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ATHENS, Ga. - There were a lot of reasons junior Kristina Baskett decided on Utah when she was being recruited by gymnastics programs around the country. She liked the atmosphere, the coaching staff and environment. Ultimately her decision came down to one need she shared with fellow Utes.
"All the girls came here wanting to win the national championship," she said. "We all came here knowing that is what is expected of us and we want it more than the university does."
The Utes want it, but so do 11 other teams who are here for the NCAA Gymnastics Championships that start today at Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum.
Georgia, the three-time defending champion is a favorite, and so too is Florida, which was No. 1 last season but couldn't pull off the kind of dynamic meet it needed on the last day and finished third. Then there is Michigan, a school that has enjoyed one of its best seasons, and LSU, a team no one is talking much about but is experienced with competing in SEC territory.
The list of legitimate contenders goes on and includes the Utes, whose last national title was won in this building in 1995. Utah is in its best position to win a national title since the early 1990s, but beating Georgia on its own floor will still be a difficult task, Utah coach Greg Marsden said.
"Everybody knows we are a good team this year, but Georgia is a very good team too," he said. "Let's look at reality. Yes, we beat them in January, but if they don't count a fall on beam, they win that meet. We went to Florida and did a good job and were almost a point behind. There is no way you can look at it and not consider those teams the favorites. If you are a Utah, Stanford, UCLA or Michigan, you know it's a monumental challenge of winning in that environment."
It's a challenge that teams believe they can overcome. Florida coach Rhonda Faehn talked about the disappointment of finishing third last season and said her team was more physically and mentally prepared now than it was then. Alabama gymnast Kaitlin White pointed out the Tide came within 0.025 of beating Georgia at the SEC championships, and Michigan coach Bev Plocki said her team is eager to show what it's capable of doing.
UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field was the most outspoken in Wednesday's press conferences, challenging Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan with a "game on," comment.
The messages coaches and athletes gave out seemed to be twofold: Yes, Georgia will be difficult to beat, and yes they all believe they can do it.
The T-shirts with targets on their backs that Georgia ordered for its team and fans seem very appropriate indeed.
"We might as well enjoy it and embrace it," Yoculan said of the feeling of being hunted.
In seasons past, Yoculan has been so bold as to guarantee national championships, and her team came through with those victories. But the outspoken coach stopped short of such a declaration on Wednesday. She said her team was in the best position possible after winning the SEC and region title and entering as the No. 1 seed, but used the losses to Utah and Michigan and the loss of sidelined star Courtney Kupets to exemplify Georgia's vulnerability.
"I feel like we have the talent and chemistry to win, but there is a lot of parity and other teams may feel the same way," she said.
Utah shares those sentiments, even if the Utes are in enemy territory.
To have a chance at another championship and advance to Friday's Super Six, the Utes must finish in the top three of their session today.
It's presumed to be the more difficult session with Georgia, UCLA, Stanford, Michigan and Denver also competing. However, if the Utes want to hold the trophy that goes to the best team in the land, they have to prove they are the best team in the land, and they might as well start proving it tonight, Baskett indicated.
"We want to beat all the teams; it doesn't matter who we are up against, we should be good enough to move on," she said. "Our main goal is to make it to the Super Six, and then there is nothing really to lose."
At Athens, Ga.
* Session I (11 a.m.): Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, LSU, Oregon State
* Session II (5 p.m.): Denver, Utah, UCLA, Georgia, Michigan, Stanford