Lincoln, Neb. » Utah coach Greg Marsden didn't hide his expectations for junior Daria Bijak earlier this year when he said the Utes needed her to be the next great Utah gymnast. For a program that has produced some of collegiate gymnastics' best athletes, from Missy Marlowe to Ashley Postell, Marsden isn't exactly setting a low bar for Bijak. Saying Bijak should be one of Utah's greats is like casually mentioning someone should be the next John Elway or Michael Jordan.
However, the potential for Bijak to be that good is there. She has been on a steady rise since she came to the Utes in 2007, a season in which she spent as much time rehabbing various injuries as training.
"We had to rejuvenate her first," Marsden said.
Consider her rejuvenated, to the point where she is one of the best gymnasts in the country. Bijak is ranked No. 3 in the nation on the bars and has scored 9.85 or higher in her last four floor routines. After being held out of the vault lineup early in the season to give her time to recover from the Olympics, Bijak is expected to go in the all-around the second half of the season as the Utes make their push toward the NCAA Championships.
"When she is at her best, she can be an Ashley [Postell] or Kristina [Baskett] kind of gymnast," Marsden said. "She has a different look to her, in the way she does things and the amplitude she gets in her routines."
If Bijak is feeling any pressure to live up to the standards Marsden is setting for her, she isn't acknowledging it.
"I don't have a big goal for me, it's not like I want to win as an individual like NCAAs or something," she said. "I want to do well for the team and see what happens."
Interestingly, judges haven't always appreciated the different look that Marsden values in Bijak's gymnastics. While her leaps and tumbling skills are some of the most difficult and unique in the country, Bijak doesn't always get the big scores the Utes believe she should.
On Monday the Utes were disappointed she earned a 9.85 on the balance beam, believing she did a routine worthy of a higher mark.
"Maybe the way she does gymnastics is so different, even the judges are having a hard time adjusting to it," said Utah assistant Megan Marsden, who coaches balance beam.What makes Bijak unique is her aggressive nature and skill level. She doesn't so much survive the 4-inch thin balance beam and challenging skills as conquer them. Bijak performs a front layout vault, a rare vault that would be her signature move if it weren't for her floor routine, where she competes a double front, punch front."It's brute power," Megan Marsden said. "To do it once is amazing, but to do it every week consistently like she is asked in college is unheard of."
Going for big skills has always been a characteristic of Bijak's routines. However, she did experience some earlier frustrations as she adjusted to the collegiate level, where the emphasis is more often on hitting routines cleanly rather than having a lot of difficulty along with small errors.
"They were only small things, but in college those are the big things judges are looking for," she said.
Tonight, 6 p.m.
Records » Utah 7-1; Nebraska 4-1
Live scoring » www.utahutes.com
About the Utes » This is their third competition in seven days. The Utes scored a 196.95 at Utah State Monday even without some of their best gymnasts in the lineup. The Utes lead the series with the Huskers 38-7-2 but are just 1-4 in Lincoln.
About the Huskers » Nebraska is hosting the 2009 NCAA Championships. The Huskers are coming off a 196.175-196.0 upset of Oklahoma. Kylie Stone is the team's best all-around performer (39.325). Has lost the last three to the Utes.
Utah's 2008 Most Improved Gymnast
4th in German National Championships in June
Has hit 98 out of 104 routines in her career