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Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden likens the first meet of the season to a football game - you have to take a hit or two and get a little dirty to get your competitive edge back.
"Then you go, 'Ok, I can do this,' '' he said.
After a preseason chewing out by their coach and two road meets, consider the Utes seasoned. It's just in time, too, with the third-ranked Utes hosting No. 6 Nebraska tonight at the Huntsman Center.
Marsden said this was his least prepared team in three years just before the season started at UCLA two weeks ago. Now, Utah isn't in the dire shape he feared and is looking more like the team he thought he'd see in the gym after the holiday break.
"We got our nerves out on the road," sophomore Jessica Duke said. "It was nice to have those meets on the road so we can be strong when we're at home. We've done a few upgrades and we all feel more comfortable."
The Utes, though, still
have two big concerns. Utah counted a fall in both its meets, and Nicolle Ford's wrist isn't getting any better.
Marsden hopes he fixed the first issue by shuffling his lineup. Kristina Baskett will compete in the all-around for the first time, sliding into the balance beam lineup, and fellow freshman Nina Kim won't compete on the floor, where she has fallen twice.
"I feel a little better about where we are," Marsden said. "But we've got to get more consistent. We've got to get through a meet without counting a fall, because if we don't we're not going to beat Nebraska. Nebraska is a team that rarely misses."
Ford's injury is more of a growing concern. She started feeling pain in her wrist a few days before the season opener against UCLA. An MRI didn't reveal any damage, but Ford competed on just the uneven bars and balance beam against Washington in an attempt to put as little pressure as possible on her wrist.
This week, she has only practiced two vaults and one floor exercise a day, since those events cause the most aggravation.
She is slated to go in the all-around tonight. Ford is the only Ute ranked in the top 10 individually, currently second on the balance beam, fourth on the bars and sixth in the all-around.
"I've baffled the doctors," she said. "It's frustrating because it's so early in the season and I don't feel like it has progressed, it's getting worse."
While they can't find the cause of the discomfort, doctors don't believe Ford will make it worse by competing. How much she does compete is her decision.
"She's old enough to know how much she can deal with," Marsden said. "As long as we know we aren't going to cause more damage, I'll trust her decision."
The wrist may hurt, but she'd feel a lot worse if she sat out tonight's meet. Not only is it the season opener, but the Huskers and Georgia were the only teams that defeated the Utes in the regular season last year.
Technically, wins and losses don't matter, since seedings into the national championships are based on scoring averages. But realistically, when is walking out of a gym as a loser ever fun?
"We still have a lot of pride," Ford said. "Greg will come in and say, 'Oh, by the way, they beat us last year. But that doesn't matter.' We know it does."
No. 6 Nebraska at No. 3 Utah
Tonight, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center
What to look for: Utah is ranked second on the vault as a team, averaging 49.1 . . . Nebraska's Emily Parsons is rated as the top all-arounder in the country . . . Incorrect rankings were released Monday. In the revised edition, which uses the season average, Utah was No. 3 and Nebraska No. 6.
Elsewhere: Brigham Young competes at Utah State, Southern Utah is at Oklahoma at 6 p.m.