49.275 on bars) and take second, 197.575-197.425.
"Yes, I am going to miss her," Marsden said of Yoculan, his top adversary for most of the last 26 years. He said she pushed Utah to greater things in an effort to compete with Georgia. "We've gone through a lot, but it was fun."
After putting so much extra time and extra emotion into their quest for first that was not met, the Utes, while sad, had no regrets.
Not even about writing "2009 National Champions" on their T-shirts at Christmas-time or putting gold, symbolizing first place, on their leotards and fingernails for the two postseason meets.
"It was our goal," said senior Nina Kim, choking back tears. "It's what we believed in.
"I'm only crying," she said, "because I'm done. It's very bittersweet." But she has another year of school and said she will be around to help the team next season.
"There's just a lot of emotion just going through, just because it's mainly the whole process of getting here. My emotion Richter is off the charts," said the other senior, Kristina Baskett, whose career isn't over until she does three individual event finals tonight.
Baskett scored 39.625 in Friday night's all-around, topped off with a 9.95 vault on Utah's third event, to do all in her power to push Utah toward its goal. In Thursday's preliminaries, she'd finished second in the 2009 NCAA all-around at 39.60 to Kupets' 39.80.
"It's definitely a good feeling knowing I did what I could for my team," Baskett said. "I hit almost every single landing, and that's exactly what I wanted to. I'm really glad that I was able to pull my part on the team. That was probably one of my biggest worries coming in here."
Marsden, who had encouraged his team since last summer to verbalize its goals, write them down so they'd make sure to follow through, was also at peace with Friday night's outcome.
"I just know we did a good job tonight, and I'll live with what I say, 'Be proud of the outcome' " if the team does what it's capable of.
"Last night, I didn't even think we would be here tonight."
Utah barely slid into the Super Six by tying with UCLA for third place in the evening preliminary session Thursday and then winning a tiebreaker — the addition of each team's scores by the sixth and usually non-counting gymnast. Utah thought for quite a while that it would lose the tiebreaker due to two falls and several wobbles on beam, its final event.
Before the Super Six meet, Marsden said, "We just talked about the second chance we probably didn't deserve, and that (Thursday) wasn't who we are. We wanted to come in tonight and take advantage of the opportunity we were given."
Though that resulted in third place, "I can't be unhappy with the outcome," he said.
Part of Utah's feeling of some accomplishment came from the way it stormed back from a slow start to move into second until the final rotation.
Beam was Utah's first event Friday, and while it did much better than it had Thursday, it still had a fall. This time the mistakes didn't multiply. Still, Utah totaled just 49.175, the fourth-place score after everyone had completed one event.
After their first bye, the Utes scooped up a 49.425 on floor to move from fifth to a tie with Georgia for second place, Annie DiLuzio leading with a 9.925 with Baskett and Daria Bijak each scoring 9.90s.
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A 49.525 on vault, second-best score of the season for the Utes, put them alone in second place, behind Georgia (148.20-148.15) and ahead of Alabama (148.075), but in its last event of the night, Georgia popped for a season-best 49.625 on vault to become untouchable.
The Utes pretty much hit bars, sticking their last five landings and looking clean, but their 49.275 total, with only Baskett scoring a 9.90, left them vulnerable as 'Bama rocked floor for 49.50.
Final team scores
1. Georgia 197.825
2. Alabama 197.575
3. Utah 197.425
4. Florida 196.725
5. Arkansas 196.475
6. LSU 196.375