Tom Smart, Deseret News
LOS ANGELES — The Utah gymnastics team heads into this weekend’s NCAA National Championships with its lowest seed ever.
But the No. 10 seeded Utes don’t mind being underdogs. In fact, this year’s team prefers feeling like long shots.
“We’re definitely coming in as the underdogs because we have no expectations, nothing to lose,” said Skyline High graduate and junior Mary Beth Lofgren. “That’s how we went into the Florida meet, and it obviously worked. I think if we have fun, we’ll do well. We’re at our best when we’re having fun.”
The Utes outperformed No. 1 seeded Florida in their last home meet in a competition in which no gymnast scored lower than a 9.8. Before that meet, Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden said her husband and fellow coach Greg had the feeling of taking on Goliath.
“He kind of gave them permission to not worry about winning that meet,” said Megan Marsden. “The next thing you know, from what I could tell, the girls were flipping and twisting exactly like we watch them do everyday here in training. Which is what we’ve been working for with this group of girls.”
The ability to do in competition what they are doing in training sessions has been a challenge. It has caused frustration, but it has also provided motivation to a young but determined group. Their toughest battles come from their own minds.
“It’s hard for them when there is a lot of expectation,” said Marsden. “They try to be perfect, and that usually doesn’t work in their favor. Then they have little mistakes that we aren’t used to seeing.”
If the gymnasts can compete as if they have nothing to lose, instead of the only program able to boast that they’ve earned 38 straight NCAA championship appearances, they may surprise even themselves.
But even if the Utes have a Florida-like meet in which they exceeded their best team score of the season on every event except vault, it may not mean a national title. In fact, it may not even mean a berth into Saturday’s Super Six.
“We might hit all of our stuff and not move on,” said Marsden. ”This group we’re in is so talented.”
While the Utes are 0-3 against teams in its session, the program has an all-time winning record against every team in the championships — except Alabama.
This year’s team feels the weight of tradition, even as the Utes try to put their own stamp on the storied program.
“They didn’t earn it, but they carry that burden of trying to continue what the women before them have done,” Marsden said of the 38-straight championship appearances.
No one understands that tradition more than the local gymnasts who grew up dreaming of being part of the Red Rocks.
“It’s been fun to watch the streak build and build over the years,” said Lofgren. I think we all feel that pressure, but at the same time, it’s something we take pride in. You try to make the most out of it and have fun with it. You can doubt yourself, but that doesn’t help at all. We just go into every meet with the feeling that there is nothing to lose.”
Knowing that their best may not be enough doesn’t discourage the gymnasts. It motivates them. All of the coaches involved in this weekend’s championship acknowledged the parity and depth of talent across the country. A number of factors have contributed to increased talent and more parity in college gymnastics.
First, Marsden said the number of quality coaches has increased and they’re taking their talents to a lot of universities, not just staying at historically strong programs.
Second, more elite-level gymnasts are making the decision to compete in college rather than taking sponsorship money that would make them ineligible for NCAA athletics.
“More and more gymnasts are staying in and working toward college gymnastics,” she said. “It’s on TV more, you’re seeing it more, and gymnasts love what they see. They love the team aspect of college gymnastics. They don’t get that at all from the elite or Olympic level. In fact, they get the exact opposite of that. It’s me, me, me and always trying to climb the ladder and step on the girls that is going to get them to the Olympic team, to that chosen few.”
And finally, the rules for college gymnastics haven’t changed in many years. That means fans are very educated about the sport.
“There is more and more parity in college gymnastics, and people are doing more and more difficult skills,” Marsden said. “Because our rules have not changed in a number of years, it’s not that difficult to start at a 10.0 (level of difficulty), and when you’re able to do that, instead of the rich just getting richer, it makes it so everybody has a fair chance, everybody has a chance to win.”
And the gymnasts and coaches believe that this season especially, any of the 12 teams involved in Friday’s semifinals has the opportunity to earn a national title.
“I don’t think there is an easier session,” said Lofgren. “It’s such a level playing field. Whoever hits that night, it’s theirs.”
How to Follow the NCAA Gymnastics Championships Links to Live Video, Scoring LOS ANGELES—The semifinal rounds of the NCAA Gymnastics Championships on Friday, April 19 will be live streamed on NCAA.com (see direct link below). Utah's semifinal starts at 6 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. MDT). The Super Six on Saturday, April 20 and Individual Event Finals Sunday, April 21 will be broadcast online on ESPN3.com.
Commentary during Utah’s sessions will be provided on Twitter (https://twitter.com/utahathletics).
There will also be live scoring for the entire tournament. Links for Friday’s video streaming and live scoring for every day are below. The links will go live shortly before each session starts.
Live Online Video Friday, April 19 (Free on NCAA.com) First Semi: 12:00 p.m. PDT/1:00 p.m. MDT http://www.ncaa.com/championship/liveplayer/player?gameId=291184&date=2013/04/19 <http://www.ncaa.com/championship/liveplayer/player?gameId=291184&date=2013/04/19>
Second (Utah) Semi: 6 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. MDT http://www.ncaa.com/championship/liveplayer/player?gameId=291185&date=2013/04/19
Live Scoring Links Friday, April 19 – Semifinals First Semi: 12:00 p.m. PDT/1:00 p.m. MDT http://www.uclabruins.com/livestats/w-gym/20130419-1.htm
Second (Utah) Semi: 6 p.m. PDT/7 p.m. MDT http://www.uclabruins.com/livestats/w-gym/20130419-2.htm
Saturday, April 20 – Super Six Team Finals 4:00 p.m. PDT/5:00 p.m. MDT http://www.uclabruins.com/livestats/w-gym/20130420.htm
Sunday, April 21 – Individual Event Finals 1:00 p.m. PDT/2:00 p.m. MDT http://www.uclabruins.com/livestats/w-gym/20130421.htm
Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
First session (1 p.m. MDT): Illinois, Florida, Stanford, LSU, Minnesota, Georgia
Second session (7 p.m. MDT): Oklahoma, Alabama, UCLA, Michigan, Utah, Arkansas
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