Kragthorpe: Utah gymnastics' advance to nationals comes as no surprise
Greg Marsden answered the question, but the knowing giggles from the University of Utah gymnasts seated nearby may have said even more than his words.
The annual NCAA regional meet is "always a little nerve-wracking," said the Utes' co-head coach, "and this is a good one to get behind you."
That's because in college gymnastics, the only meet that matters is the NCAA Championships in mid-April. Yet a top-two finish in a six-team regional is the only qualifying avenue, which gave Saturday's exercise at the Huntsman Center its own degree of importance which is to say a very good team's whole season could be ruined, two weeks before nationals.
Skipping to the end of the story, Utah won the Salt Lake City Regional with a 196.825 total, topping Nebraska's 196.525 mark. Minnesota (194.8) was far out of the running for the two bids to the NCAA Championships, so whatever concerns existed about the Utes' advancing seem silly now.
But that's just the point. The gymnasts took the floor knowing that Utah had never not qualified for nationals in the program's history, dating to 1976, making this meet strictly a pass/fail course. The only potential news value would be Utah's staying home from nationals.
"You try not to think about it, but I think I can say obviously it's in the back of your head," said Utah senior Stephanie McAllister. "Nationals is almost less pressure, because you're there."
The field for the Pac-12 Conference meet two weeks ago, when Utah placed a close second to UCLA, was much stronger and deeper than Saturday's competition. Yet the possibility existed that with an off night, the No. 8-ranked Utes could finish behind No. 5 Nebraska and No. 17 Minnesota.
The Utes dismissed any nervousness or negative thinking and delivered an outstanding performance from start to finish, turning another regional title into a meaningful achievement.
Disasters do happen in this sport, if not to the Utes. In 2010, five-time defending national champion Georgia was eliminated in the regional meet.
There were some doubts about the Utes that same year, but they came through on their home floor by finishing a strong second to Florida. The only time an also-ran came within even a half-point of knocking out Utah was in 2002, when the Utes won the regional meet, followed by host Oregon State and Oklahoma.
So Marsden's understandable fears have been unfounded for 37 consecutive years now. Utah someday may have its season end at this stage, but "it doesn't seem like it's going to be that way any time soon," said Nebraska coach Dan Kendig.
If it was weird to see the Utes open a home meet on the floor, their traditional closing event, they obviously were ready for it. After a first-rotation bye, Utah scored 49.325 on floor, led by Kyndal Robarts' 9.9 effort.
Then came a 49.225 showing on vault, topped by freshman Kailah Delaney's 9.9 mark. On bars, the Utes posted 49.25, boosted by a 9.9 from Georgia Dabritz.
The Utes went to the beam, comfortably ahead of Nebraska's pace, with the Cornhuskers having finished. No other team was remotely close. Utah scored 49.025, led by 9.825 marks from Kassandra Lopez and Mary Beth Lofgren, who each had fallen in the Pac-12 meet, keeping the Utes from winning that night.
The Utes responded well in the regional meet, hitting every routine. So they're off to nationals, as always, and McAllister said, "I think we can surprise people."
As for Saturday, the absence of any surprise was a good thing.