NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships: Utes expect loud crowd, tough meet

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AUBURN, Ala. - Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden told the media at Wednesday's NCAA championships news conference that he was a graduate of Auburn, and that he hoped all his former alumni would come to today's meet and cheer for the Utes.

That he was wearing an orange shirt - Auburn's color - almost made Marsden, who actually graduated from Central Arkansas, sound believable.

Auburn is a central location for SEC schools Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, which puts the Utes in enemy territory - and gymnastics scores are notorious for being affected by a crowd's reaction.

"We compete here a lot, and we're going to have a lot of fans," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson, whose team has won three of its four national titles just up the road at its home in Tuscaloosa. "The SEC is going to band together with a lot of support."

So where does that leave the Utes? They still have the top ranking, but unfortunately, it isn't worth a tenth of a point, which is probably more than the margin that will separate first from second this year.

"This is anybody's meet," UCLA coach Valorie Kondos-Field said. "You can't take it for granted anymore that you will reach the Super Six. It's going to come down to whoever gets on a roll."

Virtually every team in the field can claim to have had a bit of that winning touch this year.

After losing to the Utes in the season opener, the Bruins have their old championship swagger back. Alabama downed Georgia in the regular season, but the Gym Dogs came back and won the SEC title. Florida, which was fourth at the SEC meet, beat Georgia in the regional competition. LSU, the other SEC school, enters with its best team ever and spent some time at No. 1.

Nebraska beat Utah in the regular season, and Michigan, which suffered a narrow loss to the Utes, was consistent throughout and also held the No. 1 ranking at one point.

That leaves only Penn State, Oklahoma, Brigham Young and Iowa State as true surprises if they make the Super Six.

"No one is going to run away with it this year," Marsden said.

Utah did catch a bit of a break with its session. The Utes are competing in the afternoon, with just one SEC school, LSU. And Nebraska, also in the afternoon, will be without 2003 all-around champ Richelle Simpson, who hurt her knee in the regional competition on the floor. Simpson tried to practice Wednesday in a knee brace, but she couldn't perform well enough to warrant putting her in the lineup.

Simpson hurt her other knee last year and couldn't compete. She was granted a hardship scholarship by the NCAA for this year, giving her a fifth season.

Utah is dealing with some injuries too, although none are as extreme. Senior Gritt Hofmann practiced and is expected to compete despite a strained calf muscle, and sophomore Rachel Tidd is tentatively scheduled to compete in the all-around but possibly might be held out of some events if her back acts up.

Even with possible lineup changes brought on by injuries and a deep field, the Utes like their chances.

"It has been a few years since I felt that if we went out and just do our job, we might be good enough to win, and we don't have to depend on other teams [to fall]," Marsden said.

But don't be surprised if he sticks with that orange shirt, though, at least for another day.

Today's meet

At Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, Auburn, Ala.

AFTERNOON SESSION: Nebraska, Michigan, Utah, Penn State, Oklahoma, LSU

EVENING SESSION: Georgia, BYU, UCLA, Florida, Iowa State, Alabama