It was supposed to be the most competitive NCAA Women's Gymnastics Midwest Regional in many years. Utah coach Greg Marsden had been genuinely apprehensive about it since his four freshmen would be counted on for so much, and this was their first big-time meet.
But by the time Utah was on the balance beam for its third event out of four Saturday night in the Huntsman Center, Marsden was relaxing in a chair eating a cup of yogurt."It was a long day," he said, noting a coaches' meeting at 9:30 in the morning and the meet still going at 9:30 p.m.
But he admitted that after two-time defending national champion Utah scored 49.25 on its most difficult event, bars, the second event for the Utes, he was feeling pretty good. Good enough to have a cup of yogurt. He wouldn't have done that if it had been a close one. "I was very confident then," he admitted, banking on the fact that Utah's the nation's best beam team and solid on floor.
However, Marsden, whose Utes scored a season-high 196.675 with Sandy Woolsey finally scoring 10 on bars, her specialty, Summer Reid and Alysa Frenz tying for the regional beam title and Megan Caudle and Traci Sommer tying for the floor title at 9.95s, was the only coach who could relax.
"We were good tonight, but we were also lucky," said Marsden, noting how freshman Sarah Northrop lost her grip on a giant swing on bars and should have fallen but instead flew into a dismount and stood it up for 9.7 when it should have been a disaster.
The rest of the meet was a scramble with all six other teams taking turns at worrying the others with a good event score. Denver, which finished seventh, spent the first two events looking like it could qualify for the NCAA Championships; then it ran into beam, which tripped up everyone except the Utes.
Arizona, which opened with a couple falls on beam (48.15) and started out in fifth place, rocketed into second (195.75) after a meet-high 49.425 on bars, its last event. Wildcat freshman Heidi Hornbeek, the Pac-10 champion a few weeks ago, scored 39.70 with a 10 on vault and 9.95 on floor to win the Midwest Region all-around, ahead of Nebraska's Shelly Bartlett (39.375) and Arizona State's Megan Wright (39.35).The team that was second going into the last event was BYU, which went to beam as the Utes were on floor. Not an easy situation. The Cougars had falls and wobbles and scored 48.075 to drop from second to a fourth-place finish (194.925) behind Nebraska (195.30).
By winning its 10th straight regional, Utah got the automatic qualification to the NCAA Championships April 25-27 at Alabama. The five regional winners will be joined at nationals by the teams with the next seven best scores in regionals. That will include Arizona, Nebraska and BYU from the Midwest.
The NCAA field will include (by regional score), Alabama (198.075, an NCAA record), Georgia (196.95), Utah (196.675), Michigan (196.275), Arizona (195.75), Florida (195.375), Nebraska (195.30), Oregon State (195.00), BYU 194.925) and probably Stanford (194.70) and Penn State (193.65, automatic qualifier as Northeast Regional winner). Some protests in the West Regional were still to be settled so the last few qualifiers were still unofficial at press time.
BYU, as the 10th seed to nationals, will perform in the afternoon session at Tuscaloosa with Georgia. Utah, as the third seed, will perform in the evening, head-to-head with host 'Bama.
Utah State wound up sixth (193.05) behind Arizona State (194.075) and ahead of DU (191.95). Those three have now completed their seasons.
Woolsey, who scored 10 on beam several weeks ago and who had 9.975s twice and 9.95s five times this season on bars, finally got that elusive 10. What did she do differently to get it? "Nothing," she said. "A couple weeks more practice, I guess."
Marsden said he does his seniors (Woolsey, Caudle, Frenz and Jen Mercier who had 9.825 on bars and 9.8 on beam in some rare appearances because of injuries) an injustice because he talks so much about how important the freshmen are (they do a third of the Utes' routines). "Every one of them did everything they could," he said.
But the freshmen did, too, in the longest meet of the year (because there are three byes with seven teams competing). Sarah Northrop nailed a pike vault to start the meet for the Utes with 9.8. Sister Molly scored a decent 9.725 on bars, Reid shared the floor championship and Leonard had several strong scores. "Angie - man is she coming on," Marsden said.
"The upperclassmen helped us get through it," said Leonard of the four-ring circus that is a postseason meet.
"We approached it as a regular meet is why we stayed so relaxed," said Caudle.
BYU coach Brad Cattermole said his athletes wouldn't claim crowd roar was a factor, but he thought it might have been on beam. Senior Liz Crandall, who performed well on beam as BYU's last up (9.8), said she knew she'd be up when Caudle, a Utah crowd favorite, was on floor. "I do better when there's noise, but tonight it was so incredible I was having trouble connecting one skill to the next," Crandall said. "At that point, I just put it on auto pilot."
Arizona coach Jim Gault said, "The character of our team showed tonight after our start on beam." He said the Wildcats remembered their preseason goals and stayed on track, though Hornbeek said she wasn't aware of how other teams were doing.