Utah gymnastics: McAllister ready to set tone for Utes

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One of the most important routines for Utah's gymnastics team in the NCAA Championships will be the first one. It will not only set the tone for the Utes' preliminary competition Thursday, but for the whole weekend.

It's a big role and thanks to the luck of a random draw the gymnast who must fill it is one of Utah's least-experienced athletes, freshman Stephanie McAllister.

McAllister will be the first up for the Utes on the uneven bars as they start their preliminary competition Thursday at the NCAA Championships in Lincoln, Neb.

McAllister admits she has no idea what to expect Thursday, but also says she is up the challenge.

"I've never experienced nationals before but all year has helped me prepare," she said. "I'm obviously nervous, but we start every away meet on bars and I've had practice with that. My coaches and teammates are helping me to know what to expect when we get there too."

Since a few midseason struggles, McAllister has been solid for the Utes on the bars scoring 9.725 or higher in the last seven meets.

While acknowledging McAllister is in a pressure spot, Utah's coaches aren't going to replace her for nationals because she has been so consistent and they don't want to toy with the lineups before the most important meet of the season.

"She is a freshman, but she's not a freshman on bars because she has been in that spot all along and it has really seasoned her," assistant coach Megan Marsden said. "She has been in some tough events and we feel good about how she has done."

The national championships have a different atmosphere than the rest of the season's meets because there are four teams competing at once. Music is stopping and starting at odd times and cheering is erratic as fans yell for their teams without considering how their noise might be affecting other competitors.

Still, McAllister believes she can handle it. Plus, she assumes, the atmosphere in Lincoln can't be anymore difficult than the meet she looked up and realized how many people were in the stands at Utah.

That moment came shortly after the season started and led to some disappointing performances as the regular 9.8-plus scorer drew marks from 9.45-to-9.675 range.

"The first meets, I was just cruising through," she said. "Then I think it got into my head. I thought about it and it was like, 'Wow, it's a big deal to compete.' "

Such a revelation is normal for freshmen, Marsden said.

"They don't realize the pressure at first and then it hits them that if they mess up, they might get pulled from the lineup," she said. "One of the reasons we recruited her is because she seems like a gamer and is outgoing and happy. Greg told her to get back to whatever it was that got her here."

Coming out of the vault and floor lineup and focusing only on the bars, plus some talks with the team psychologist and coaches helped McAllister gain her confidence back.

In addition to holding the leadoff spot on bars, she has competed on the floor in three out of the last four meets and has scored 9.85 twice. She also competed on the balance beam for the first time at regionals and scored a 9.8.

Now just days away from her most important routine of her college career, McAllister said she is in the right mind frame to handle the pressure.

"I've got my nerves under control," she said. "I'm really excited, ready for it."