SALT LAKE CITY — For Utah's No. 2-ranked gymnastics team, which opens its 2010 season this evening at 5 p.m. MST at fifth-ranked UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, it's a question of who?
Who will step out of their comfort zones and into the roles vacated by graduating seniors Nina Kim and Kristina Baskett?
Those two not only provided the Utes with many of their top scores the last several seasons, but also put together one of the team's strongest, most vocal leadership tandems in many years.
"The last two years we've had Ashley (Postell) and then Kris and Nina. They've been such dominant individual performers I think the rest of the team has kind of learned to depend on them at the end of the lineup," said Greg Marsden, entering his 35th season as the Utes' coach, now with his wife, Megan, holding the title of co-coach.
"So our biggest challenge this year is who is our go-to person at the end of each lineup and getting them there and getting them comfortable with that role."
The suspected candidates, he said, are seniors (Daria Bijak, Jamie Deetscreek, Annie DiLuzio, Beth Rizzo) and juniors (Kyndal Robarts, Gael Mackie, Jaq Johnson), "but they've never been in that position before."
It's just part of what Greg Marsden calls the "circle of life" that is collegiate sports, where the inevitable moving on of star athletes means opportunity for others.
"I know they're looking forward to it, they've worked hard to do it, and we've just got to get out on the floor now and see where we are right now and see what we need to do to go forward," he said.
For tonight, the Utes have penciled in Bijak to complete the bars lineup, Robarts sixth on vault and beam and DiLuzio on floor.
Bijak comes the closest to the star appeal of Postell, Baskett and Kim. She competed in the 2008 Olympics and 2005 and 2003 World Championships for her native Germany and was eighth in the world all-around in '05.
But those are more individual competitions. It's a different responsibility to anchor a team every week. And Bijak does not like to compete late in the lineups on vault and floor because she cools down. Megan Marsden said Bijak is more agreeable now but still doesn't want to go any later than third on vault. Tonight she'll be first.
Bijak is happy with her surroundings.
"I think I feel comfortable with my gymnastics, and I'm ready to have fun.," she said. "I'm at that stage where I want to be here right now and enjoy being a senior."
Deetscreek owns the school record of 64 consecutive routines without a fall and finished off last season with one of her strongest performances, a 39.475 all-around in the Super Six of the 2009 NCAA championships.
"She's got to be big for us and help fill those (Baskett, Kim) roles," Greg Marsden said.
"I think I'm where I want to be right now," Deetscreek said. "I have some room for improvement, but with the first meet of the year, I don't want to come out like the best I could be."
Utah — with a lot of preseason difficulties, from stress fractures to swine flu to kidney infections to an NCAA clearinghouse refusal to accept a recruit from Australia — will perform what Deetscreek calls its most basic routines tonight.
"We're just trying to hit and see where we need to make improvements and be consistent and see who's going to be in the lineup, who should be in the lineup," she said.
Deetscreek, however, sees good depth.
"I think it's just going to force us to push the whole year and make us better. That's going to light a fire in everybody," she said.
DiLuzio has new floor choreography for 2010. She remains limited in training by old leg woes but hopes to have a bar routine good enough to eventually get her into the all-around lineup.
Robarts is also training bars again after shoulder problems last year kept her off, and later in the season, she'll add an E dismount. She is one of the team's more vocal leaders, said Megan Marsden.
Mrs. Marsden is working with Mackie on her presentation.
"I think she's one that will really shine. I think she'll take it the next step in her performance," she said.
Johnson has a changed outlook, doing gymnastics for herself rather than for coaches, parents or others, said Megan Marsden. "She seems to have taken things into her own hands."
Sophomore Stephanie McAllister's preseason included a concussion, sprained ankle and two serious kidney infections that are still a concern.
Greg Marsden said that affects her most on floor, which requires endurance.
Greg Marsden said the freshmen class must contribute if the team is to prosper, but it's taken quite a hit.7 comments on this story
Not only was Australian 2007 World Championships team member Chloe Sims denied by the NCAA clearinghouse because of some credits, but top recruit Katelyn Mohr, a former elite, was found to have two old stress fractures in her back that require modification of skills and training.
Also, Fumi Kobayashi came in with a hyperextended knee. Megan Whitney from Arizona is healthy and should contribute on floor and vault as Utah tries to keep up its reputation while filling huge holes.
"I do think we can contend if everybody's on board," said Greg Marsden, noting the No. 2 national ranking is a little high. "I don't think this is going to be the team that's got the big star that carries the thing, or one or two people. It's going to have to be everybody doing their part."