Anyone who witnessed Utah’s performance Saturday night in a resounding victory over UCLA at the Huntsman Center would have been shocked by the scene that unfolded Friday afternoon at the nearby Dumke Gymnastics Center as the team gathered for practice. The level of discipline the Utes would display in the meet was missing, and co-coach Greg Mardsen was upset.
Rocky, the labrador and gym fixture, was tearing apart a foam block in the landing pit and Marsden yelled, "Bad dog!"
The instruction finally took hold. Actually, Marsden may have to employ such tough-love tactics to address the Utes’ issues on the balance beam, because this team otherwise has all the makings of a national championship contender. No. 4 Utah showed that potential in a 197.125-195.875 defeat of No. 8 UCLA, clearly establishing itself as the class of the Pac-12.
"This team’s capable of absolutely anything," said Georgia Dabritz, who was phenomenal in her three events, while not having made Utah’s beam lineup.
Dabritz totaled 29.9 points on vault, bars and floor in a showing that Marsden labeled "absolutely perfect, in my opinion," and her effort was more than enough to overcome the Utes’ biggest rivals.
Gymnasts are trained to worry only about themselves during a meet. In the build-up, though, they’re allowed to think about the opponent. That explains the tiny, stuffed Bruin that was hanging in the practice facility, festooned with a red-ribbon noose.
"It’s not just about getting out there and dancing and performing," Marsden said, "it’s all about beating the other team."
Having competed independently as freshmen, Utah’s seniors like the conference affiliation. They watch other schools on the Pac-12 Network and follow the rankings closely. They always were conscious of UCLA, but "now that we’re in the same conference, it definitely kicks the rivalry up to another level," Lia Del Priore said Friday. "We’re really excited to go out there and show them what we’ve got and kind of quiet them a little bit."
That’s precisely what the Utes proceeded to do, although Marsden replaced Del Priore in her two events, illustrating Utah’s depth.
More than any other coach in Utah’s athletic department, Marsden knew what his program was getting into with the Pac-12. The gymnasts have always competed with Arizona State, UCLA and other conference schools, and now they’re doing so as members.
The Utes’ schedule features seven dual meets with Pac-12 schools in the regular season, and they’ll see UCLA again in March in a tri-meet at Michigan. Then comes the conference meet, hosted by California.
Utah finished a close second to UCLA in the 2012 event at the Huntsman Center, then placed third last year. So while other Utah women’s programs such as soccer and volleyball are making progress in the conference, the gymnastics team has yet to deliver the school’s first Pac-12 trophy.
The prize should be within reach this season, considering only Utah, UCLA and Stanford (No. 12) are ranked in the top 15, as of late January.
Of course, everything in gymnastics is built around the NCAA meet. The Utes are geared toward a better April showing after missing the Super Six finals last year and being "a bit embarrassed," Marsden said.
They showed plenty of determination Saturday, while leaving room for growth on the beam. That’s either going to be a season-long issue, or simply an opportunity for the Utes to elevate themselves in the national picture. "We’ve got to absolutely flip that and make it our best event," Marsden said. "If we can do that, then we’re a contender."
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