Cleveland • For several seasons now, Utah's gymnastics team has been good enough to hover near the top teams in the sport, but the Utes always lacked that last little bit be it talent, a sense of urgency or leadership to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
But now, the Utes feel they are on to something.
It doesn't matter that the Utes' fifth-place showing at the 2011 NCAA Championships here in Cleveland was one of their lowest in the past seven years. That the eighth-seeded Utes were in the mix after losing their top gymnast for the season with a knee injury and relying on six freshmen for half of the routines made the year an overwhelming success.
The finish also left the team wanting more. Even before they'd left the arena, the Utes were talking excitedly about the 2012 season.
"Last year I went through it myself," junior Stephanie McAllister said. "After the season I went back and looked at what I did and needed to work on and now we can all do that. Being here and seeing those top teams, we're already talking about the things we can work on and be even better next year."
The Utes have plenty of potential as they lose just two seniors, Jacquelyn Johnson and Gael Mackie, and return six freshmen.
Utah will also return its top all-arounder, Kyndal Robarts, after she missed all but two meets this season with a knee injury.
The potential in the Utes has coach Greg Marsden more excited about a team's progress than any he has had in recent seasons.
"The freshmen really came in and brought some fresh enthusiasm, and the returning people did a great job of mentoring them," he said. "It was a different feeling this year. You can tell they get it, and it's just a matter of them figuring those things out, that this is how you do things. You use that experience and you move forward and build on that."
The Utes couldn't be on an upswing at a more critical time with the move to the Pac-12. The conference is a gymnastics power with UCLA, Stanford, Washington and Arizona all finishing the regular season in the Top 20.
As an independent program the Utes often schedule those teams so they know the level of competition they'll see next year on a regular basis.
But what will be new to them is being in a conference. The carrot that will be in front of them next season is their designation as the hosts for the Pac-12 Championships, an event the conference offered to the Utes as a sort of welcome gift to the league.
"To have a conference for the first time and host the meet, that is going to be great for us," McAllister said. "We know all the teams and what we need to do, so nothing will be unexpected for us. We know what it takes to get there."
Ah, next year. As hard as the Utes have worked, it seems 2012 can't get here soon enough for them. Next year, a fifth-place showing won't be as celebrated. There will be more expectations and more pressure.
Bring it all on, they say.
"This year we overachieved," Marsden said. "Now these guys have the experience and I'm really optimistic we can continue to grow this program back up. â¦ We want to be competing where we are back up on the awards stand."
A look ahead to the 2012 Utes
Who are they losing? • Jacquelyn Johnson and Gael Mackie graduate. Johnson had her best year as a senior and was a key leadoff gymnast while Mackie was a solid contributor, particularly on bars.
Who will be back? • The Utes return a freshman class led by Mary Beth Lofgren and Corrie Lothrop. They also return all-arounders Stephanie McAllister and Kyndal Robarts.
Who will they add? • Utah has five freshmen in its signing class, including elite level gymnast Georgia Dabritz, of Newburyport, Mass.
What will they face? • On its 2012 schedule, Utah has seven teams that finished the regular season ranked in the top 10.
Jan. 8 • at UCLA
Jan. 13 • Utah State
Jan. 27 • BYU
Feb. 3 • Georgia
Feb. 12 • at Arizona State
Feb. 17 • at Michigan
Feb. 24 • Stanford
March 2 • Oregon State
March 9 • Nebraska
March 16 • at Florida
March 24 • Pac-12 Championships