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Upstart Aggies welcome top-ranked Utes to Logan

Published January 14, 2005 1:13 am

USU Women's Gymnastics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah at USU

Tonight, 6:45

Utah State opens its gymnastics season tonight in Logan with the healthiest and most highly touted lineup it has had in several years.

But what do all of the ads say that have blanketed the local radio, newspapers papers and flyers? Come see the No. 1-ranked Utes.

"Occasionally you have to do things like that," said Utah State marketing director Kim Larson. "It makes everyone excited to see a No. 1-ranked team coming to town, and we did the same kind of thing with football when they were having a bad season."

However, it's also a great example of the state of gymnastics in Utah. Even at a team's season opener in a year filled with high expectations, the Utes can be overshadowing before one vault has been performed.

There was a time when that gap wasn't so great. Take the 1991 season, when three of the 12 teams that qualified for the NCAA

Championships were from Utah. The Utes finished second, Brigham Young University was eighth and Utah State was 12th.

That year also marks the last time Utah State qualified for nationals, and the Aggies are coming off their first back-to-back losing seasons since coach Ray Corn took a club program and turned it into a Division I team in 1978.

So just what is the state of Utah State gymnastics? Are the days when the Aggies were a consistent participant in the postseason over?

Not so, according to Corn, who is entering his 28th season as coach.

"The program has been in a downturn for one reason or another the last couple of years, but I think we're coming out of it," he said.

Having a program such as Utah's, one of the nation's best, in your backyard could be seen as a hindrance.

But Corn insists the opposite is true, saying Utah's high profile helps his program. Whereas BYU can use its ties to the LDS Church and recent top-20 success to recruit, and Utah can use its history and top caliber facilities, Utah State sells itself as being not exactly Utah, but something close.

This season, the Aggies have just one Utah gymnast on their roster - Rachel Ropelato - but normally has more than that.

"A lot of gymnasts grow up wanting to go to Utah, and quite honestly, they'll come to us after they've been declined, because we can give them a scholarship," Corn said. "But we can't just recruit in Utah, if we did that we'd shoot ourselves in the foot. We use our academics, too."

For Utah State, perhaps its biggest competition isn't the Utes, but other sports and programs that are drawing athletes and fans away from gymnastics. In the early 1990s, Cache Valley had a thriving youth gymnastics program with about 1,200 children involved. According to Corn, that number has dropped to less than half that as other sports such as soccer and hockey have grown.