MINNEAPOLIS - Utah's gymnastics team successfully advanced out of what coaches refer to as the scariest meet of the season. Now on to the hardest one to win.
Utah won the North Central region Saturday held at the University of Minnesota, scoring a 196.950. Finishing second and advancing to the NCAA Championships along with the Utes was Arkansas, which scored a 196.125. The other finishers were Minnesota (195.275), Arizona (194.275), Southern Utah (194.05) and Iowa (193.875).
The Utes weren't as sharp as they have been, perhaps a result of travel delays and a long layoff since the regular season ended. Several gymnasts also took some of their bigger skills out of their floor routines, choosing to be conservative and hit rather than making costly errors that might have doomed the Utes and suddenly ended their national title dreams.
"It's always a little disappointing when we don't do our best, but this is a meet we just wanted to get through," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "We know we have to be a lot sharper at the next meet."
That next meet, of course, is the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., April 24-26. The Utes have finished second the last two seasons and are aiming for their first national title since 1995, won in Athens.
"It's nice to get this one over with and we can move on to the next big thing," senior Ashley Postell said. "That is the one everyone is waiting for."
Utah's biggest struggles came on the uneven bars, where it opened with a 49.1, one of its lowest scores of the season. Utah didn't have any noticeable major breaks, but wasn't clean enough to earn the big scores the Utes have put up this season.
There were also several gymnasts who avoided heavy deductions by covering errors, leaving Marsden guessing what his team was going to come up with next. Luckily, they were good enough for the judges.
"I like this team," he said. "I like that they battle. We could have had three falls on the first event and didn't. We covered, went on and made up new things."
One gymnast whose struggles went unnoticed was senior Ashley Postell. She won the all-around with a 39.6, won the floor with a 9.95, the balance beam with a 9.9 and the uneven bars with a 9.85.
The wins gave Postell new school records, surpassing former Ute great Theresa Kulikowski for wins in a season (43) and career (116). Kulikowski won 40 event titles in 1999 and Postell entered Saturday's competition tied with Kulikowski for wins in a career with 112.
Postell said she wasn't feeling well Saturday, but it was hard for observers to detect any weakness as she pulled in one big score after another.
"It's nice to have the records now that I don't have to worry about it," Postell said. "For a while it was stressing me out. It was the question of the week."
The question Saturday was if the Utes could improve on their poor start. They did.
They scored a 49.075 on the balance beam, a 49.375 on floor and a 49.4 on vault.
"I was very pleased with vault, I don't think we can do better than that," Marsden said.
Postell, Kristina Baskett and Annie DiLuzio all took elements out of their floor routines.
"We didn't want to beat anybody's body up now," Baskett said. "We wanted to get our jobs done and come out healthy."
The Utes may have been average by their own estimation, but they were still good enough to distance themselves from the other five teams who were left to battle for the second coveted berth to the national championships.
SUU was in that mix early after scoring a 48.85 on the floor, but slipped more and more behind as errors mounted.
The T-birds had to hit 24-for-24 in coach Scott Bauman's estimation to have a realistic shot at advancing to their first national championship, but his team couldn't deliver that kind effort with several falls.
"It would have been nice if we had finished a little higher, we had a chance to move up a little, but this is a young team and it's a great experience for them," he said.
Ashley Postell not only won the bars, but also the beam and floor on her way to another all-around title to lead Utah to the National Championships.
* IN SHORT: The Utes claim their second straight region title and advance to the NCAA Championships for the 27th time.
* KEY MOMENT: The Utes finish with their best event, scoring a 49.4 on the vault.
* KEY STAT: Ashley Postell wins four event titles, setting a school record for wins in a season (43) and career (116).
MORE COVERAGE INSIDE: Utah's Kristina Baskett steals vault title from disappointed Aggie: S10
Vault: Kristina Baskett (Utah) 9.925
Uneven bars: Ashley Postell (Utah) 9.85
Balance beam: Ashley Postell (Utah) 9.9
Floor: Ashley Postell (Utah) 9.95
All-Around: Ashley Postell (Utah) 39.6