Dakota Marsden, the 12-year-old football-loving son of Utah gymnastics coaches Megan and Greg Marsden, was in the stands at last Saturday's Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. The people behind him mentioned the gym team, thinking that was the next high-profile Ute team to start up, one person saying gymnastics would begin soon.

"So he turned around and said, 'Yeah, they have a meet Friday.' He was pretty impressed that he was there at the bowl, and somebody was talking about gymnastics," Greg Marsden said.

Marsden's gym team may not gain the national prominence the unbeaten, BCS-busting football team did, but it could easily match some of the greats in Utah's long tradition of excellence in the sport.

Coming off back-to-back sixth-place NCAA championship finishes, the Utes are planning for far better in 2005.

They have an outstanding class of three internationally experienced freshmen, led by 2002 world balance beam champion Ashley Postell; a strong sophomore class; veteran leadership from co-captains Annabeth Eberle and Kristen Riffanacht; and a real surprise in junior Gabriella Onodi. The third-year team member from Hungary apparently took to heart Marsden's suggestion at the end of last season to be more of a contributor.

"I just didn't feel like she was doing what she portrayed to me she was capable of when we recruited her," Marsden said. "She's come back and just been on fire in the preseason. Last year, she couldn't even vault for us. This year, she's doing a Yurchenko layout full and probably will be vaulting for us on Friday night."

Adds Eberle: "She's more aggressive now. She's really fighting for a spot in the lineup."

Utah, ranked fifth in the preseason poll, hosts top-ranked, two-time defending NCAA champion UCLA in the Huntsman Center on Friday at 7 p.m.

Onodi could go from being a beam specialist last season to doing two or three events Friday for a team that appears stronger than the 2004 club.

"The most pleasant surprise that I've had this season has been Gabriella," Marsden said.

"Nicky (sophomore Nicolle Ford, a three-event all-American) looks great. (Kristen Riffanacht) looks great. Everybody's come back very upbeat and positive," Marsden reports. "(sophomore) Rachel (Tidd) looks phenomenal."

Tidd, however, is a victim of pre-Christmas academic finals — she sat in the same position studying for so long she developed back spasms that still limit her, though no structural damage has been detected. Tidd missed the NCAAs last spring with mononucleosis. She's holding back on training, trying to strengthen the back. "That's going to hurt us in the early part of the season because she was looking much better this year," Marsden said.

Eberle, a four-time all-American who should challenge nationally in the all-around, made a strong recovery from off-season ankle surgery and is "in mid-season form," Marsden said.

"I don't know how to explain it. I just feel comfortable everywhere," Eberle said. "I'm starting the season where I ended last season."

She's trying to help Utah's high-powered trio of freshmen cope with the team concept for the first time in their lives. In international gymnastics, competitors are concerned mainly with themselves and not how their performances affect the team.

"We've already had discussions about this. I can relate to them because that's exactly my situation when I came in as a freshman. It was just all about me," Eberle said, adding the youngsters have learned pretty well that they might be asked at times to water down and not risk falling for the good of the team .

"I like this role, the leadership role. And I like to help people," Eberle said. "The freshmen have really good questions.

"Wow. They are a great addition," Eberle says, noting they bring "uniqueness. Different skills. Very strong personalities."

Postell likely would have been an Olympian last summer, had she not battled illness and a shoulder injury that kept her from qualifying. She's a two-time world championship competitor and 2003 U.S. floor champion.

Fellow freshmen Katie Kivisto, from the same Florida club that produced two-time Ute MVP Suzanne Metz, and Jessica Duke, of Sandy, are both former international elites. "All three are capable of contributing immediately," Marsden said.

Duke is hindered by bone spurs, similar to what Eberle had last year. Marsden hopes to ease her through the season like Eberle in 2004, but she will need postseason surgery. "Unfortunately, it made itself known at an awkward time to be ready for this first meet. We've got to get her off it a little bit," he said.

Eberle also has an injury, 15 stitches in a shin From a Christmas vacation accident that she covers so well Marsden didn't even know about it for a couple days in the gym. "She's never skipped a beat, missed a workout or used it to get out of anything," he said.

U. gymnastics roster


Name Ht. Class Hometown

D'Oliveira, Dominique 5-5 Jr. Johannesburg, So. Africa

Duke, Jessica 5-4 Fr. Sandy

Eberle, Annabeth 5-5 Sr. Reno, Nev.

Ford, Nicolle 5-2 So. Binghamton, N.Y.

Hofmann, Gritt 5-1 Sr. Berlin, Germany

Kivisto, Katie 5-0 Fr. Boca Raton, Fla.

Lim, Stephanie 5-0 So. The Woodlands, Texas

Nicoloff, Natalie 5-1 Jr. Hermitage, Pa.

Onodi, Gabriella 5-1 Jr. Budapest, Hungary

Postell, Ashley 5-2 Fr. Burke, Va.

Riffanacht, Kristen 5-3 Jr. Cheshire, Conn.

Tidd, Rachel 5-2 So. Fallbrook, Calif.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com