Utah publicly unveiled its 2008 gymnastics team Friday night at its annual, but revamped, Red Rocks Preview in the Huntsman Center and what a difference a year can make.
A week before the season starts, coach Greg Marsden figures this team is about where the 2007 team was three-quarters of the way through last season.
And physically, it probably looks better than it did at any time last season, even if the Utes did finish strong, winning the West Regional and placing second to Georgia at the NCAA Championships in the Huntsman Center in April. They look like the Red Rocks of old, mostly fit and in near-competition shape.
Last season was wracked by injuries, self-doubt and six freshmen who pretty much came into the season in poor shape, which created a rift between them and the veterans that took most of the season to resolve.
This '08 team was so ready to go Friday night that every team member except Gael Mackie who arrived on campus about 10 days ago after finally getting all of her approvals from the Canadian government and NCAA was able to go all-around Friday. There were only three major mistakes, Marsden said.
Marsden had told them they couldn't do a Red Rocks Preview event if they weren't just about competition-ready with it, and they all worked hard enough to get themselves ready, including freshman Jacquelyn Johnson, who battled an ankle injury, said associate head coach Megan Marsden. It's important to all of them to be on the floor, she said, meaning there should be good competition for spots in the events.
Not only are the three freshmen Mackie, Johnson and Kyndal Robarts in better shape than last year's freshmen were, but the veterans are all obviously better, too. That even includes senior NCAA beam champion Ashley Postell, the two-time NCAA all-around runner-up who has visions of more titles and maybe even more international competition in mind once she completes college eligibility.
"This is the best shape I've seen her in," Greg Marsden said of Postell, who also is in a better place mentally than she was much of last season.
Of the freshmen, Robarts has really impressed. "Kyndal is going to be the real deal right from the beginning," Greg Marsden said. Johnson and Mackie are both a little behind but still will be factors this season. "Gael's just overwhelmed," Marsden said of her trying to get her gymnastics in shape at the same time she's coming to a new environment.
Of the returnees, perhaps the biggest leaps were made by sophomores Jamie Deetscreek, Daria Bijak and Stephanie Neff (injured much of last season but healthy now). Bijak, from Germany, "has really figured it out," Marsden said of her dramatic improvement despite having two ankle injuries to start fall training in August.
The Red Rocks Preview was run for the first time like a meet, only without judges. In the past, it's just been people doing what they could a month before the season started. This time, Utah held the exhibition a week before the season starts when No. 1-ranked, three-time defending NCAA champion Georgia visits the Huntsman Center next Friday.
That was possible because the season starts a bit later than usual. Next year, Utah opens on Jan. 6, so the preview will be in December.This time, it was a real dress rehearsal. "For us, this is much better preparation," Marsden said.