Difficult schedule awaits young Utes

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Making his lineups was a challenge for Utah coach Greg Marsden last year. He had a roster full of healthy gymnasts and was eight or nine deep on many events without any dropoff in skill level. Well, it's a new year, and a new story. The Utes, coming off a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships, already are dealing with more major injuries than they had at any point in 2005. Sophomore Ashley Postell tore the medial collateral ligament in her elbow and senior Kristen Riffanacht has a high ankle sprain and has been limited in her training. Then there is the story of junior Rachel Tidd, who hasn't practiced since last year because of back problems. Officially, she is still on the team, but it's doubtful she'll ever compete again. "Losing Rachel really hurts us in terms of depth," Marsden said. "We really need everything to go smoothly with Ashley and Riffy so we can get them back as soon as possible." Last year's finish was the highest for the Utes since they placed second in 2000. Yet, despite the thin numbers, Marsden believes his team can duplicate or even better its showing from a year ago. "To do it, we've got to get healthy," he said. "We're going to have to keep our fingers crossed and be diligent and prudent in our training to make sure we stay healthy." Second-ranked Utah has three freshmen: Nina Kim, Beth Rizzo and Kristina Baskett. Kim and Baskett could be in the all-around lineup from the beginning out of necessity as much as for their talent. However, Marsden isn't expecting the same kind of performances out of this freshman group as he had from Postell, who hit 43 of her routines before suffering a fall. "That was a little bit atypical and we can't expect that kind of consistency," he said. "We're going to have to temper our enthusiasm and expect some ups and downs to start." Utah's schedule doesn't give the Utes much of a break-in period for the newbies. The Utes open the season at No. 3 UCLA, then travel to No. 18 Washington before playing host to No. 8 Nebraska in their home opener on Jan. 20. It's a difficult schedule, especially for a young group, but Marsden believes it's the best thing to get the Utes ready for a championship run in the spring, even if it means losing a meet or two. "I've said it before, when I make a schedule, I don't worry about wins and losses or about trying to win every meet," Marsden said.

Utah's Rotations

STRENGTH: Being one of the favorites in 2005 was new territory for the Utes. With the core group returning, they know how to handle the pressure and expectations that come with a No. 2 ranking.

WEAKNESS: The Utes must hope for a repeat of last year, when they made it through the season with few injuries, because Utah doesn't have the depth to overcome the loss of its key gymnasts.

KEY NUMBER: 5 - Gritt Hofmann, a senior last year, returns for a fifth season after the NCAA granted her another year because of a medical hardship. She competed in just one meet as a freshman because of a back injury.