Balance beam is usually the deciding factor in a women's gymnastics championship and, after a bye, that's where the University of Utah starts Friday night as the Utes try to recapture the national title that eluded them in 1987 and '88 after six straight years of victory.
The Utes come into the NCAA Championships at the University of Georgia Friday as the No. 3 seed in the 12-team field, meaning they start with a bye and compete first on beam - the killer event."It could be a real positive for us. If we do a good job, we'll put the pressure on the other teams," said Coach Greg Marsden, who arrived with his Utes in Athens late Wednesday afternoon.
On the same flight were Utah State Coach Ray Corn and his star pupil, Tana Call-Davis, who is the No. 4-ranked unattached all-arounder in the meet. She will compete Friday with the fourth-seeded University of Nebraska.
Brigham Young's Korie Jackman is the No. 5-seeded unattached all-arounder, and she will compete in rotation with the hometown University of Georgia.
"Having a bye helps," said Utah sophomore Patti Massoels, who tied for the regional all-around championship with her best score ever, 38.75, two weeks ago. "You can get into the arena and get used to every thing that's going on and the crowd and get ourselves calmed down, and I think if we do well there, it will help us get through the rest of the meet."
If the Utes don't do well, said Massoels, "Then we still have three events. It's not like we're coming to beam as the last event and a pressure situation and we need so many points to stay in.
"I think it's a good event for us to start on," Massoels said.
Utah has placed in the top two at nationals for the last nine years, but Marsden said he can't read the current team's mood as the big day approaches.
"It's a very unemotional group of kids," he said. "Very businesslike. They just come in and do what they need to do and don't complain about anything. It's a real fun group to deal with and may be the easiest.
"No matter what happens here, in a lot of ways this is the best year I've had coaching. They all want the same thing and all want to work for it."
Said senior Hilarie Portell, "This team by far is the strongest since I've been here." She adds, "Other teams are equally as strong. The whole face of the sport has really changed in college."
"Talent-wise," said freshman Missy Marlowe, "we're there; we're up with anyone we go against - and give the other teams the same credit."
Utah has shattered all of its old team records, but, with the scoring system in a state of escalation, so have most other teams. UCLA set the national scoring record at 195.20 in winning the Pac-10 Championships after Alabama set a national record of 194.30 against Utah Feb. 18. That was about two points over the previous national best.
Utah's top score is 192.8, accomplished in the Midwest Regional, which contributed five teams to the 12-team field here with Utah State missing qualification by .001 point.
At 15-2, Utah has bettered 190 nine times this season.
Massoels and Marlowe have tied for the second-best all-around score in Utah history, 38.75.
Massoels will go all-around Friday, along with junior Kris Takahashi, sophomore Jessica Smith and freshman Shelly Schaerrer.
Because of shin splints, Marlowe, the 1988 U.S. Olympian, has been unable to train properly in tumbling and vaulting, and she will perform in only two events - bars and beam.