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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
University of Utah gymnast Kassandra Lopez competes on the bars during an exhibition in Salt Lake City Friday, Dec. 7, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — Hailee Hansen understands the other side of the autograph table.

The Bountiful native grew up admiring the gymnasts who competed for the University of Utah so the junior has a special appreciation for the 3,700 fans who showed up Friday night for the Utes' preview event.

"Us girls from Utah grow up here watching this team," said Hansen, a graduate of Woods Cross High who will be one of the squad's captains this year. "To be on this team is truly an honor."

With no opponent, no score and no meet on the line, there would be no reason to be nervous, right?

"Oh there are definitely nerves," said Hansen. "This is actually to get those out a little bit. We come here, gain experience and get us ready for our meets in the Huntsman Center. It's definitely still nerve-wracking, but without the pressure of another team. It's just to get some experience in a competitive arena."

Utah co-coaches Greg and Megan Marsden know it could be a more fan-friendly event, but they use it as a way to help the gymnasts prepare for what lies ahead.

"I don't know that the event was perfect for our fans," co-coach Megan Marsden said. "I think they'd love it if it were a little more chatty and casual, and Greg (Marsden) or I were on the microphone talking about each girl. But we feel like our team really needs a run through. Espeically this young team, so we ran everything according to business so the girls could feel like they had a dry run for the season. And then we've got a month to work on things, and then boom."

The athletes appreciate the practice — even those All-Americans on the squad.

"I think there is still a lot of nerves for everybody, even though there is no competition," said sophomore Georgia Dabritz, who hopes to compete all-around this year. "Even when we do have another team out there, we try to go out there and do the same things we always do, even in here. I think it helped that there wasn't a competition, but I was still really nervous."

She said there are some things about collegiate competition that you just can't prepare for in practices.

"You can't prepare to walk out in front of 15,000 people," she said. "You're going to be nervous no matter what."

Marsden said the connection between the fans and the gymnasts is so important, the approval and support of the crowd is almost more important than their scores in a regular meet. Which is why an exhibition meet in the Huntsman Center is so helpful to the team.

"I don't think the girls even notice there is not a judge and not a score," she said. "For them, it's more about doing a great job for these people who show up to watch them."

And judging by the size of Friday's crowd, it was equally satisfying for the fans, hundreds of whom stayed more than an hour after the meet ended to get autographs.

"I think they go through withdrawals, so when we have this event in December, they want to come and see gymnastics again," Marsden said. "They miss it."

The Utes begin the season on the road at UCLA on Jan. 12. Their first home meet is Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. against Oregon State, West Virginia and SUU.

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