Cleveland • Utah expected falls, inconsistent scores and miscues this season because of so many freshman on the team.
But instead of performing like rookies, the Utes have been one of the most consistent teams that coach Greg Marsden has had in his career.
Now comes the real test.
If the Utes stay on the equipment Friday during their NCAA Championships preliminary competition, they might advance to the Super Six.
The Utes (12-4) are seeded fourth in their session behind three teams Alabama, Florida and Oregon State which held the top rankings at season's end.
Also in the session are Big 12 champion Nebraska and Kent State, which was ranked just No. 24 but is co-hosting the event with Cleveland State.
Against such a competitive field, one fall, even one that ultimately doesn't count in the team's score, could be enough to end the Utes' season. They understand how close the meet is likely to be, but they can't focus on that, said freshman Mary Beth Lofgren.
"We've shown we have the depth to do well all year," she said. "We have to keep remembering that and have fun."
The Utes have won meets this year even when they've had falls. But while none have counted, such big errors often cost teams a tenth here or there because the scores don't build as they normally do when every gymnast hits.
This year, with such a competitive field and the Utes lacking the big guns to make them favorites, Utah can't afford those lost tenths.
The last few practices have focused on cleaning up routines and cutting down on deductions as much as possible knowing there is little breathing room.
"While things can happen, we have to anticipate feeling like we need to have our two best meets of the season," Marsden said. "If you have trouble and scores don't build, it's hard to get the scores where you want them to be in the last couple routines. Everyone needs to be at their best."
The Utes were reminded of that effect during the NCAA Regionals, when Stephanie McAllister fell off the balance beam. Her score didn't count and everyone else hit, but the Utes received one of their lowest scores of the year and had to battle back from sixth place.
Luckily the Utes haven't had many meets with falls, hitting 274 of their 288 routines. That consistency, plus the familiarity of what the post-season brings, should help the Utes today, said freshman Corrie Lothrop.
"As long as everyone does what they are capable of and we stay calm and get in our comfort zone I think we can compete for that top spot," she said.
But even if the Utes hit they still might not advance, given the injuries to key gymnasts and the talent elsewhere. Marsden is keeping expectations realistic, hoping to help the team deal with the pressure of nationals.
"Nobody is going to pick us as a favorite," he said. "I've seen all kinds of things happen at nationals, but if we go in there and hit four solid events and are solid throughout, that is all you can do. If we do that, no matter what the result is we need to be happy with how we do. Everything else is out of our control."
Working in the Utes' favor is the team's ability to remain calm in pressure situations. Last year heavily favored Florida caved under the pressure of hosting nationals and Washington fell, literally, under the pressure of being ahead of the Utes at regionals.
McAllister said she believes the Utes can continue their outlook even now and avoid such collapses.
"As long as we keep thinking about ourselves and our team and not making mistakes and just do what we do, hopefully it will turn out like we want," she said.
But one misstep, she knows, can bring everything down.
P At Cleveland
Afternoon (10 a.m.)
• No. 2 UCLA
• No. 3 Oklahoma
• No. 6 Michigan
• No. 7 Georgia
• No. 10 Arkansas
• No. 11 Illinois
Evening (4 p.m.)
• No. 1 Alabama
• No. 4 Oregon State
• No. 5 Florida
• No. 8 Utah
• No. 9 Nebraska
• No. 12 Kent State
Note • The top three teams in each of sessions advance to the Super Six, which starts Saturday at 2 p.m.
The four key routines
The Utes believe they have to hit every routine to advance to the Super Six, but here are four to watch that could determine their fate:
Vault • As the second to go, Lia Del Priore has hit 9.8 and 9.875 in the past two meets. Another 9.8 would put the Utes in great shape.
Uneven bars • The anchor on the uneven bars has scored 9.9 or higher five times this year. Another big routine could keep the Utes in the hunt and maybe qualify Mackie for Sunday's individual finals.
Balance beam • Jacquelyn Johnson has competed on the beam just four times but will lead off in the NCAAs with freshman Fumina Kobayashi out with a broken foot.
Floor • Corrie Lothrop didn't feel her best the second half of the season due to a sore ankle. The ankle is better now and Lothrop is optimistic she can deliver. Her season high is a 9.925 against Washington.