SALT LAKE CITY — Utah senior gymnast Kyndal Robarts distinctively remembers her freshman year at the NCAA Championships as the crowd and teams chanted 'SEC, SEC'. The Utes and Stanford were the only non-SEC teams in the Super Six and the support the other four had was something Robarts envied. This year the senior is thrilled the tables have turned.
"I'm excited we are going to be part of something," said Robarts on Utah joining the Pac-12. "I think it gives us something else to shoot for with the Pac-12 Championship meet."
Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden echoed his gymnast's sentiments.
"We were a part of conferences before, but never one with this type of schedule and camaraderie," said Marsden. "It was a totally different experience than this. It's been a while since we've been in this situation" (the Mountain West Conference did not have gymnastics).
Utah opens its Pac-12 experience Jan. 8 on the road against longtime foe and preseason No. 1 UCLA. The two have battled it out season after season, but this time a conference championship will be on the line.
"They (Utes) bring competitiveness in every area to the conference — fan support, marketing, fans that will travel to Pac-12 meets. It's like a great vitamin B-12 shot for us," said UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field. "We've always had a very healthy rivalry with them, and now we can step it up a notch because there are conference bragging rights attached.
"I've always coached in a conference so I probably take it for granted, but I do think the meets during the regular season take on more meaning when you are in a conference."
Heading into his inaugural Pac-12 season, Marsden says this year's team is young but talented. The Red Rocks boast 11 underclassmen on a team of 15. All-American Robarts, who is back for a second shot at her senior season since being granted a medical hardship after a knee injury, is expected to lead the Utes along with fellow seniors Stephanie McAllister and Cortni Beers. McAllister proved Utah's best all-arounder last season and broke the Red Rocks' record for consecutive routines without a fall (72). Beers should be a key factor on the beam and bars.
"I feel great about our depth," said Marsden. "We lost two from last year's team, but we gained five (freshmen) and all five are probably going to find a place to compete. This makes us a better team, but our job determining the lineup does get a little tougher. It's a good problem, but our challenge will be to keep everybody happy."
The freshman class includes Georgia Dabritz, who won the 2011 Junior Olympic all-around title.
"Georgia is an extremely talented athlete," said Marsden. "She will end with a triple twist on floor, which is an E pass. This is unusual at the college level because it's a difficult skill to do at the end of your routine when you are tired."
Though Dabritz may be the most decorated newcomer, Marsden believes barring injury any of the five freshmen are capable of contributing in at least one event.
Highlighting the sophomore class of six gymnasts is Salt Lake native Mary Beth Lofgren. Lofgren earned All-America honors in her debut campaign and could challenge for the balance beam title at the conference and national levels after finishing fifth in the nation last year. Two-time All-American Corrie Lothrop is expected to be a strong competitor in the all-around.
"Mary Beth was a pleasant surprise in terms of our expectations last season. We felt like she could contribute, but not as significantly as she did. Corrie is in better shape this year, and her gymnastics is reflecting that in practice," said Marsden.
Utah enters this year ranked in the preseason poll where it finished last year's campaign, No. 5. The fifth-place finish came in spite of an effort that saw Utah conclude its 2011 season of counting no falls by hitting 24-of-24 routines at nationals.
The Utes were selected to finish second in the conference behind UCLA by the league's coaches. Overall, the Pac-12 has four teams ranked in the national preseason top 8 for 2012.
"Whether we can take that next step and really be a contender that can go toe-to-toe with a UCLA and others will depend on whether we can get better with our execution," said Marsden about this year's team. "So instead of scoring 9.7 and 9.75, we're scoring 9.85 and 9.9's."
Marsden said he's looking forward to the season, which includes the second-toughest schedule in the country, according to CollegeGymFans.com.
"We need to be comfortable being on the floor with teams," said Marsden. "The meet could go either way and down to the last event is what we want. The more you are in those situations the more comfortable you become."
Utah opens its home season at the Huntsman Center Jan. 13 against Utah State. Red Rocks fans have two bonus meets this season as Utah hosts the Pac-12 Championships on March 24 and the NCAA Regionals on April 7.
2012 Utah schedule
Jan. 8 at UCLA 3:00 p.m.
Jan. 13 vs. Utah St. 7:00 p.m.
Jan. 27 vs. BYU 7:00 p.m.
Feb. 3 vs. Georgia 7:00 p.m.
Feb 12 at Arizona St. 2:00 p.m.
Feb. 17 at Michigan 4:00 p.m.
Feb. 24 vs. Stanford 7:00 p.m.
Mar. 2 vs. Oregon St. 7:00 p.m.
Mar. 9 vs. Nebraska 7:00 p.m.
Mar. 16 at Florida 5:00 p.m.
Mar. 24 Pac-12 Championships
at 2:00 / 7:00 p.m.
Apri. 7 NCAA Regionals 6:00 p.m.
Apr. 20/21/22 NCAA Championships
at Duluth, Ga. TBA
Bold= at Huntsman Center, SLC