Utah's gymnastics team was in need of something new, a breath of fresh air or a different perspective after the 2010 season in which the Utes stumbled to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
Well, the Utes have their new outlook going into 2011 in both some expected and unexpected ways.
The No. 5 Utes, who host top-ranked and defending champion UCLA on Friday in their season opener, enter the 2011 season with six freshmen and a new assistant coach.
But instead of being a detriment, the Utes say all the change has been nothing but a positive.
Outside last year's fall, the Utes have consistently finished near the top of the podium but have always fallen short of winning another title. Perhaps, then, the new energy that a large rookie class brings can not only give the Utes a new look in the roster, but maybe provide the program the last missing pieces to become a national champion.
So far, the signs have been good.
"Normally, when you have a lot of freshmen, you love them and hate them at the same time because of the process it takes for them of learning the college way and how we do things," Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden said. "We were dreading that, but they have surprised us and have been very mature and a hard-working, motivated group. They appreciate coming to be a part of a storied program and they are taking care of business. So far, it's been a bit like we are turning over a new leaf."
The Utes lost four gymnasts to graduation while two others, Meg Whitney (Washington) and Katelyn Mohr (Auburn), transferred.
In addition, assistant coach Jeff Graba left to become the new head coach at Auburn. He was replaced by Tom Farden, the former head coach at Southeast Missouri State and assistant at Arkansas.
Utah's rookie class was seven gymnasts but Alyssa Gale, out of Simi Valley, Calif., is retiring due to a lingering knee injury. Another, Victoria Shanley, is sidelined with mononucleosis for an undetermined amount of time.
All the changes have coach Greg Marsden cautiously optimistic about his team's goals in 2011. While the Utes return in good shape and have the enthusiasm and willingness to work hard, the great mystery is how they'll do under pressure, particularly against top teams they'll face in January.
In addition to the Bruins, the Utes will face No. 7 Georgia, No. 10 Nebraska and No. 6 Stanford in the first month.
"I realize we may go through some ups and downs and inconsistencies especially in the early part of the season until this group gets a feel of how things work," he said. "I hope, if that does happen, we can get it worked out early, but I feel like I need to take that approach because I just don't know how these freshmen are going to handle things."
The Utes expect about half their routines will be performed by freshmen. However, there is enough returning talent to help set the tone for all the rookies and to remind them of the challenges ahead for the Utes.
While the faces have changed, the motivation remains for the Utes to prove all their national championship glories aren't just a thing of the past.
Utah hasn't won the national title since 1995 and last year's finish was the lowest since a sixth-place finish in 2004.
Getting back to the top of the collegiate gymnastics world is an ever-present quest for each team. While unsure just how they'll do in the first few meets, the Utes believe they can challenge for a national title and they don't think they've peaked as a program.
The Utes have finished in the top three six out of the last eight seasons, giving them a level of success few teams in any sport have enjoyed. But such close losses have brought their own frustrations, too, as the Utes believe they were just a mistake here or there from winning it all, although the sheer dominance of Georgia kept the Utes pinned at No. 2 as well.
"I don't feel like we've ever been completely out of it," Greg Marsden said. "We've been very close the last few years. Last year we struggled but got it together at the end, but in the final analysis our inconsistency bit us at team finals. To win, you have to perform well, stay healthy and peak at the right time."
Last year might have been a sign that the Dawgs' reign is over, perhaps opening the door for the Utes and other teams again. After winning five titles in a row, Georgia failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships under first-year coach Jay Clark, who took over the program when Suzanne Yoculan retired.
Marsden, though, is refraining from making any specific expectations until he sees how his team competes.
"It's a talented group," he said. "But it's still a matter of them doing what they are capable of in a meet."
Whether this team can end the drought remains to be seen, but senior Kyndal Robarts believes there is plenty of potential among the gymnasts.
"We needed a fresh start after last year and we definitely have one this year," she said. "We are going to do our best and see where everything falls. We know we don't want to finish sixth again. We've been in contention every year so it's good we know we are capable, it's just a matter of being able to do it. But we're looking good and we're getting there."
The Utes haven't won a national title since 1995, but since then have been the most consistent team behind Georgia, which won five titles in a row from 2005 to 2009 and has won an NCAA-record 10 titles. Here is a look at Utah's finishes since its last title run.
2nd place • 2008, 2007, 2006, 2002
3rd place • 2009, 2005, 1996
4th place • 2002, 1998
5th place • 2001
6th place • 2010, 2004, 2003
7th place* • 1999, 1997
*Failed to qualify for the Super Six, but had the highest preliminary score out of the teams failing to qualify.
2011 Utah schedule
Jan. 7 • vs. UCLA, 7 p.m.
