AUBURN, Ala. For the first time in several years, the University of Utah, with depth to support its Fab Four all-arounders Annabeth Eberle, Ashley Postell, Nicolle Ford and Rachel Tidd has a team capable of seizing the NCAA women's gymnastics title.
In other recent years, said coach Greg Marsden, the Utes could have won if others made mistakes.
Now, Utah is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with anybody. "We can compete with anybody, even when they're on," said Ute senior Annabeth Eberle Wednesday at a press conference to kick off the NCAA Championships at Auburn University.
Team preliminary competitions are today at noon and 6 p.m. MDT with the top three teams out of each session advancing to Friday night's Super Six team finals. Individual event championships are Saturday night.
Utah, sixth the last two years, is feeling like it's back in the race.
If it doesn't make mistakes.
And that is the theme for many of the 12 teams who are here.
Coaches of the traditional leaders predicted that as many as eight or nine teams might be good enough to win this year, and that means at least a couple worthy teams will be sitting in the stands during the championship because it is, after all, only the Super Six who get the chance to win.
"There's enough talent among enough teams that I don't think anybody will run away with it," said Marsden, whose Utes compete in the noon session today with Michigan, Louisiana State, Nebraska, Penn State and Oklahoma.
"We've got a little more talent and a little more depth (than the last few years). We've got a chance against anybody," Marsden added.
BYU is one of those teams that would have to have a super meet tonight to make the Super Six out of a session that includes two-time defending champion UCLA plus five-time NCAA champion Georgia, four-time champion Alabama and Florida and Iowa State.
That session also includes Southern Utah University at-large all-arounder Leah Sakhitab, who will rotate with Iowa State tonight.
"We'd have to have a great meet," said BYU coach Brad Cattermole of his team's chances at the Super Six, adding that the experience of the other teams gives them a leg up on the Cougars, who haven't been to nationals since 2000. "'Been there, done that' is a great advantage. You've got to get into it expecting to be in the Super Six."
Cattermole did, however, allow that the Cougars have some right to be on the floor with the others. "Nobody gets here because they're cute," he said.
He remembered being 12th at one nationals several years ago and walking past Arizona State coach John Spini and mentioning, "Dang, I wish we could have done a lot better than 12th," and he said, 'I wish my team was here so we could take 12th,' so I guess it's all in the perception," Cattermole said.
"That session is going to be a b----," said UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field about the evening group.
The early session, with the Utes, is no cakewalk either. Louisiana State has its best team ever and has hopes of being just the fifth team to ever win an NCAA title Utah has nine NCAA and one AIAW championship, Georgia and UCLA have five NCAAs each and Alabama four. No one else has ever broken into that club.
Michigan also is a possibility. Coach Bev Plocki said her team has been consistent all year "but we have not had that one magical meet for us," and she noted the team has one of those every year.
While Eberle said the Utes can compete with anyone, she said they really aren't thinking about it. "No. That's definitely not what we're thinking about at all. Our main focus is just to keep it light. We're really focused on the team. Just keep the mood light."
Still, Eberle and co-captain Kristen Riffanacht talked about the great excitement the team feels. It makes being captains easier, said Eberle. "We don't have that hard of a job because everybody is so ready and so excited. 'Queenie' (Ford) came up to me on the bus today and said, 'I'm so excited and this is just practice.'"
Ute freshman Ashley Postell, who was ranked No. 1 in the country at times in the all-around and on balance beam, is an experienced international competitor, and said so far she feels like this is just a normal meet for her. "I'm a little nervous, I guess, but I'm just so excited because our team has a good shot this year. It pretty much just feels like a normal meet would, even though it's more important."Comment on this story
For BYU, senior Jaime Mabray is a novice at nationals despite being a team leader since she was a freshman. As a freshman she tied for a qualifying spot as an at-large all-arounder but lost a tiebreaker and stayed home. Last year, BYU just missed qualifying as a team.
"This is just icing on the cake," she said of finally getting to experience the NCAAs. She said all season she was up and down about the chances of her team and herself of making it. "It just depended on the day," she said.But the day is finally here.