It's been about 22 months since the University of Utah gymnastics team competed at Nebraska, as it will again this afternoon at 1. The nation's No. 1-ranked team will visit the No. 6 Cornhuskers, who are holding just their second home meet of the season.
The last time Utah was at Nebraska, in April 2003 for the NCAA championships, was a disastrous time for the Utes, who saw Theresa Kulikowski's career come to an end in a heap below the uneven bars in a first-event fall so stunning it took the whole team out of contention.
Utah placed sixth at Nebraska, most of its athletes highly affected by Kulikowski's injury, a subluxed shoulder that would require surgery. It seemed a very unfair end to a brilliant career as "Kulio" attempted one more comeback from injuries that had kept her out much of her senior season.
Now, however, that day nearly two years ago seems very much a thing of the past. Coach Greg Marsden didn't even recall that that was the last time the Utes were at Nebraska. And current senior Annabeth Eberle, though she was saddened her teammate was hurt, recalls that 2003 nationals as a good time for her.
"I'm looking forward to (today) because I did well there," Eberle said. The Kulikowski injury was devastating, but Eberle was able to focus and total 39.275 in all-around on that Super Six night, following a 39.475 on team preliminaries night that tied her for fourth in the NCAA all-around as a sophomore.
Marsden is eager to see how his club that has ranked No. 1 in five of the six weeks of the poll so far performs today, and again Friday, when it goes to Georgia, one of the country's most difficult places to perform due to a raucous crowd.
"The next two weeks will be a better reflection of what kind of a team we are," he said, looking back on a schedule that has seen Utah beat UCLA, ranked No. 1 at the time, and Michigan, now ranked No. 2, at home and Utah State, Oregon State and Minnesota on the road.
"We've had a lot of success so far, but we really haven't been tested on the road yet," Marsden said. "We won pretty easily and haven't had to be at our best. The next two meets, we will have to be at or near our best to come away with victory which is good."Comment on this story
Today's environment sees the Utes meeting a strong team that draws few fans, in sharp contrast to the 10,000-plus that attend Huntsman Center meets. At Georgia, the fans fill the place and can be hostile. "It's something you have to experience and learn from. That's why you schedule these meets," Marsden said.
Today, Marsden hopes to convince his Utes that the other team is the challenge, not performing for a crowd. Nebraska, now 2-4, boasts 2003 NCAA all-around champion Richelle Simpson and has a high of 196.80.Utah, 6-0 with a high of 197.675, seems to be getting healthier. Nicolle Ford's banged-up heel didn't seem to hinder her this week in practice. Kristen Riffanacht's reinjured hamstring wasn't as bad as originally thought. Gabi Onodi's sore ankle is improving as is Natalie Nicoloff's elbow, though Nicoloff may rest another meet.