Gainesville, Fla. » Utah's fifth-seeded gymnastics team consists not only of a bunch of talented athletes but smart ones. They know as the fifth-seeded team in the NCAA Championships their chances of winning the NCAA title realistically aren't very good this year.
But the Utes (15-4) are also experienced enough to know when it comes to the championships, crazy things can happen. In 1999 the Utes were one of the favorites since they were hosting the championships. But they didn't even qualify to the Super Six that year.
A year later, a battered and beaten Utah team put together the meet of the season to finish second at the NCAA Championships. Then in 2003 a very strong Utah team was humbled in the biggest meet of the season, finishing a disappointing sixth after a season in which the Utes had posted some of the highest scores in the program's history.
Anything can happen, the Utes have learned. Such history is why the Utes are realistic about their chances in the NCAA competition but they aren't without hope either.
The Utes haven't broken the 197 mark, a number UCLA, Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma all averaged in their regional qualifying score, but the Utes have hovered around the 196.9 limit the last three meets which is an indication to the team the possibility is there to compete with the favorites.
"I do believe there are some teams out there that are better than us this year," co-coach Megan Marsden said. "I'm not going to lie about that. But I do think this team is positioning themselves to be closer to their potential at the end and they showed that at regionals. You never know what can happen."
The Utes haven't won a national title since 1995, but before the Utes can think about ending their championship drought they must qualify for the Super Six, a task which looks difficult in itself.
The Utes compete this afternoon against UCLA, Oklahoma, Oregon State, LSU and Nebraska with the top three qualifying for Friday's team finals. Utah lost the season opener at UCLA and defeated Oregon State and Nebraska in the regular season.
The evening session consists of Florida, Alabama, Stanford, Arkansas, Missouri and Michigan.
Knowing they've already beaten two of the teams in their session gives the Utes some confidence, but they're being careful in not getting too caught up in comparing themselves to other teams, said senior Annie DiLuzio.
"We are using the same focus we had at regionals," DiLuzio said. "We want to do our best but we can't stress over scores. We need to do what we are capable of and hopefully it will be good enough to get us to the second night.
"We've seen some of the teams and it might sound selfish but we don't want to get caught up in what they are doing," she said. "We know these teams are the best in the country competing and we don't want to be all wide-eyed and looking around. We've seen most of them and we know what we are up against."
To advance, the Utes feel they must avoid counting any falls. They can win a regular season meet with a fall, like they did against BYU this year, but the Utes simply don't have the big scorers to make up for such mistakes against the best teams in the nation. Moreover, the days of teams getting by with a fall or two are over in Marsden's opinion because the competition has gotten better.
"We need to hit at least 24-for-24 or something like regionals and maybe more," Marsden said. "Those teams beneath us are close and it may take more to qualify this year. You need to be consistent meet after this and that has been tricky to do for this team this year. Our goal is go in and see if we can do something close to regionals."
The team at least has more confidence now than ever.
"We are talented and working hard so we should definitely qualify, I think," senior Daria Bijak said. "We just need to get it all together on that one night."
The averages for the teams in the NCAA Championships, which include teams' regional qualifying scores plus their national qualifying score (the RQS combined with the regional meet score).
Session 1, 11 a.m. MDT » No. 1 UCLA, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Utah, No. 8 Oregon State, No. 9 LSU, No. 12 Nebraska
Session 2, 5 p.m. MDT » No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Alabama, No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 10 Missouri, No. 11 Michigan
Note: Seeds are based on national qualifying score, which is the teams' regional qualifying scores combined with their score from the regional competition.
Live scoring online » Follow along at ncaa.com and gatorzone.com