Gainesville, Fla. » Perhaps it's time to stop thinking about Utah's gymnastics team as underdogs but favorites again.
The fifth-seeded Utes certainly looked like the Utes of old Thursday as they roared into tonight's Super Six competition with their most impressive meet of the year in the preliminaries of the NCAA Championships.
Utah, which hasn't won a national title since 1995, totaled a 196.625 to finish behind top seed UCLA, which had the high mark in the session with a 196.875. The Utes (19-5) compete Friday at 4 p.m. in the Super Six.
Also qualifying out of the afternoon session was Oklahoma with a 196.55.
Nebraska (196.175), Oregon State (196.05) and LSU (196.025) all missed the cut.
Alabama won the evening session with a 196.85 while Florida came from behind to qualify with a 196.775 and Stanford qualified with a 196.3. Michigan (195.7), Arkansas (195.6) and Missouri (194.6) all failed to advance.
Even though they didn't 'win' the afternoon session, the Utes left Florida's Stephen C. O'Connell Center feeling good enough to not count themselves out of tonight's finals.
"It's all more icing on the cake for us," senior Annie DiLuzio said. "Nobody had expectations of us making it to nationals and we new we could do it, we just had to stay loose and put it all together. Every single team has a shot now, it's a level playing field."
The title does seem more up for grabs now than ever, particularly after Thursday's afternoon session.
The Utes went from holding a comfortable lead over all the teams through the first three rotations and finished with a team high of 49.25 on the beam. But the early celebrations that they'd qualified ended quickly when the Utes realized the other teams who were still competing were posting very high scores.
Suddenly they went from being a sure bet for Friday's finals to the edge of not qualifying.
"It was agonizing," DiLuzio said. "We were sitting there seeing the scores going up and up and rising and you'd watch a team hit a routine and you didn't know if you were in or out. That was the hard part."
Such dramatics left all of the teams cautioning tonight's Super Six could be the most closely contested the sport has seen.
"It's too close," said UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field in denying her team could be perceived as the favorite. "There is more and more parity out there. Who knew until the last rotation who was moving on? It's anybody's meet to win. It's new life to make it to that last meet and I think there is going to be six amazing teams there. It can be anybody's."
Including, perhaps, even the Utes. Marsden still considers her team an underdog, partially because the Utes haven't broken the 197 mark like some of the other teams have.
But perhaps she wants her team to keep that mindset too because the Utes have done so well ever since adopting it as senior Daria Bijak acknowledged.
"Everyone counted us out already and we came here with the attitude we didn't have anything to lose," she said. "We were all kind of nervous at the end, ending on a bye was hard watching the other teams but I'm glad we have another chance tomorrow to show what we can do."
The Utes' only major mistake Thursday came on floor where junior Kyndal Robarts suffered her first fall. The rest of the team did well enough to score a 49.1. However, Utah will need Robarts and the other normally high scorers to have an even better performance tonight if the Utes are to claim the title.
"We need to have a perfect meet," she said. "On bars and beam, I'd take that performance we had tonight again, but there were some sticks on landings on vault and things on floor we need to clean up."
Utes qualify for the Super 6
Afternoon session Qualifying
1. UCLA 196.875
2. Utah 196.625
3. Oklahoma 196.55
Failed to qualify
4. Nebraska 196.175
5. Oregon State 196.05
6. LSU 196.025
1. Alabama 196.85
2. Florida 196.775
3. Stanford 196.3
Failed to qualify
4. Michigan 195.7
5. Arkansas 195.6
6. Missouri 194.6
IN SHORT » The Utes qualified for their 11th straight Super Six with Thursday's effort.
KEY STAT » The only team that counted a fall in the afternoon session was LSU, which had a fall on balance beam to fall from a potential third-place showing to sixth.
Today, 4 p.m.