Ready or not, Utes face challenge in season opener

College Gymnastics
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Normally, teams can't wait to start the season. They're tired of training every day and only competing against each other. They're eager to see what the competition brings.

That isn't the case for the No. 2-ranked Utah gymnastics team, which opens the season tonight at No. 3 UCLA. Whether it's gymnasts still getting over injuries or gymnasts who enjoyed the holidays a little too much, the Utes enter the season opener wishing they had a little more time to get ready.

"I told the team this was the least prepared team we've had in two or three years," said coach Greg Marsden, who gave his gymnasts an earful of similar sentiments at a recent practice.

Part of the problems are injuries. Both Ashley Postell (elbow) and Kristen Riffanacht (ankle) will be limited in the first several meets. If they were healthy, Marsden acknowledged he wouldn't be as upset about what kind of shape the team returned in after Christmas break. But their absences magnify the problem because the team's lack of depth already had Marsden struggling to put together a lineup.

"We had finals week and then 10 days off and if they aren't self-disciplined, it really catches up with them," Marsden said.

A year ago, the Utes opened the season with a 197.675-197.3 victory over UCLA. The Utes moved into the No. 1 ranking after the win and held the top spot for all but three weeks. Utah finished third at the NCAA Championships, its highest placing since taking second in 2000.

Utah's steady, solid performances were due in part because it had few injuries. This season is at least starting out much differently.

"Right now, we are struggling," junior Nicolle Ford admitted. "We've got people coming back from injuries and others are still learning their routines. I'd say we're not quite there yet, but it is the beginning of the season. We're not going to be quite as prepared as we would be at nationals."

Freshman Nina Kim and Ford are the only ones scheduled to compete in the all-around tonight.

Postell and Riffanacht probably will participate only on the balance beam.

Marsden refused to single out the gymnasts who returned in poor shape, but he did say Jessica Duke and Gritt Hofmann were two who exceeded his expectations. Duke is slated to compete in everything but the beam, and Hofmann will compete in everything but the uneven bars.

Having Hofmann on the team is a sort of bonus for the Utes, after she was granted a fifth year by the NCAA. She competed in just one meet as a freshman because of a back injury.

Hoffman has no plans to coast through the season and has upgraded the difficulty in many of her routines.

"If I had a chance to compete another two years, I'd do it," Hofmann said. "I seem to be ready even earlier than I used to be. I'm very happy."

Even though the Utes haven't looked great in recent practices, Marsden left open the possibility that his team will perform better under pressure - when it's sharing the floor with the Bruins, winners of five national championships.

Postell was at least one who believed in that theory.

"We've had a couple of rough days, but once we get to the meet, we'll be fine," she said. "I think he just does that more to motivate us and give us a kick in the butt. Everyone needs that once in a while."