Southern Utah University has never qualified as a team for the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, but coach Scott Bauman looks at Saturday's North Central Regional at Minnesota as his team's best chance yet to take the big step.

"This is probably the best shot we've ever had," he said. "I truly believe we can catch anyone there except (second-ranked) Utah."

And the T-Birds wouldn't have to catch Utah to qualify for nationals. The top two teams out of the six in the regional field advance to the 2008 NCAA Championships at Georgia April 24-26.

Teams in the North Central Regional (5 p.m. MDT) include the Utes and 27th-ranked T-Birds along with No. 11 Arkansas, No. 14 Arizona, No. 22 Iowa and No. 28 Minnesota.

Utah State, for only the fifth time in its 31-year gym history, did not qualify as a team for the regional, but coach Ray Corn has six women from his very young club who qualified as individuals who will also vie for the chance to move on to nationals as at-large competitors.

Corn said that, on the basis of their national rankings, freshman Nicole Simoneau and senior Megan Tschida — who is from St. Paul, Minn. — probably have the best opportunities of his contingent to advance. Simoneau is a bars specialist, and Tschida is a floor specialist.

Other Aggies in the meet will be sophomores Nicki Felley and Heather Heinrich in the all-around; Jasmine Minion on vault and as the floor alternate; Jackie Dillon, vault alternate; Lyndsie Boone on beam and Chelsea Marquardt as alternate on bars.

Corn said it is a disappointment the whole team didn't make it into the regional, but it's exciting so many individuals did, and that makes this "a jump-off point for next year." He expects his gymnasts to return from the meet with the idea that it's no fun to compete individually at such meets and instill that feeling in next season's team.

With the way the NCAA has changed qualification for regionals, teams like Southern Utah and Utah State now have good opportunities to go to the postseason most years. In the past, each regional got three seeded teams (1 through 18) and then the three best teams from within the region. Some weaker regionals had teams ranked in the 40s and 50s while strong regionals like the North Central saw teams ranked in the 20s and low 30s left out. Now, the top 36-ranked teams are invited. Utah State finished 38th in a youthful, injury-plagued year.

" I love the way they do the qualifying now," said Bauman, who was one who missed out a couple of years ago with a ranking in the mid-20s. The T-Birds are coming off a bit of a blip at the WAC championships. Through the first three events, they were in the lead and only needed to score 48.50 on floor to win but got 48.20. Bauman called that moment "rough" but said, "That can make you real dangerous in the postseason." Especially since SUU had a "really weird roller-coaster" year where it would do well one meet and not the next. If that holds, it's time for the T-Birds to be up again.

"We're right there. We can do it," he said, noting that Arkansas, Arizona and Iowa are all very good teams as well, and SUU will have to make its vaults sharp because four of them start at only a 9.9 value. They can score well if done properly.

SUU finishes the meet on balance beam, which is hard but is where visiting teams usually finish in the regular season. It's also an event he's confident his team can score well when it needs to, in the 49.30-49.40 range. If Southern Utah can stay in contention the first three events, Bauman would feel comfortable the beam team could get it done. The T-Birds are the No. 23 team in the country on beam.

Bauman is at ease with his team's youth as the freshman and sophomore classes have been strong, and they were the ones who "did brilliantly" at the WACs, Bauman said.

Junior Kelly Dangerfield, sophomore Elise Wheeler and freshman Jenna Vogt are the usual all-arounders.

Vogt, sophomore Alissa Mitchell and freshman Airel Lamb are from Minnesota, and SUU sophomore Melissa Johnson and Utah State's Boone are from the Chicago area.

Both SUU and USU expect to have large contingents of fans at the meet, drawing upon the Midwestern roots of several team members and some past athletes.


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