Lincoln, Neb. » Judging by final placings, the Utah gymnastics program went backwards in 2009.
The Utes, who finished second the last three years, slipped down a spot on the podium to third in Friday's NCAA Championships despite posting their highest score ever at the NCAAs (197.425).
However, there is no one involved with the program who actually believes the Utes lost ground. If anything, the program is moving forward, the Utes say.
Utah, which finished third behind Georgia and Alabama on Friday, is the only team other than the Gym Dogs with five top-three finishes in the last five years.
Georgia and Utah are the only two programs that have qualified for every Super Six in the last 10 years as well.
Of course being so consistent comes with its negatives too, as Utah coach Greg Marsden understands why fans might be impatient his team hasn't claimed a title since 1995 when they are so close to No. 1 so many times.
However, he is satisfied as long as he feels his program isn't wallowing or slipping.
"Would we like to win, absolutely," he said. "We are working to win. I said it on the team bus, it's not the result we wanted, yet we did everything we could and competed well and we have to accept that and focus on the great things we did accomplish this year and not on the few things we didn't."
If anything, the Utes feel better about their 2009 season and third-place showing than they did their 2007 season when the team never really gelled but still finished second.
Calling that a year he never wanted to live through again because of the different personality clashes on that squad, Marsden said the Utes have worked hard to be a stronger unit ever since.
The benefits of that work were never more obvious this season, a season Marsden rated as one of his most enjoyable to coach.
The Utes (22-5-1) lost only to Georgia in the regular season, held the No. 1 ranking for three weeks and were never ranked lower than third. Utah also gained more fans than ever, averaging an NCAA record 13,861 for home meets.
"It's hard to find something to be upset about," senior Kristina Baskett said. "The preseason was awesome, we had a great time and we did everything we could to win. We have zero regrets."
Much of the success goes to the leadership roles that Baskett and senior Nina Kim assumed. They were the ones who led the offseason workouts and inspired their teammates with motivating techniques.
That the rest of the gymnasts bought into their beliefs as eagerly as they did makes Marsden believe the seniors' legacy could be as much about what they did for the program's future as what they did on the competition floor.
"Part of success is building traditions and passing things on and I do think we've been through an interesting transition the last three years," he said. "We've gotten back to more what it was like 10 years ago, in terms of the feeling on the team and the commitment from the athletes."
Encouraging to Marsden was the talk on the bus after Friday's competition. Instead of dwelling on the Friday's result, many gymnasts were already talking about 2010.
"Beyond Kris and Nina, there were people who trying to think of ways to bring people together and I think we have several who have strong personalities who are poised and ready to make that transition to be senior leaders," Marsden.
Next year's seniors will be Annie DiLuzio, Jamie Deetscreek, Beth Rizzo and Daria Bijak, who'll be key performers as well as leaders.
Deetscreek and Bijak both had improved seasons in 2009 while DiLuzio excelled on vault and floor. Rizzo missed this season with an ankle injury but in the past has been a consistent performer.
Marsden also believes sophomore Gael Mackie could be the next Deetscreek. "She's ready to have a breakthrough year," he said. Freshman Cortni Beers and sophomore Jacquelyn Johnson, who competed sparingly, will also have bigger roles.
The Utes will welcome two new gymnasts, bringing in Katelyn Mohr, a three-time USA National Championship competitor and Meg Whitney, a member of the Junior Olympic National Team.
The potential is there for the Utes to keep building, Marsden said.
"I've already talked to some of them about how their roles will change," he said. "They deserve a break right now, but it's important to appreciate their opportunity."
Utah's gymnastics team hasn't won a national title since 1995, but has been the second most consistent program in recent years. Here is how the Utes stack up to others in the last five years.
2005 final standings
2006 final standings
2007 final standings
2008 final standings
2009 final standings