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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Utah's Stephanie McAllister, above, and teammate Nansy Damianova tied for the vault title at Saturday's regionals.

NORMAN, Okla. — The University of Utah gymnastics team overcame a dreadful start to blast its way into the national championships by placing second at the Norman Regional on Saturday.

Oklahoma won the regional meet with a score of 197.350, followed by Utah (196.475), Washington (195.300), North Carolina (195.225), New Hampshire (194.500) and Missouri (194.175).

Utah, which advances to a record 36th-straight NCAA Championships, overcame two big deficits — one at the start and one at the finish — to punch its ticket to nationals. After starting the meet with its worst beam score of the year (48.75), the Utes rebounded by forging into second place on floor (49.225) and vault (49.225). But, while the Utes were in their final bye rotation, Washington charged ahead. Going into the final round, the Huskies led Utah by a formidable 147.450-147.200 advantage.

Even with equipment problems on the bars (the cable tension tightener broke during Corrie Lothrop's routine), Utah rocked to a 49.275 — its best score of the night. Marsden confided later that Stephanie McAllister's grip had rolled on a release move and she barely recovered in time, and that Gael Mackie almost missed her hands on her mount. However, both shook it off — McAllister scored a 9.825 and Mackie a 9.85 — and Utah passed the Huskies.

"We did a workman's job tonight," said Utah coach Greg Marsden, who also cheered after the meet when co-head coach Megan Marsden was named the North Central Regional Coach of the Year. "We hung in there and didn't beat ourselves and it worked, which it has more often than not this year.

"I never felt we were out of it. I knew we were 2 1/2 10ths behind Washington on the last rotation, but we are a good bars team. I felt that if the judging remained the same that it had for us on beam, it was going to be tight (for Washington)."

Freshman Nansy Damianova won two event titles at her first regionals, tying for first on vault with McAllister (9.90) and also tying for first on floor (9.90). Freshman Lothrop was Utah's top all-around finisher, placing third with a 39.225. Senior Jacquelyn Johnson tied for fourth in the all-around-scoring a 39.175.

Johnson was Utah's first competitor of the night, replacing the injured Fumina Kobayashi (who has a broken foot) on the beam, and scored a 9.70. On her final routine, she led off Utah's bar lineup with a career-high 9.90.

"Jacq has had a great year," said Marsden. "We told her she had to make some changes on her vault to be in the lineup, and it took her one day. And how about her starting us off on bars with a 9.90 when we were down?"

The Utes got off to a shaky start on the balance beam, putting up their worst score of the season-a 48.75. After nice routines by Johnson (9.70) and Lothrop (9.70), McAllister fell for the first time of the season, snapping her school-record streak of routines without a fall at 72. Following McAllister's spill, Cortni Beers held on for a 9.675 routine and Mary Beth Lofgren (9.80) and Mackie (9.825) finished strong.

After one rotation, Utah was third with a 48.75. Oklahoma (49.250) led and North Carolina was second at 48.775, with New Hampshire scoring a 48.70. The Utes went into a bye while Washington and Missouri joined the action for the first time.

The Utes slipped to sixth place during their time in the bye room with the two-rotation standings looking like this: Oklahoma 98.550, New Hampshire 97..100, Washington 49.000, Missouri 48.900, North Carolina 48.775 and Utah 48..750.

Utah came roaring out of the bye rotation, powering to a 49.225 on floor while tying its second-best score of the season. Damianova tied her career high with a 9.90, McAllister scored a 9.875 and four of five Utes went 9.80 or better.

The big floor set shot Utah from last two third. After three rotations, the standings were: Oklahoma 98.550, Washington 98.075, Utah 97.975, North Carolina 97.750, New Hampshire 97.100 and Missouri 96.475.

Utah jumped ahead of Washington on the next rotation while the Huskies were on a bye. Led by 9.90 scores at the end of the lineup by Damianova and McAllister, the Utes' vault score matched their floor effort with a 49.225. As Utah headed to its final bye of the night, the four-rotation standings were: Oklahoma 148.075, Utah 147.200, UNC 146.275, UNH 145.325, Washington 98.075 and Missouri 96.475.

The bye proved bad news for the Utes, who saw Washington blow by them with a huge bar set. Oklahoma finished the competition with a 197.350 and the battle was on between Washington (147.450) and Utah (147.200) for the final berth into the championships.

While the Utes were ignoring equipment malfunctions on the bars en route to a 49.275, the Huskies limped to the finish with a 47.85 on the beam.

Up next for the Utes is the NCAA Championships in Cleveland on April 15-17. Utah will learn its preliminary session and rotational draw on Monday.