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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Utah's Annabeth Eberle performs on the uneven bars Friday during a match against Florida, Stanford and California. Eberle scored a 9.825 on her routine.

Most of the Utah gymnasts had great workouts in practice this week. One exception, however, was Nicolle Ford, who suffered from the flu for the last five days.

No matter. Apparently the nationally ranked sophomore does better with a little less gym time.

"I practiced Monday and Thursday," said Ford, who won the all-around competition Friday by tying a personal best of 39.625 in Utah's win over Florida, Stanford and California at the Huntsman Center in front of 11,008 fans. "I didn't feel so good in warmups. I thought I might have to water things down. But the adrenaline kept me going. I didn't feel it during the meet. I feel it now."

Ford helped the Utes get off to a screaming start with 9.90 on the vault, an event she has struggled with.

"I don't know where that came from," she said.

Her coach said putting her first was no accident.

"She really is a good vaulter," said Greg Marsden after his team beat No. 6 ranked Florida 197.425 to 196.450. Stanford finished third with a score of 196.025, and Cal was fourth with 191.500. "There are some things to work out. It frightens her. Sometimes when she's not aggressive, it's a problem."

Ford was definitely aggressive as she provided the Utes a solid start, something they've lacked in their last two outings.

"I think starting strong is important because it gives you that edge," said senior Annabeth Eberle, who is also ranked nationally in the all-around and finished seventh after

adding more difficult tricks to her floor routine. "It kind of takes the pressure off. If you start slow, you get tentative and worry about making mistakes."

Marsden said they talked all week about coming out strong and how that would help the team's psyche.

"When you start strong there's just a good feeling," Marsden said. "You can kind of build on that. We talked about it all week . . . Vault is an easier place to start, in all honesty. You can take your adrenaline and use it to your advantage. On bars or beam, you have to sort of be aggressive, but be under control."

Freshman Ashley Postell matched Ford's score on the vault, and then Eberle outperformed both of them earning a 9.75 on her vault. One judge gave her a 10, while the other gave her a 9.95. She said that even though she'd earned four perfect scores by this time last season, she tries not to focus on the scores.

"I really wasn't hoping or thinking of a 10," she said. "That's not how it's going to be at regionals or nationals."

Instead she focuses on her skills and doing what she needs to do to improve. That's why she took a huge risk on the last event of the night, and added difficulty to her floor routine. She was in third-place in the all-around, and instead of playing it safe, she changed her routine and moved her development forward, which is something that's critical in this stage of the season.

"There was some strategy to how we tried to get things done tonight," Marsden said. "We've got to do gymnastics that separates us from the others . . . There's got to be a style to your gymnastics."

Tough tricks won't be enough to win a national title.

"Everybody is going to hit," he said. "If they don't hit, then you take yourself out of it. That won't be enough. There's got to be other things that you're doing that distinguish you from the others who are out there performing the same basic skills."

He said the team will tweak routines for slightly greater difficulty, but also look at presenting those skills in a more dynamic, more entertaining style.

Florida coach Rhonda Faehn agrees that the talent level is very comparative among the best schools.

"This year at Nationals it's going to be the toughest year to make the Super Six," Faehn said. "The talent is so close you're going to have to be on. Utah did a great job tonight."

Faehn scheduled the Gators for two meets this week to prepare them for the regional format in which teams have to perform twice in two nights.

Marsden sees the wisdom in the strategy, but also the risk.

"Right now we're pretty healthy," he said. "I'd be concerned if we try to do two meets in a week, we might have problems . . . I understand the idea because you've really got to be better the second night than the first at the NCAAs."

Marsden said the team will focus on what they think they're capable of and improve where they can. Friday's win was an important step in that process.

"We didn't want three losses," he said. "It's important because winning is more fun than losing."

E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com