The University of Utah's gymnastics team may not be well liked by other teams because of its 11 years of unequaled success, but the Utes are the NCAA's trendsetters. "Originality-wise, everyone follows us," says Ute Coach Greg Marsden.
Alabama won an NCAA championship in 1988 by building its program with a step-by-step formula borrowed from the U.The Tide is the top-seeded team in the field for the 1991 NCAA Championships Friday night at its home arena, Coleman Coliseum. Utah, trying to defend its 1990 championship and win the national title for the eighth time in 11 years, is seeded second but was ranked No. 1 all season because of regional scores.
When Utah began adding the reverse-direction punch-front move to finish off tumbling passes in floor exercise two years ago, everyone followed the next year. Last year, the Utes wore day-glo pink uniforms; this year nearly everyone has unique packaging.
Last year Utah's floor exercises got more original when Shelly Schaerrer, Missy Marlowe, Kristen Kenoyer and Tracy Richard threw in 11/4 somersaults, the kind where gymnasts land prone, and a slight miscalculation results in a mashed nose. This year, everybody's doing them.
Marsden doesn't know if his team's variety will be rewarded by the judges this weekend. "That's the only thing about originality. It can work for you or against you," he says.
"Georgia and Alabama do traditional difficulty, and the judges are familiar with that and know how to score it," Marsden says. "Sometimes I feel they don't know what to do with ours, although they always say that's what they want," Marsden says.
In 1990, when the Utes broke a three-year title drought, the originality helped. All four who did the 11/4s made floor-exercise finals, more than any other team.
This year, Schaerrer has added a 11/2 twist to the 11/4 somersault, the only woman in the world to do it, Marsden says. And Marlowe added a Varonin release to her bars set; she's the only woman in the world to do that.
Will judges notice? "Missy makes it look easy, but it's hard," Marsden says. "She worked on it for a year."
Utah also does palms-up front giant swings on bars, and Marsden has seen only two or three other collegians in the country do that. Kenoyer does her giants with a straight body; others do them straddled or bent-legged.
"If everyone does the same thing," says Ute freshman Jenny Donaldson, "you end up being penalized and compared to others on your team."
Other perceived Utah advantages? - The seed, No. 2. Puts the pressure on Alabama, says senior Jessica Smith, who hopes to be able to block out that it's her last meet, one she'll probably remember a long time. Gymnasts don't go to the floor thinking, "I'm ranked No. 2," says Smith, calling it insignificant.
"If anything, it's created a challenge for the kids," says Marsden. "It's easier to move toward something than defend it. To be honest, I like this scenario."
- Team togetherness is the best that Smith and Marlowe can recall. "No one relies on anyone else," says Marlowe. "Everyone takes charge and makes things come together."
"No one's off in left field," adds Smith. "In previous years, inside grievances caused tension. I don't feel at all that way with this team."
- The experience of 1989. Utah,overtrained and overconfident, went to Georgia and placed fifth, its lowest since 1978. "It was a great learning experience for me," says Smith.
"We learned the hard way not to assume anything," says Marlowe, a freshman then.
"I can only imagine what it felt like," says Donaldson, a freshman now, "to let it get away near the end. I don't think that will happen this year."
- Utah is used to large, hostile crowds and away meets. The Utes haven't had a home meet since March 9. They shattered their home attendance records but set attendance records everywhere else they went, too. "Our best competition was at University of Georgia this year," says Marsden. "I haven't seen it make a difference to this group if they're home or on the road."
- Consistency. Their last five scores were 194.65 at home, and 195.25, 194.4 and 194.625 on the road.
Other members of the defending-champion team are sophomore Amy Keller, a vault specialist who holds a share of the team record of 9.9, and redshirt freshman Meredith King, who can vault to 9.8 and be their opener on beam. Freshman Missy Wells made the trip but cannot compete after an arthroscopic appendectomy two weeks ago.
Utah, 13-1, holds the NCAA record score of 195.6, set Feb. 2, and Marlowe is owner of two NCAA marks, 10.0 on bars (the only collegiate woman to ever score a 10.0 twice or to ever get one in a road meet) and 39.5 in the all-around. She's been 39.2 or above seven times this season, including 39.425 in her last meet to win the NCAA Midwest Regional. Kenoyer and Schaerrer have scored 39 or better five times each.
To win again, Utah needs to be sharp, maybe have its best meet, but, "We do not have to be spectacularly different than what we've done all year," Smith says.
"I'll tell them," says Marsden, "that everyone here is nervous, and it really is who deals with that will win."