As usual, Utah's gymnastics team is competing against UCLA in its season opener. But tonight's competition in the Huntsman Center has a bit of a different edge to it than past season openers.
Not only do the Bruins enter with the No. 1 ranking and the distinction of being the NCAA defending champions, but tonight's meet also marks the last time the two teams face off as nonconference rivals.
The teams' annual battles will take on a whole new meaning next year when the Utes move to the Pac-12.
While adjusting to a Pac-12 schedule next year will be a big change for most of Utah's programs, for Utah's gymnastics team it will be more like a homecoming.
The Utes regularly compete against teams from the BCS league and have meets against Stanford, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon State this year.
"The Pac-10 has always been good for us with geographic convenience, most are easy trips to fly to and the competition is good," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "But we are excited to be involved in a conference finally and we are very familiar and comfortable with the teams. I think it's a good fit for us and I hope they feel we are adding something to the conference as a gymnastics program."
Out of all the teams, the Bruins are Utah's biggest Pac-12 rival for several reasons. The Bruins are in the elite group with Utah, Alabama and Georgia as having been the only schools to win a national title. The two have also had several close meets and the coaches have a strong bond, making UCLA eager to have Utah in its conference, coach Valorie Kondos Field said.
"I'm extremely excited to have Utah join our conference," she said. "Any team that makes our conference stronger is a huge plus for us."
Marsden said the two often have an "us against the world" mentality too at national events as they do battle with the SEC teams.
"We share similar views and approaches," Marsden said. "It's been a bit like that saying of going out and playing backyard basketball with your brother; in this case, it's like competing against my sister."
The Bruins won last year's opener decisively, taking down the Utes 196.6-195.125. Friday's meet has all the makings of being a repeat performance since the Bruins enter with a seasoned squad led by four All-Americans, including Brittani McCullough, the defending NCAA floor exercise champion. They also have talented freshmen 2009 Canadian all-around champion Sydney Sawa and 2008 U.S. Olympic trials participant Olivia Courtney.
Utah, on the other hand, is a inexperienced team with six freshmen who are expected to contribute about half of the team's routines tonight.
The Utes have had a solid preseason, but all the youth has Marsden tempering expectations for the team until he sees how they compete under pressure.
"We had a great preseason and the new people came in and worked hard and they want to be successful," he said. "But we need to get through a couple of meets to know what we have to do to move forward."
Nevertheless, the Utes would love to upend the Bruins not only to start the season with a big win, but also to send a signal they've arrived, in a way a year early.
"It's going to be fun and a great way to start the season,," senior Gael Mackie said. "UCLA is the reigning champion and we know all that, but we are thinking about hitting ours skills the best we can. It's more about us and starting off the season well no matter what happens."
No. 1 UCLA at No. 5 Utah
P At the Huntsman Center
Start • Friday, 7 p.m.
About the Utes • Are 6-2 against the Bruins in season openers. â¦ Freshman Corrie Lothrop and junior Stephanie McAllister are expected to compete in the all-around. â¦ The Utes face seven of the top-10 teams in 2011 and compete at No. 7 Georgia next week.
About the Bruins • Return all but one gymnast who competed at the 2010 NCAA Championships, although defending vault champion Vanessa Zamarripa is out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon. â¦ Have won six NCAA titles. â¦ Received 38 of 42 first-place votes.