Utah junior Stephanie McAllister has earned the nickname "Happy" for the ever-present smile she has and the infectious, gleeful attitude she brings to the Utes' gymnastics team.
This year, that nickname is more appropriate for the Indianapolis, Ind., native than ever, as she has plenty to be happy about after her strong start.
McAllister won the all-around in the season opener and placed second in the category in the Utes' win against Georgia.
She is ranked 11th nationally in the all-around and will be the go-to gymnast who leads the fourth-ranked Utes into another difficult challenge Saturday, as they take on No. 9 Nebraska.
While she has already mastered the squad leader's trick of turning questions or comments about herself into a "we" or "team" answer, McAllister will admit she is still getting accustomed to her new role as being the team's star.
"It feels good, especially after last year," she said. "Last year was weird for me, with illnesses and injuries. I wasn't as prepared. This year, I'm more comfortable and felt ready when the season started."
McAllister's sophomore season wasn't a wash, by any means, but she always felt like she was a step or two behind where she should have been, thanks to various injuries. Her preseason training was interrupted when she fell off the beam and suffered a concussion, then an ankle sprain and separated shoulder prevented her from competing to her maximum.
She still managed to earn second-team All-American honors on the uneven bars, and she set or tied every personal best at the NCAA Championships, including a 39.375 in the all-around.
Awarded the team's Most Inspirational Gymnast honor, McAllister was happy with the way 2010 ended, but she wished her whole season could have been as strong as the ending.
She came into 2011 determined to have a better start and spent long hours in the gym during the summer upgrading her routines.
"I looked at everything I did last year and knew I could improve things," she said. "I worked on my floor routine every day and added the full-in. Last year was motivating for this year, and it has paid off."
A three-time Junior Olympic team member prior to joining the Utes, McAllister's success isn't surprising to coach Greg Marsden.
However, the way she has carried her training success to the competition floor so seamlessly has impressed him.
"I know she worked hard all summer, but she has taken it all to another level," he said. "She has been fun to watch."
Her development has been helpful not only for her scores, but for the freshmen on the team, Marsden said.
"She is so upbeat and positive, that is how her nickname happened," he said. "But to have that and see her hard work pay off so consistently, she has been a good model."
McAllister is, of course, happy about her start. She's determined to finish just as well, too.
"The last two meets we've won not by focusing on winning or trying to be perfect, but relaxing and having fun," she said. "People may not understand how that works, but when you are having fun in practice and meets, it carries over. They go together."
No. 4 Utah at No. 9 Nebraska
P At Devaney Center, Lincoln, Neb.
Time • 6 p.m.
Records • Utah 2-0; Nebraska 1-1
Series • Utah leads 41-7-2
Last meeting • Utah won 196.575-195.725 (March 5, 2010)
About the meet • Nebraska is 4-2 against the Utes at home, but Utah has won their past six matchups, including a 2009 meet in Nebraska. â¦ This is the home opener for the Huskers, who scored a 195.45 against Iowa State last week. â¦ Janelle Giblin has a team best 39.025 in the all-around for Nebraska. â¦ Utah's freshman class has hit 21-of-21 routines. â¦ Kyndal Robarts is ranked No. 1 in the vault.