DULUTH, Ga. — Longtime Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden has seen his sport progress from one where only a few teams have a chance to win a national championship to the point where many schools have legitimate aspirations of winning.
And although his Utes are one of the youngest teams in this week's NCAA Gymnastics Championships, he believes they still have a chance to reach the Super Six and emerge as the winner.
"There are probably five or six teams that can legitimately say they can win," said Marsden, who is taking Utah to its record 37th consecutive national championship meet. He listed Florida as the favorite, followed by UCLA and Alabama, then added how his team also has a chance.
"We're a young team and our one weakness has been with inconsistency," Marsden said. "If we're on and we hit on all four events, we can be a contender." One slip on the beam caused Utah to drop to second in the Pac-12 Championships, but the team rebounded two weeks later with a superbly consistent performance to win the NCAA Regional in Salt Lake City.
Winning it all won't be easy. Utah is the seventh seed among the 12 teams competing. Only once has a team seeded lower than fifth won the championship. The Utes were a No. 5 seed when they won it all in 1994.
Stephanie McAllister, one of three seniors on the team, has watched the squad overcome a few hurdles and believes the Utes have the ability to put it all together this weekend.
"We've had a good year, even though we've had a few rough patches," McAllister said following the Thursday morning practice session at the host Gwinnett Center. "If we can stay relaxed, I think we can surprise some people."
Utah, which spent three weeks as the nation's No. 1-ranked team, will compete in the first session against No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 6 Nebraska, No. 10 Stanford and No. 11 LSU. The second session features No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 9 Oregon State and No. 12 Ohio State. The top three teams advance to the Super Six on Saturday.
Utah will begin the competition on the floor. Freshman Becky Tutka will lead off the event, where she's twice scored a 9.90. Senior Kyndal Robarts finished first in floor at the regional. The vault group is led by McAllister, a first-team All-America, and Kailah Delaney, who was second at regionals. The bars group features Georgia Dabritz and Corrie Lothrop, who finished one-two there at the Pac-12 meet. The beam team is loaded: Robarts and Mary Beth Lofgren are both first-team All-Americans and Kassandra Lopez was second at the Pac-12 meet.
"I think we're in a good place," Marsden said. "We've learned a lot of things during the course of the season. It's a matter of whether we can keep them relaxed and comfortable."
McAllister, a three-time All-American, said the relaxation part comes easier when the gymnasts try to stay within themselves.
"You can't try too hard," she said. "You have to do like you do every day in practice. You can't focus on the outcome. You just have to do your best and do what you can do. The top 12 teams are all good and whoever brings their best is going to win."
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There will be a live video stream for Fridays semifinals at the 2012 NCAA Womens Gymnastics Championships. Utahs semi starts at 10 a.m. MT Friday. There will be no video stream Saturday or Sunday as those days are being broadcast on espn3.com. Below is the live video link for Fridays semis and the live scoring links for all three days.
Friday, April 20 12:00 ET/10 a.m. MT Semifinal (Utahs session): Live video and live scores
6:00 ET/4 p.m. MT Semifinal Live video
Saturday, April 21 4:00 ET/2 p.m. MT Super Six Team Finals Live scores
Sunday, April 22 1:00 p.m. ET/11 a.m. MT Individual Event Finals Live scores