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AUBURN, Ala. - Annabeth Eberle, the seasoned veteran on Utah's women's gymnastics team, gamely tried to say the right things in the post-meet news conference. She was following the same cautious themes as her coach, Greg Marsden.
Finally, she gave up and acknowledged what the fire in her eyes already showed - if the Utes don't win a national title tonight, the whole season will seem a waste. The national title, which has eluded the Utes since 1995, is just four rotations away.
"It's so cool to think we're one step away from possibly winning a national championship," Eberle said. "I say that with 'possibly,' because we can't go in with any expectations."
Oh, but the Utes have plenty of hopes, even if they hesitate to express them. They are protecting themselves in case they fail.
The Utes can't help but talk about the national title, not after a great season was topped with another standout performance Thursday in the NCAA Championships. The Utes advanced to tonight's Super Six by winning the afternoon session with a 196.85, its highest score at the NCAA Championships since it earned a 196.95 in the 2002 championships, when it placed fourth.
Also advancing out of the afternoon rotation were Michigan (196.575) and Nebraska (195.875). Eliminated were LSU (195.8), Penn State (194.975) and Oklahoma (194.425).
The twists and turns in Thursday's afternoon session were like the different angles in a balance beam routine. Nebraska had to wait for its final routine before it could celebrate its advancement, while LSU coach D-D Breaux sat at the media table, hands clasped and eyes watering as she realized her self-proclaimed "best team ever" won't even get to compete tonight.
Second-place Michigan rallied from its own troubles, while Penn State and Oklahoma were both done in by the beam.
Then there were the Utes. The only mistake they had was from Nicolle Ford, who fell on the balance beam, just her second fall of the year.
Ford let some tears go after the fall on her favorite event, but the rest of the meet went so well, even she was smiling by the end of the afternoon. Even without her normally big score, Utah still had the day's high mark on the beam, a 49.075.
"This team hasn't had the feeling of winning a national championship," Ford said. "We want it."
The Utes certainly exhibited the kind of gymnastics that used to earn them national titles on a regular basis. Utah opened with a solid 49.175 on the uneven bars, then grew stronger and more confident.
Even Utah's question marks in the lineups performed better than Marsden had hoped. Rachel Tidd battled through her back problems to score a 39.4 in the all-around, including the day's best on the uneven bars, a 9.925. Gritt Hofmann, who hasn't practiced much because of a strained calf muscle, scored a 9.9 on the floor to earn All-American honors.
Utah's performance ended with Eberle earning a 9.95 on the vault, the high score of the afternoon on the event.
By that time, the Utes had locked up their spot, and were already thinking ahead.
"That was just a warm-up," freshman Ashley Postell said. "We're bringing it tomorrow."
Which seems to be the only question left of the Utes. How much better can they be, if they must? Alabama will have the home crowd and two-time defending champ UCLA will have the big tricks.
The Utes are driven by the sixth-place finishes of the last two years, almost embarrassing results for the nation's winningest program.
"We know how close we are to a national title," Hofmann. "We just have to do what we've been doing."
* Utah advanced to tonight's Super Six by winning the afternoon session with a 196.85
* Utah's Ashely Postell tied for third in the all-around
* Tonight's Super Six at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, Auburn, Ala., begins at 6 p.m.
* Live updates: www.auburntigers.com