Birmingham, Ala. • A big smile spread across Mary Beth Lofgren’s face when asked what this season has been like for Utah’s gymnastics team.
“It has been crazy,” she said. “With the exception of the Stanford meet, we’ve been building with every meet and we just want to keep that going.”
They only need to make one final push. Finally, the fifth-ranked Utes are at the culmination of all their hard work as the NCAA championships begin Friday in Birmingham, Ala.
Shortly after they finished ninth last year, the worst finish for a Utah team in the NCAAs, the Utes set a goal of redeeming themselves this season.
They took major steps in doing so by winning the school’s first Pac-12 title and claiming the regional title. Now, all that is left to do is earn a spot in Saturday’s Super Six and let fate control what happens.
“There are so many strong teams, but I like our chances,” Utah coach Greg Marsden said. “We have demonstrated we are a strong team, now we just have to finish it off.”
Even though they are slotted into a difficult session with two SEC teams and Pac-12 rival UCLA, the Utes are confident they can perform well enough to be one of the three teams to advance.
If they aren’t, well, that would be devastating, the Utes acknowledge.
“We’re ready to show how hard we have worked and how far we have come,” junior Georgia Dabritz said. “We’ve been making progress everywhere all season and you have to go in with confidence. Otherwise, you’re not going to have a good outcome.”
Marsden said he feels his team is peaking at the right time, but so are the other teams.
“We know the challenge that faces us is tough, but we feel very good about our chances of getting into the Super Six, that is what we have been pointing too all year,” he said. “But there are so many good teams, any of them could win.”
The Utes are feeling particularly confident after their recent meets in which they have competed well on the balance beam, the event that doomed Utah last year and hindered them earlier this season.
But after scoring 49.2 or higher in the last three meets on beam, the Utes view the event as more of an ally than enemy, a mentality that more than anything else illustrates the team’s growth through the season.
“This year, we are more ready to compete with the mental part of it,” said Corrie Lothrop. “Thinking back to how we were in September, it’s really cool to see how far we have come. We have both sides of it now.”
Unfortunately, feeling strong both mentally and physically doesn’t guarantee anything, particularly at the NCAAs.
Crazy things have happened before with teams that have been hot all year crumbling while others emerge as surprising winners.
To that end, the Utes aren’t getting too confident, particularly since their session looks so tough on paper.
Alabama will have the home crowd and the confidence of having won the SEC title in the same building just a few weeks ago. Florida is the defending champion and has posted consistently high scores all year long. Finally, there is UCLA, which no doubt would love to knock off the Utes after losing to them at the Pac-12 meet.
“You get to nationals and it is anyone’s game,” Lofgren said. “A tenth of a point can separate a lot of teams.”
Working in their favor is a rotation that has the Utes opening on the uneven bars. It is virtually the same rotation the Utes had at the Pac-12 meet and is familiar to them since it is their rotation for regular-season road meets.
At the recent regional meet, the Utes used huge efforts on the vault and floor to leap from third to first.
“We know we can finish well on vault and floor,” Lofgren said. “Starting on bars and beam, we are used to that so we are thrilled.”
The Utes haven’t won a national title since 1995. Whether the Utes can break the drought this year or not is something the gymnasts say they aren’t dwelling on now. To a certain extent, the way they’ve changed the team’s attitude after last year’s debacle already makes them feel like a winner.
“We have worked so hard this season, we know we are up there,” Kailah Delaney said. “Now it’s time to show everyone what we can do.”
NCAA gymnastics championships
Birmingham (Ala.) Jefferson Convention Complex
Coverage • ESPN3; utahutes.com
Friday, noon MDT • Georgia, Stanford, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois
Friday, 6 p.m. MDT • Utah, Alabama, Florida, UCLA, Nebraska, Penn State
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT • Super Six
Sunday, 1 p.m. MT • Individual finals
Session II team breakdowns
Final season ranking • 1
Season high • 198.325
Coach • Rhonda Faehn (12th year)
Top all-arounder • Alaina Johnson (39.825) and Bridget Sloan (39.825)
Of note • Won its first gymnastics national title last season
Final season ranking • 4
Season high • 198.25
Coach • Sarah and David Patterson (36th year)
Top all-arounder • Kim Jacob (39.625)
Of note • Won the SEC title in the same building a few weeks ago
Final season ranking • 5
Season high • 198.025
Coach • Greg and Megan Marsden (39th year)
Top all-arounder • Tory Wilson (39.6)
Of note • Became the first team from Utah to win a Pac-12 title
Final season ranking • 8
Season high • 197.5
Coach • Valorie Kondos Field (24th year)
Top all-arounder • Samantha Peszek (39.7)
Of note • Is 1-3 against Utah this season with the lone win coming at a tri-meet at Michigan
Final season ranking • 9
Season high • 197.225
Coach • Dan Kendig (21st year)
Top all-arounder • Emily Wong (39.65)
Of note • Failed to make Super Six in 2013; highest finish was fourth in 2011
Final ranking • 15
Season high • 197.2
Coach • Jeff Thompson (4th year)
Top all-arounder • Krystal Welsh (39.5)
Of note • Upset No. 12 Oregon State at regionals to advance to the NCAAs