Last season, one of the most difficult in 32 years of Utah gymnastics, Jamie Deetscreek, a two-year national team member and twice the Junior Olympic all-around national champion, was only able to get on the floor a handful of times for the Utes.
Like many in her freshman class of six, Deetscreek simply wasn't ready physically or mentally. She found adjusting to college life difficult, and while coach Greg Marsden was almost desperate to find people to compete consistently in 2007, Deetscreek mainly was a little-used alternate.
As Utah opens its 33rd year by hosting No. 1-ranked, three-time defending NCAA-champion Georgia in the Huntsman Center Friday night at 7, Deetscreek is one of the poster children for what appears to be a dramatic turnaround for the Utes.
They finished a wildly inconsistent 2007 about as strongly as anyone could have hoped, winning the NCAA West Region and then placing second in the NCAA championships at the Huntsman Center. Ashley Postell won the NCAA balance beam championship and took third on floor and seventh on bars. Freshman Annie DiLuzio captured second on vault and Kristina Baskett took fourth on bars, and then-freshman Daria Bijak placed eighth.
That triggered the inner gymnast in all of them, maybe even in the three current freshmen. They appear well ahead of last year's class as the first meet approaches, even though Jacq Johnson is slowed by injury and Gael Mackie just got cleared by the NCAA a couple of weeks ago after graduating early from high school and moving into her dorm last week.
Senior Katie Kivisto said the freshmen came in ready with no prompting from the veterans. "I personally didn't want to, like, attack people because that's not the way to get into them. They just came in with really good attitudes. They came into the team and joined us well," she said.
"It wasn't just the freshmen last year," added Baskett, now a junior. "A lot of people had their own personal stuff."
As for the returnees, "People were more enthusiastic about starting this year and starting fresh and trying new things," said Postell. "(Last season's inconsistency) was a good experience because it helped people come in here with a different mind-set. It helps to experience all that and come back and want to do it better."
"It was a nice break in the summer," said Baskett, "but I was ready to come back as soon as we were done."
"My problem children from a year ago have really figured it out and have come back, and they're doing what we knew they could do when we recruited them. That's exciting," said Marsden.
"Since summer I've been on a mission to really change the way things turn out this year," said Deetscreek, who's likely to do bars and beam tomorrow night. "Greg's been saying stuff to a few people for a long time, but in the summer, finally I decided to start running every day and focus on just getting in shape. It's brought a lot more confidence to my gymnastics and made it easier in the gym."
Last season, she felt pressured and nervous, "and then with the coaches not totally happy with me all the time, I was always feeling like I had to prove myself," said Deetscreek, who also questioned last season whether she belonged because she'd never been an elite, like so many of her teammates. She'd tried, but injuries kept her from qualifying when she was younger.
In contrast, the current freshman class, only half as big, came in ready and was immediately accepted.
"I feel like I belong," said freshman Kyndal Robarts, who's likely to perform two events Friday. "Everybody has been really helpful when we got here and everybody wanted to help us feel like we were coming into a good situation. Everybody is supportive on the team."
Robarts was an elite for two years but chose to go back to Level 10 to have a more normal life. She said she was a little worried about that pedigree, "but once I got here, it wasn't like that at all."
Like Deetscreek this season, Robarts has caught the eye of the coaching staff. "I'm really excited about Jamie Deetscreek and how far she's come," said Marsden, adding, "Kyndal is going to be the real deal right from the beginning."
"I'm just glad I can help at all," said Robarts. "I want to be out there and part of everybody, and I want to help the whole team do well. That's my main goal."
Deetscreek and Robarts are just the tip of Utah's better iceberg for 2008.
Many of the returning gymnasts stayed in Salt Lake City to train last summer, and several are visibly in better shape even the remarkably talented Postell is more chiseled.
"I think this is one of the most physically fit teams we've had," said Kivisto.
"It is my last year, and I want to do good," said Postell, "and I want everyone else to do good, too.
"I think we're a lot better this year. I think everyone came in this year with a different mindset, and I think we have more goals than we did last year, and everyone's on board."
Kivisto sees that last season's trials were this season's catalyst. "We finally got it together," she recalls. "I don't know if it made up for it, but it kinda did. Made it kinda worth it."But I wouldn't like to relive it."