Leisa Thompson, Ann Arbor News
Utah's Nicolle Ford was the all-around champion at the NCAA women's gymnastics Northeast Regional finals.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Utah's gymnastics team hardly struck fear into anyone's hearts Saturday night, even though it very nearly won the NCAA Northeast Regional.

The Utes had their third-lowest score of the season, falling 196.00-195.70 to host Michigan for the regional title. But they finished second and secured a place at the 2006 NCAA championships April 20-22 at Oregon State.

Still, Northeast Regional all-around champion Nicolle Ford of Utah declared, "I don't want people to count us out. We have potential. It's just getting everybody in the right frame of mind the next two weeks."

That frame of mind, said both Coach Greg Marsden and Ford, would perhaps be for the team — especially some of the seniors — to loosen up a bit.

That they were tight "shows that they do care about what's going on," said Ford, a junior co-captain. "It's not that people don't want to do good. It's just getting out the nerves, as far as I can see."

"They need to relax," Marsden said.

The four seniors who competed each had deductions of some sort, from Gritt Hofmann stepping out of bounds on the floor event to Dominique D'Oliveira missing her hand on bars and twice having form breaks from it to Gabi Onodi's fall on beam.

Senior co-captain Kristen Riffanacht was Utah's first performer of the night, and in a hint of the night to come, her music had to be restarted a third time while she stood there waiting. She seemed to be working rather deliberately, but the biggest problem for her, said Marsden, was Utah's misunderstanding of the code of points that has been unnoticed by judges for three meets but caught by the head judge on floor Saturday night.

Riffanacht has recently done a tumbling pass with two somersaults, but Marsden said a technicality mandates there must be a third element in the pass.

He contacted the meet referee to get Riffanacht's 9.5 score explained, and the meet referee found out from the event's head judge that there had been a deduction charged for the omission, lowering Riffanacht's start value to 9.8. It will be corrected quickly.

"We have no choice but learn from our mistakes," said Marsden. "We didn't do a good job, but what's important is to move on to the next meet.

"For a little while, we put it in somebody else's hands," he said, no doubt feeling a little internal shudder thinking about how Utah didn't seem to be that far ahead of Auburn (97.90-97.775) that it could feel comfortable after two rotations.

The Utes came back out after their first bye to nearly fall on the first bars set when D'Oliveira's hand slipped and she had two breaks. Utah, however, had its best score of the night on that event, 49.075, and Auburn slipped to 47.70 in its third event, removing the drama.

Utah finished on beam, starting with two falls. But freshman Nina Kim put through a steady 9.85 as third up, and Hofmann, Ford and Ashley Postell (a big wobble) finished at reasonable 9.85, 9.90, 9.825.

The Utes had a bye in the final rotation, and Michigan overtook them — but not by much — to win the regional.

Teams among the 12 to qualify for the NCAA championships at Corvallis are Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, LSU, Florida, Arkansas, Arizona State, Iowa State, Alabama and Stanford.

Ford totaled 39.40 to win the all-around over Michigan's Lindsey Bruck (39.30) with New Hampshire's Amanda Hall (39.25) third and Ute Kim (39.20) fourth.

"She was solid all night," Marsden said. "She really had a very good night. It's exactly what I expect (from her)."

"It makes me happy," Ford said, adding that she had done what the Utes weren't planning to do — watered down her beam routine, even though she got Utah's best score of the night on it. "Beam had been shaky this week (in practice)," so in mid-routine, she decided to leave out her front tuck. "In the back of my mind," she said, "it might not be best to throw everything."

Winning the all-around, "was exciting," she said, "just because everybody likes to have their moment. But the most important thing we've got to do is get the team back together now because I know some people are definitely down that we came out of here second."

Ford also won balance beam with Utah's only 9.90 score of the night, with Kim again tied for fourth (9.85) with Hofmann and Michigan's Becca Slauson.

Baskett tied for second in vaulting at 9.875, while Ford (9.85) was sixth and Kim (9.825) tied for seventh. Baskett (9.85) also tied for second on bars with Ford and Postell, who tweaked a knee landing her vault but said it was OK.

Comment on this story

It was hardly the way they wanted to do it, but the Utes do move on. And they're doing it in better fashion than Georgia advanced last year, when it had to wait for Denver to fall three times on its last event to squeak into the 2005 NCAAs. And then the Gym Dogs blew away the other 11 teams on finals night to seize the championship.

Marsden isn't predicting a worst-to-first thing just yet — and its regional score wasn't the worst Saturday.

"What it says," he said, "is that we're a good team, not a great team at this point. The question is, can we get better between now and the next meet?'

If not, Utah won't be in the finals at Corvallis, just the prelims.