Kragthorpe: Gymnastics now center stage at U.

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Now that football was finally out of the way, the University of Utah could move on to the sport that matters.

The Ute gymnasts took the Huntsman Center floor Friday night, drawing their usual 10,000-plus crowd -- bigger than any basketball game this season. They also launched the year with a 197.675-197.300 victory over preseason No. 1 UCLA, meaning the No. 5 Utes only to have spend a few more days with their first lower ranking than the football team in the program's 30-year history.

The new rankings will be released Monday and the Utes will almost certainly be No. 1 -- not just because they upset the Bruins, but because their score is likely to be the best in the country during the opening weekend.

In other words, there's no subjectivity in gymnastics, unlike football.

Well, except for the fact the scoring is completely subjective.

More than in any other sport, though, success or failure in gymnastics is really determined by what happens on one night in April. The NCAA meet is for the gymnasts; the regular season is for the fans.

All of which means winter Fridays are fun on this campus, and the season-opening meet was more than a little nerve-wracking for a former world champion on the balance beam.

In no other sport could Ashley Postell arrive in town with her credentials and be as scared as any freshman before -- and even during -- her first meet. She's not accustomed to having teammates depend on her performance, or having 10,000 fans eagerly anticipate every posted score.

"We could tell her all day long, 'There's 10,000 people; get ready,' " said Ute veteran Annabeth Eberle, who knew Postell had to find out for herself.

"Just a different atmosphere," Postell said. "It's awesome how the crowd interacts with us."

Ute coach Greg Marsden is a fan of other sports and has described Postell as a "lottery pick," even if there's nothing to be gained by dragging the Jazz into this conversation.

Marsden was a little surprised how nervous Postell was, but he understood. "This is a new experience, even though she's accomplished so much," he said. "She didn't know exactly what to expect. But if that's her 'nervous,' I guess we'll be OK."

Almost as if it was scripted, Postell and Eberle tied for all-around honors at 39.625.

Marsden described the opening meet as almost perfect, producing a nice victory yet leaving room for improvement. The meet started a little late, but otherwise illustrated why Utah gymnastics remains so popular after 30 years.

What's not to like? The meets are run crisply, lasting about 90 minutes. Marsden books high-level opponents -- no Whitworths. Spotlighted, fireworks-spiced introductions create a special-event atmosphere. The meets are held on kid-friendly Friday nights, and free or discounted tickets are usually offered.

And the home team (almost) always wins. UCLA broke the Utes' 23-year home streak on its last visit in 2003, but the Utes returned the favor Friday.

The crowd helped, although gymnastics is not an "offense-defense" thing, said Bruins coach Valorie Kondos Field, the wife of a former UCLA defensive coordinator.

So the Utes could not do anything about UCLA's performance, and even the Huntsman Center fans applauded the opponent, while adding to the energy level in the building.

"I really like when the crowd gets into it, even if they're not into it for us," said UCLA's Kristen Maloney, a former Olympian.

While UCLA has won four of the last five NCAA titles, the Utes' last championship came 10 years ago. Other teams may be catching up to them, but the fans are hardly losing interest.

Postell seemed to have more fun as the meet went along. She'll be back for more, and so will her 10,000 newest fans.