MINNEAPOLIS After their travel problems just getting to the NCAA North Central Regional at the University of Minnesota for today's 5 p.m. MDT gymnastics meet, the second-ranked Utes, the top seed for this six-team qualifier for the national championships, have a little more pressure on them than usual.
Delayed by a day en route to Minnesota, the Utes arrived too late for their scheduled practice a time when teams customarily measure their steps on vault and learn whether the bars are loose or on the tight side, and whether the floor is bouncy or stiff.
However, the Utes were allowed to practice on the equipment late Friday night, so at least they won't have to wait and do those things at today's warm-up sessions.
That's actually a little better than they would do for a regular-season road meet except, of course, this is not one of those regular-season meets that Ashley Postell calls "practice meets" and Kristina Baskett calls the "pre-season."
Teams must finish first or second tonight in each of the nation's six regionals no matter how good their reputations to advance to the April 24-26 2008 NCAA Championships at Georgia.
Other teams in the North Central Regional are No. 11 Arkansas, No. 14 Arizona, No. 22 Iowa, No. 27 Southern Utah and No. 28 Minnesota. Utah has defeated SUU and Minnesota this season.
No. 38 Utah State missed qualifying by two ranking spots but will have six individuals in tonight's meet, all gaining experience and hoping to qualify as all-arounders or specialists to nationals.
Utah heads into tonight's regionals still wondering if junior Nina Kim will be able to compete after spraining her right ankle eight days ago. She was on crutches last weekend, but the ankle progressed well from Monday on, and she was talking like she might be able to grit her teeth and make a landing on bars or vault.
Coach Greg Marsden wasn't sure he wanted to chance that and said he would see how she reacts to the equipment today before making a determination. If she can't go, Beth Rizzo or possibly freshman Gael Mackie would replace her on vault, and freshman Kyndal Robarts would take her spot on beam.
Ute senior Postell said she thinks Utah has enough depth to cover for Kim if necessary.
"It's not good when we lose someone like that, but it's also good when we have someone that can fill in and do just as good of a job," said the NCAA's No. 1-ranked all-arounder/vaulter/beamwalker.
Marsden agreed. "Even if Nina is not available to us, I'm confident of the lineup we're putting in all four events," he said.
To Postell, this is the best time of the year. "I'd say it's more fun because these meets are meaningful, they actually count toward something. During season they're mostly just practice meets," she said. "I think we're more excited now because it comes down to what we've been waiting for.
"We just want to go in and make the top two and qualify to championships. We're not worried about too much right now except qualifying, and we're not trying to get a certain score or have any expectations for this upcoming meet," Postell added.
Marsden said the team has continued that kind of businesslike approach through the regular season and into the postseason.
He doesn't expect to play tonight's meet safe. "We're not planning to hold back on anything. We're just going to do what we've been doing.
"If we go to regionals and hit our routines as we have the rest of the year, we should be OK," said Marsden. "Where we could get ourselves into a problem is if we have one event that really turns ugly, and we have to count a fall or two. Then anything could happen at that point."
He said the Utes don't have to hit all 24 routines but can't afford two major mistakes in one event. "I don't think we can count a fall and expect that that wouldn't possibly put us in a precarious situation," he said. "Arkansas and Arizona are certainly good enough teams that if they're on and hitting all four events and we have to count a fall somewhere, I hate to think of what that might mean."
"We still have a lot to prove," said Baskett, thinking of the national picture. "We don't have it in the bag ever. Anything can happen. We can't ever let our guard down and have to do 100 percent or close to it."
Baskett said her sore ankle has felt better with two weeks of soft landings in practice, and she's been getting it taped, which makes her more confident.
Sophomore Daria Bijak, who hyperextended a knee vaulting in the final regular-season meet, was back to training all four events last Friday and is expected to be available for all-around, though both knees are chronically sore. "I can't remember the day that they've been OK," she said.
Utah's two assistant coaches will bring a bit of a rooting section. Jeff Graba is from Minnesota, and his brother runs a gym here. Associate head coach Megan Marsden is from nearby Cedar Falls, Iowa, and her parents and a cousin and his family will attend. It's the only meet her parents will see this year and they'll be able to see this one only because it's close. They'd have missed out had Utah been sent to Oklahoma or Penn State or another regional."I'm really anxious to have my mom and dad see this team," Megan Marsden said. "I was worried they were going to miss seeing one of our greatest teams, in my opinion, with the way the season's gone so far."
Additional All-around Competitors
1. Nicki Felley, Utah State
2. Abigail Rogers, Air Force
3. Heather Heinrich, Utah State
4. Michelle Denise, Air Force
5. Brittany Dutton, Air Force
Alt. Justine Weyer, Wis.-Whitewater
Individual event specialists
Vault Jasmine Minion, Utah State
Alt. Jackis Dillon, Utah State
Uneven Bars Nicole Simoneau, Utah State
Alt. Chelsea Marquardt, Utah State
Balance Beam Lyndsie Boone, Utah State
Alt. Kayla Kincade, Air Force
Floor Exercise Megan Tschida, Utah State
Alt. Jasmine Minion, Utah State
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT; at U. of Minnesota
NCAA North Central Regional
Seed, team....national rank....Regional qualifying score
5. So. Utah...27....194.890