Utah Gymnastics: Returning stars, 'lottery pick' make Utes national contenders
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Rachel Tidd is over the mononucleosis that cut short her 2004 season; four-time All-American Annabeth Eberle is in her usual great form; Gabriella Onodi is better than ever; and freshmen Ashley Postell and Katie Kivisto will make the Utes stronger, even though Melissa Vituj and Veronique Leclerc have graduated.

Sounds like the Utes are more loaded than ever. So why does Utah coach Greg Marsden say he's only cautiously optimistic?

A glance at the 2004 results reveals the answer - a great season that ended with one bad day.

Two falls on the uneven bars, Utah's first event in the NCAA Super Six, did in the Utes, as they fell to sixth place for the second consecutive year.

It's a great reminder that no matter what a team's credentials are, if you don't put it together on the final night, then you're left with only unfulfilled expectations to match those credentials.

"It's not something that we're focusing on yet, we just want to finish it off and be at the very best on the night it counts," Marsden said.

Utah probably would be a national championship contender based on its returning talent alone, but the presence of Postell makes Utah not just a contender, but a favorite.

She won the balance beam at the 2002 World Championships and was the 2003 U.S. floor exercise champ. Her impact already is drawing comparisons to greats Missy Marlowe and Theresa Kulikowski.

"She is our lottery pick," Marsden said.

UTAH UP CLOSE

STRENGTHS: Experience. More than any team in the state, the Utes know what it takes to compete at the highest level.

WEAKNESSES: With three freshmen and three sophomores, the Utes are young, which can translate into inconsistent results until they get accustomed to competing in a college atmosphere.

THE KEY NUMBER - 9: Utah competes against nine of the teams in the preseason top 12, starting with Friday's opener against defending champ UCLA.

UTAH UTES SCHEDULE

Jan. 7 vs. UCLA at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

Jan. 14 vs. Utah State at Logan, 7 p.m.

Jan. 21 vs. Oregon State at Corvallis, Ore, 7 p.m.

Jan. 28 vs. Michigan at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

Feb. 5 vs. Minnesota at Minneapolis, 7 p.m.

Feb. 11 vs. Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

Feb. 20 vs. Nebraska at Lincoln, Neb., 2 p.m.

Feb. 25 vs. Georgia at Athens, Ga., 7 p.m.

March 4 vs. Cal, Florida, Stanford at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

March 11 vs. Washington at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

March 18 vs. Arizona State at Salt Lake City, 7 p.m.

March 26 vs. BYU at Provo, 7 p.m.

April 9 NCAA Regionals at Salt Lake City, 6 p.m.

April 21-23 NCAA Championships at Auburn, Ala., TBA