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Utah sophomore Kassandra Lopez is earning a reputation at Utah as being a steady, consistent competitor who thrives in the leadoff positions.
At Arizona, well, she is probably just known as the One Who Got Away.
Lopez, who was raised in Tucson, is returning home Friday as the No. 8 Utes compete against the No. 13 Wildcats in a Pac-12 showdown.
The opportunity to compete in front of her family is something Lopez has been eagerly anticipating. The possibility that she might only compete on the uneven bars due to a lingering lower leg strain hasn't dampened her enthusiasm.
"I'm so excited because all my friends and family are there and many of them haven't seen me in my new life in college," she said.
It would have been very easy for them to keep track of her if she had remained in the city limits and competed for the Wildcats.
However, it wasn't meant to be, as Arizona didn't really recruit Lopez. To be fair, Utah wasn't in the mix either until coach Greg Marsden finally gave in to pleas from Lopez's club coach and paid the gymnast a visit.
"Her coach kept calling me to look at this kid, and I kept putting her off and putting her off," Marsden said. "She wouldn't take no for an answer, and I finally got on a plane with the idea of getting her off my back. But I immediately fell in love with Kassandra's gymnastics."
Two weeks after Marsden's visit, Lopez took her official trip to Utah and committed a week later.
"The whole thing happened very quickly," Marsden said. "To be honest, I think Arizona took it for granted she'd go there or didn't see the potential in her I did."
While she might have been a star at Arizona, Lopez is just one among many talented gymnasts at Utah. She is fine with that, particularly since she is crafting her own niche as one of the Utes' most consistent gymnasts. Last year, she led off on the balance beam and uneven bars.
"I like setting up the team to do well," she said. "That first person doesn't always get the highest score, but you are the one who gets things going. You want to hit to keep the momentum going."
Ironically, as good as Lopez was in the leadoff spot, her most important routine came after a lineup change at the NCAA Championships. The Utes moved her later in the lineup in the balance beam rotation in the preliminaries, believing she could get a higher score. The strategy almost backfired when a fall earlier in the lineup forced Lopez to hit to secure Utah's place in the Super Six. She came through, scoring a 9.8.
"She is a rock for us," Utah co-coach Megan Marsden said. "Her demeanor in practice is like the saying, 'You train like you want to compete and compete like you train,' and she never moves off that line. You hardly ever see something worse from her." Lopez hopes to earn a spot in the all-around this year, once her leg is completely healed. Until then, she'll continue to contribute on the bars.
"I was feeling really good, so it was a bummer to get hurt right before the season," Lopez said. "But I'll be ready toward the end of the season, so that is good timing."
Kassandra Lopez file
Class • Sophomore
Hometown • Tucson, Ariz.
Of note • NCAA Regional runner-up on uneven bars and balance beam. ... Scored a 9.8 or better on all four routines at the NCAA Championships. ... Had career-high 9.9 on bars against Nebraska. ... Hit 25 of 28 routines. ... Made the athletic director's honor roll.
No. 8 Utah at No. 13 Arizona
O Friday, 7 p.m. MST
Records • Utah 3-1; Arizona 6-3
About the Utes • Georgia Dabritz was named the Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week after winning the all-around and three event titles last week. ... Utah is tied for fourth in the nation on the balance beam (49.1) and fourth on vault (49.263). ... Utah is 51-0 against the Wildcats in a series that began in 1976.
About the Wildcats • Scored a season-high 195.85 on Jan. 12. ... Top all-arounders are Aubree Cristello (39.475) and Allison Flores (39.075). ... Coached by Bill Ryden (15th year).