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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
BYU gymnast Marie-Helene Claveau competes in the floor exercise during Thursday night's NCAA Championships. .

AUBURN, Ala. — The University of Utah won its NCAA gymnastics preliminary team session three years ago and went into the Super Six championship night on a high.

But this year, it feels different, said team co-captain Annabeth Eberle.

"I don't think it was like this, I really don't. When I think about (tonight), it's still there—we still have that fire, and I'm not worried about the team at all, and it's just really cool," Eberle said after leading the No. 1-ranked Utes to a victory in the first session Thursday of team preliminaries to easily qualify for tonight's Super Six championships.

Utah scored 196.85, just .1 off its best national-championships total ever, to lead Michigan (196.575) and surprising Nebraska (195.875) in qualifying for tonight's finals. Louisiana State, ranked No. 1 several times this year, was a disappointing fourth in the early session at 195.80, followed by Penn State (194.975) and Oklahoma (194.425). The last three are done for the year as teams.

In Thursday's evening session, BYU totaled 194.525 and finished sixth in the session and 11th overall, but coach Brad Cattermole was still happy with his team. "I can't be anything but thrilled with this group," he said of a club that kept coming back all season despite four stress fractures and other problems.

SUU's at-large all-arounder had a fall on beam, but coach Scott Bauman said, "I'm so proud of her, and Southern Utah University should be proud of her." Sakhitab, a sophomore, totaled 38.30.

Rounding out tonight's Super Six field are evening session winner Georgia (197.35), two-time defending champion and session runner-up UCLA (197.025) and third-place Alabama (197.00).

Through a double-blind draw following Thursday's sessions, Utah received its starting assignment for tonight and will begin on bye before floor — a departure from the past five NCAA-sanctioned competitions in which the Utes opened on bars. This rotation will see them ending up on balance beam.

Utah did something similar three years ago, winning the early session only to finish fourth on Super Six night.

To Eberle, that was very different. "It was like we went all-out to win (the session)," she pointed out. "Tonight, we just went out there, did our job — did well enough to move on."

The Utes still have something left, in other words, for tonight's finals.

"We weren't perfect and still pulled ahead, so I think that says something," said sophomore Nicolle Ford.

Said freshman Ashley Postell, who was the top all-arounder in the early session with 39.575 to No. 2 Eberle's 39.50, "We are just mostly focusing on making it to tomorrow, and we weren't really trying . . . "

" . . . to be perfect," chimed in Ford, whose fall on beam, her first fall of any kind since Jan. 21 and just her second of the season.

It was the only missed routine of the afternoon for the Utes, and they only got stronger after that, including as good a floor set as they've had all season anchored by 9.90s from Eberle and fellow senior Gritt Hofmann, who got an anti-inflammatory shot Thursday morning and felt no pain in her torn calf muscle.

"There are still some things that could have been fixed, but we're going to do that (Friday)," Ford declared. "We're just warming up. This is just breezing through. We're saving it."

Utah is not, however, counting its chickens too soon. "It you take things for granted, in the end, you'll lose them," said Ford.

"There's excitement, trust me," said Eberle. "But we cannot expect it by any means," said Eberle.

"I feel good," said Ute coach Greg Marsden, "and relieved because it looked like four teams (from the session) had a legitimate shot at moving on. I'm excited because of the way our team performed."

He is cautious as ever about tonight, especially with Tidd and Hofmann nursing injuries. "I'm worried. We really need to have Rachel able to perform and Gritt ready to go," Marsden said. He figures the team is "in a good place mentally. My concern is that physically we're in a good place."

"We haven't had the feeling of winning a national championship. None of us have experienced a win," said Ford, adding she and her teammates are quite hungry for it.

As it's done for five straight postseason meets now, Utah opened on bars, and while it had little errors, it still scored 49.175. Ford's beam fall meant Utah totaled only 49.075, but just like at the regional two weeks earlier, it came back strong on floor for 49.30 and vaulted to 49.25.It was the only team in the session to not go below 49 on any event.

Michigan also had trouble on beam but was in the 49s on the other events. Nebraska, without top all-arounder Richelle Simpson, who injured a knee in regionals and reinjured it in training Wednesday, came on strong on floor, passing LSU when Emily Parsons scored 9.925 as the last up in that event.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com