Utah gymnastics: Utes looking for more bite, less nice
Just days after slipping from first to third in the Pac-12 Championships, Utah's gymnasts were back in their training facility, smiling and laughing as they readied for practice.
Apparently, failing to finish the opportunity to win the school's first Pac-12 title didn't have any lingering effects.
And that isn't necessarily a good thing.
Utah's gymnasts, while they might be talented, just don't seem to have the fire of teams in the past, Utah coach Greg Marsden acknowledged.
"This is a really nice group of kids and they are hard workers and they want to do well; they just don't have that killer instinct," he said. "They are nice kids who really enjoy each other and are fun to coach. They can get over what happened the other night much quicker than any of us coaches can. We are still hurting and they are fine."
While he doesn't want his gymnasts dwelling on the loss to the point it negatively affects their training, Marsden does worry and wonder how it is best to light the so-called fire under the Utes as they prepare for the NCAA Regionals scheduled for Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Utes shouldn't have any trouble advancing based on the teams' regional qualifying scores, but they have been inconsistent on balance beam. And with no fire, well, could they be left out in the cold?
Marsden doesn't think the situation is that dire. The Utes, after all, are ranked in the top 10 and recently knocked off No. 1 Florida.
"As long as we perform like we can, we should be OK," he said.
But the lack of want-to sure doesn't bode well for the Utes when it comes to competing for the regional title against Alabama, the two-time defending NCAA champion, or for the more coveted NCAA title.
After dominating the sport in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Utes won nine NCAA titles, the Utes have been a constant presence near the top but haven't brought home a title since 1995.
The drought might make fans antsy, but there is no real sense of urgency among the gymnasts, Marsden noted.
"We are just lacking that killer instinct, where we won't take 'no' for an answer," he said. "It is an intangible, something that can be hard to coach."
Marsden believes part of the problem stems from the team's youth. Utah doesn't have any seniors, and eight of the 13 gymnasts on the roster are freshmen and sophomores.
The other issue is Utah's gymnastics team, unlike other programs that were associated with the Mountain West Conference, competed as an independent before joining the Pac-12.
As a result, the Utes simply don't seem to get why competing for league honors is a big deal.
Junior Nansy Damianova went so far to explain away Utah's Pac-12 tumble as being OK because it was "just the Pac-12."
Junior Mary Beth Lofgren, who attended Skyline High and whose mother was a gymnast at BYU, understands college rivalries a bit more than some of her teammates, but said the team overall is still making a mental adjustment.
"Even last year when we were hosting the Pac-12s and thought it was cool, we weren't really sure how big of a deal it is," she said.
"But I don't think we let down easy. We do give a fight and we've had some great nights and some not so awesome nights."
Can the Utes find the competitive spirit they need to give them an edge in the postseason? Marsden hopes so, as does sophomore Kassandra Lopez. Lopez fell off the bars during the Pac-12 Championships last year, an experience she said made her even more determined than ever to do better this year. She did, scoring a 9.85.
Now, looking back at that performance, Lopez believes the rest of the team could benefit from similar motivation.
"I was more determined rather than nervous and that helped me," she said. "I wasn't worried about falling. I was talking to my teammates and they agreed everyone should have that confidence and we should be more determined."
And, perhaps, stop being so nice.
O Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where • Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Teams • Alabama, Utah, Denver, Iowa St., BYU, Kent St.
What is at stake • Top two teams advance to NCAA Championships