Utah's gymnastics program hasn't known many setbacks in the past 12 years or so. Friday night (5:30 MST), the Utes return to the site of perhaps their biggest disappointment in that period: The University of Georgia.

That's where Utah crashed less than two years ago, finishing fifth in the NCAA championships after dominating the sport for a decade. It was Utah's worst finish at nationals since 1978.Three current Utes (Jessica Smith, Shelly Schaerrer, Missy Marlowe) well remember that awful meet. Last year's team used it as a rallying point to return to the NCAA championship in '90, so current sophomores Amy Keller, Tracy Richard and Kristen Kenoyer are familiar with the legnd as well.

But Coach Greg Marsden says there hasn't been much discussion about this first return trip to the site of the disaster.

"Those things only become something if you build them up to be more than they are," he says.

"At championships, we had a bad night," Marsden says of 1989, "but we've competed other places where we had a bad night." His first example was at Alabama, where Utah lost 194.3-192.55 in 1989; in 1990, the Utes came very close to beating the Tide on its home floor, falling 192.3-192.15. That was the U.'s only loss all season. This year, the NCAA finals are at Alabama.

And Georgia, in Marsden's estimation, is the team Utah will have to beat at Alabama. Utah is ranked first and Georgia second, and they've posted the country's highest scores - Utah's 194.55 Monday and 193.35 on Jan. 14 and Georgia's 192.35 in its opener Jan. 13 against UCLA. Florida has the next-best score nationally, 191.5.

"They're undoubtedly the strongest team in the country, top to bottom," he says of the Bulldogs, who graduated NCAA all-around champ Corinne Wright but picked up 1988 Olympian Hope Spivey, a freshman who's won the all-around in Georgia's first two meets.

Georgia was strong but young last year when it finished third in the NCAAs. "They seem to be handling things better this year," says Marsden, pointing to experience. Heather Stepp and Jennifer Carbone are top performers. Carbone missed last weekend's meet with an elbow sprain, but Coach Suzanne Yoculan reports Carbone's doing pushups and other training and is expected to compete Friday.

Utah will have Kenoyer back in the all-around. Marsden rested her (ankle tendinitis) in two events in Monday's meet, mainly because Georgia's floor is hard, laid over concrete, and he wants her to start out feeling good.