College Gymnastics: U.'s Eberle thrives when pressure's on

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Sometimes, the 4-inch balance beam seems too expansive and the vault runway too short for Annabeth Eberle. Give the girl a real challenge - make that beam even narrower or the vault runway a 100 yards longer - and see what happens.

She probably would come up with her best scores yet.

Gymnasts have to thrive under pressure. It's the nature of the sport, where success is measured in tenths and the difference between winning and losing can be the strength in a fingertip gripping the uneven bars.

Eberle is special, though. She is not just able to compete in tense situations; she prefers it. When it comes to the season, April is her month. It is when everything the team has done during the season culminates in the championship push.

"I love it," Eberle said. "The practices can get long, when you have a whole week of training, but I love the meets, when everything is on the line."

Eberle and the Utes, who host the NCAA's North Central Region meet on April 9, have plenty at stake this time. Brigham Young and Southern Utah also will be at the Salt Lake City regional.

Utah has the nation's top ranking, and the high expectations that come with it. The Utes also have some growing frustrations. Utah hasn't won a national title since 1995, the program's longest drought in its 30-year history. The Utes have finished sixth the past two years.

"I didn't assume or expect we'd win a national title when I came here," Eberle said. "But we are past due for one and we definitely have a chance this year."

Especially with Eberle leading the way. As a freshman, she was inconsistent throughout the year until the post-season, when she hit every routine to help the Utes finish fourth.

"I was worried about her," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "It was always something different, too. She just couldn't get it together in the season, but she did in the post season, and she has been a rock ever since."

That year, she won the West Region vaulting championship. In 2003 she won the Central Region all-around title and earned All-American honors in the all-around and the vault. Last year she took second on the vault at nationals.

This season, she has been bothered by ongoing ankle problems, but is feeling her best now, just in time.

"The cortisone shot I had really helped," she said. "I was getting really sick of training in pain, and I didn't know if it was going to get any better. I was only able to do the bare minimum and it was getting frustrating."

For Eberle to mention pain, much less complain about it, is significant. Keep in mind this is someone who earned her best all-around score, a 39.675, when she was so sick, she still couldn't practice two days later.

"I like a challenge," Eberle said.

It's her determination and the way she leads that has earned her the respect of her teammates. They've voted her a co-captain the last two years, a rare honor.

"To be successful, you've got to have a team full of gymnasts who can step it up," Marsden said. "But you have to have someone who can lead too, and she has learned to compete through a lot."

Eberle, ranked seventh in the all-around, eighth on the vault and tied for sixth on the floor in the most recent rankings, has all of her upgrades in her routines. Her level of difficulty, combined with her improved health and competitive attitude, have her on an upswing at just the right time.

Course, what else did anyone expect from her come spring?

"I've felt more and more comfortable as the season has gone on," she said. "I'm comfortable with my floor routine and my ankle is good. It's automatic for me right now."

She's on in April

Utah gymnast Annabeth Eberle always seems to shine in April:

* As a freshman in 2002 she hit every routine to help the Utes finish fourth

* In 2003 she won the all-around title at regionals and earned All-American honors in the all-around and vault

* In 2004 she was second on the vault at nationals