Huge challenge is also huge opportunity for Ute gymnasts
Starting the season with No. 2 ranked UCLA gymnastics team on their home floor has to be akin to starting a swim lesson by jumping head-first into the deep end of the pool.
It's bold. It's brave. And it is either insane or ingenious.
"I don't do our scheduling," joked co-head coach Megan Marsden. "Greg (Marsden) does. In some ways, it's not all bad. Our girls have been working really hard to get ready for a top opponent, and we like that."
The fifth-ranked Utah gymnastics team returns five All-Americans, including team captain Corrie Lothrop.
"It's a challenge, but we like challenges," said Lothrop, a junior. "And we try to make sure we rise to the occasion. We try to make sure we've been training realy hard this whole preseason so whatever happens (Saturday), we have a starting place for the rest of the season."
Regardless of who the opponent is, the Utes will be battling more than the other gymnasts.
"You're always nervous for the first meet," said Lothrop, who is the defending Pac-12 all-around champion.
Sophomore All-American Georgia Dabritz admitted that returning to Pauley Pavillion for the season-opener is both intimidating and exhilarating.
"Of course you'll have nerves going against a great team like UCLA," she said. "I'm excited. Everyone's been working really hard."
UCLA started its season last week with a win over Southern Utah. The Bruins return six All-Americans this year and edged Utah by five-hundredths of a point last season to win the Pac-12 championship held in Salt Lake City.
Owners of six national titles and one of the best coaches in the business, Valorie Kondos Field, it doesn't get much tougher than trying to best the Bruins on their home turf.
Marsden said they're hoping to use the tough start to their advantage.
"I also feel like with this young team, we're going to go up against some of the best competition of the year," said Marsden. "They're going to have to do it on the road. So they're kind of hitting it all at once, right out of the chute, and if we can manage to be decent and handle that relatively well, they will have dealt with some of the worst of it. It could get potentially easier after that."
With most of the team's gymnasts healthy or returning to competition in the near future, the Utes have depth and talent. The only thing they don't have is any seniors, as the team is led by co-captains Lothrop and Hailee Hansen, a Bountiful native.
"They do seem excited," said Marsden. "They do seem competitive — jockeying for some spots in the line-up."
The anticipation has many of the gymnasts eager to compete — against anyone, anywhere.
"We have a long preseason," said Marsden. "We put in a longer preseason than most college teams. We put in a lot of work on the front side of actually beginning to get some feedback and some strokes and some love. I think they're really anxious for a meet where somebody else is assessing things — judges, fans — instead of coaches telling them to fix this or fix that."
The meet begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. MST) and will be aired on the Pac-12 networks. There will also be live commentary on UtahUtes.com. The team's first home meet is the following Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Huntsman Center.
Utah leads the series with UCLA 43-21-1 but has lost five straight since beating the Bruins in the 2011 season opener.
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