Jan. 15 • at Georgia, 4 p.m.
Jan. 22 • at Nebraska, 6 p.m.
Jan. 28 • vs. Stanford, 7 p.m.
Feb. 4 • vs. Arizona St., 7 p.m.
Feb. 11 • vs. Washington, 7 p.m.
Feb. 18 • vs. Michigan, 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 • at Utah State, 7 p.m.
March 4 • vs. Florida, 7 p.m.
March 12 • at Oregon State, 8 p.m.
March 18 • at BYU, 7 p.m.
April 2 • NCAA Regionals, TBA
April 14-17 • NCAA Championships, Cleveland, Ohio
Top 25 preseason poll
1. UCLA 1,035
2. Alabama 950
3. Florida 948
4. Oklahoma 881
5. Utah 853
6. Stanford 818
7. Georgia 749
8. Oregon State 702
9. Michigan 696
10. Nebraska 691
11. Arkansas 648
12. LSU 647
13. Missouri 479
14. Penn State 456
15. Auburn 415
16. Denver 361
17. Illinois 333
18. Boise State 311
19. Arizona 274
20. SUU 195
21. Washington 191
22. Iowa State 114
23. Minnesota 109
24. Kentucky 102
25. Arizona St. 100
Around the state Gymnastics programs
Up north, Utah State looks to rebound from a dismal 2010 season in which the Aggies went 1-16 in coach Jeff Richards' second year of trying to rebuild the program.
The Aggies did place third at the WAC Championships, and they hope that finish will set the foundation for the 2011 season.
Utah State has six freshmen on its roster but also has experienced gymnasts returning in captains Lyndsie Boone and Jackie Dillon and a rising star in all-WAC selection junior Rebecca Holliday.
• Jan. 7, vs. SUU, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 14, vs. BYU w/Arizona, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 21, at San Jose State, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 29, at BYU w/Iowa State and SUU, Noon
• Feb. 4, at SUU, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 11, at Sacramento State, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 18, vs. Boise State, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 25, vs. Utah 7 p.m.
• Feb. 27, at Boise State, 2 p.m.
• March 4, vs. Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.
• March 12, at SUU/w Iowa, 2 p.m.
• March 19, WAC Championships at San Jose, Calif., 7 p.m.
A young Cougars squad struggled in 2010 with BYU's only wins coming against Utah State and against Arizona State and Boise State in a tri-meet.
This year, coach Brad Cattermole hopes the lessons learned in the struggles plus the return of several key gymnasts will help the Cougars to better results.
The Cougars return nine lettermen and welcome four freshmen.
Among the key athletes returning are junior Natalie Eyre, who competed in every met on the vault, bars and beam, and junior Jennifer Lezeu, one of the strongest athletes on the floor last year.
Cattermole believes his team can qualify for the NCAA regionals with a spot in the NCAA Championships possible. The Cougars were a fifth seed at regionals last year and finished sixth.
• Jan. 8, at Denver, 6 p.m.
• Jan. 14, at Utah State, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 21, at Kent State, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 29, vs. Iowa State/Utah State, noon
• Feb. 4, at LSU, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 11, Texas Woman's, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 18, at Arkansas, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 26, Arizona, 7 p.m.
• March 4, Auburn, 7 p.m.
• March 7, at SUU w/ Auburn, 7 p.m.
• March 11, at Arizona w/ New Hampshire, Texas Woman's, 7 p.m.
• March 18, Utah, 7 p.m.
While both BYU and Utah State have struggled to keep pace with the upper echelon of collegiate gymnastics, Southern Utah only continues to get stronger.
The Thunderbirds, picked No. 20 in the preseason poll, should be in the hunt not only for a spot at the NCAA Championships but also for the Western Athletic Conference title.
SUU's biggest competition for the league title is Boise State, which is ranked No. 18.
Last year, SUU finished No. 18 after winning its first conference title behind the strength of conference Gymnast of the Year Elise Wheeler and Freshman of the Year Alyssa Click.
SUU hoped to earn a bid to the NCAA Championships, but was placed in a tough region and finished third behind Stanford and Michigan, two teams that are regulars at the NCAAs.
• Jan. 7, at Utah State, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 14, UCLA, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 21, Sacramento State, 7 p.m.
• Jan. 29, at BYU w/Iowa State and Utah State, noon
• Feb. 4, Utah State, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 11, at Cal State Fullerton, 8 p.m.
• Feb. 18, San Jose State, 7 p.m.
• Feb. 25, at Missouri, 6 p.m.
• March 4, at Boise State, 7 p.m.
• March 7, Auburn w/BYU, 7 p.m.
• March 12, Iowa w/Utah State, 2 p.m.
• March 19, WAC Championships at San Jose, Calif., 7 p.m.