Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Utah gymnast Gritt Hofmann is "on a mission," says Utes coach Greg Marsden.

With Rachel Tidd's career on hold due to injury, Ashley Postell and Kristen Riffanacht not at full strength following training injuries, and some team members not up to snuff after a long holiday break, Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden thanks his lucky stars for Gritty and The Duke.

Fifth-year senior Gritt Hofmann has trained "phenomenally," said Marsden, adding the German gymnast has "been on a mission" ever since being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Sandy sophomore Jessica Duke has gone from being a bit performer, who thought she didn't belong with the likes of Tidd, Postell, Nicolle Ford and the graduated Annabeth Eberle, to a confident gymnast slated to go all-around tonight at 7 when the No. 2 Utes open the 2006 season at No. 3 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.

Marsden said Duke has been "unbelievable" in her progress and sees her as easily the most-improved person on the team.

UCLA is already 5-0 after winning a six-team meet in Hawaii on Tuesday, posting a 193.775, reflective of its own injuries. NCAA all-around champion Tasha Schwikert and sister Jordan each had arthroscopic shoulder surgeries in the last two months. The score was also reflective of the new code of points that, among other things, devalues front tumbling and essentially compares everybody to the level of competition in the 2005 NCAA championships.

"If these (Hawaii meet) scores are reflective (of the 2006 season), we will see lower scores," said Marsden. "We just have to go into this meet without (scoring) expectations."

The bigger issue for him is, "We're not as prepared as I would like to be to start the season, but we'll see if they can rise to the occasion. It's not unusual for some to lose ground after two weeks away from the usual practices, but the injury situation makes the loss in sharpness loom larger."

That makes the improvements by Hofmann, who will do three events, and Duke especially helpful.

Hofmann has upgraded in several places "and never looked better," said Marsden.

Hofmann was home in Berlin and had received an internship in interior design with one of the city's most respected companies over the summer, but when the opportunity to compete again came up, she was thrilled, even though she'd be coming back from wrist surgery last spring. She'd compete another two or three years if she could, she said, looking forward to being a leader on one of the nation's best teams.

Duke said she changed her personal outlook, taking a more positive approach after opening last season being "scared" that she wasn't in the same class as gymnasts who had been her idols. The mental change has her working forward, and the result is remarkable.

Though sophomore Postell (third, 2005 NCAA all-around) is recovered from a torn ligament in her elbow, she's not in total competitive shape and will probably do only vault and bars tonight. She's only had about 10 days of good work to get ready. She was having a strong preseason with several upgrades before the injury.

Still, Postell said, "We're all excited for the first meet," and she doesn't necessarily share Marsden's dread of the team not being quite ready. "We'll do OK once we get there."

Riffanacht, likewise, hasn't had time to return to competitive shape following a high-ankle sprain and wasn't in Marsden's tentative lineup for tonight.

Those two, however, should be ready for most of the season.

Tidd, a junior, is still battling a mysterious back problem that started with spasms during the 2004 holiday break. She was third in the NCAA bars at the 2005 national championships, during which she was 9-for-9 and scored 39.40 and 39.50 in team competition despite the pain

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Tidd has been unable to train all fall, and Marsden said if she comes back this season, it will likely only be on bars. She could also redshirt or petition for a medical hardship year or be forced into retirement, though her scholarship will be fulfilled.

The injuries give Utah's impressive freshmen the chance to really show off their wares. Nina Kim will go all-around with Duke and Ford, and Kristina Baskett should do all but bars. Kim, from Houston, was a four-year member of the U.S. national team and heavily recruited. Baskett, of Normandy Park, Wash., was the 2005 Junior Olympic all-around, floor and vault champion.

Utah's first two meets are on the road — it's at Washington Jan. 13 — before the Utes come home to the Huntsman Center to host Nebraska on Jan. 20. The season's home highlight will be when 2005 NCAA champion Georgia visits March 6.