NCAA Gymnastics Championships: 'Fearsome Four' aim at Super Six
Getting to the Super Six. That is the goal of every team that makes up the field of 12 in the NCAA Gymnastics Championships.
But there is another competition going on at the same time as the struggle for making the Super Six cut, with a reward that is coveted almost as much as the team trophy - the battle for the all-around title.
Since the sport was sanctioned by the NCAA in 1982, four Utah gymnasts have won the individual championship, but none since Theresa Kulikowski was crowned the champion in 1999.
Defending champion UCLA has the nation's top-ranked all-arounders in Kristen Maloney and Tasha Schwikert, and Alabama's Ashley Miles will have the crowd behind her, but if you want to go with odds, there is no other team that is a better bet this year than the Utes.
Utah is the only team with four all-arounders ranked in the top 20. Freshman Ashley Postell is tied with LSU's April Burkholder at No. 4, Nicolle Ford is ranked No. 6, Annabeth Eberle is No. 7 and sophomore Rachel Tidd is No. 19.
Dubbed "The Fearsome Foursome," the group are a huge part of why Utah has been such a success this year. Together, they've hit 168 out of 174 routines and have won 14 all-around competitions.
Not that any one of them is counting.
"It would be great if one of us won the individual award," Postell said. "But that isn't our No. 1 priority. Like Greg [Marsden] says, everyone remembers who wins the team title the most."
Still, they all admit there is a little friendly competition amongst them.
"For me, it's a big honor to compete in all four events because it's so hard to get into the lineup," Ford said. "It definitely pushes me, because there is only going to be one who gets the glory at the end of the night. But even the ones who aren't in the all-around lineup push us because they want spots too."
The four may get similar results in their gymnastics, but their personalities are very different, and perhaps that is why there is so little catfighting in a sport known for prima donnas.
"They are very different, and that is good," Marsden said. "The one thing that is very satisfying is that any one of them could win the all-around depending on how they are competing championship weekend, but they've all bought into the importance of the team. Every one of them is focused on the team."
Eberle is the senior who is at her best when pressure is at its highest. She won the North Central region all-around title and is peaking at the right time, and she finally has her ankle injury under control.
"You'd think as a senior, she'd start to be going down," Postell said. "But she is as strong and powerful as anyone out there. She just gets the job done."
Ford is the self-crowned showoff who loves the spotlight. She still struggles with some fear of vaulting, but her love of performing in front of a crowd helps her get past that dread.
Tidd, the quietest of the bunch, has had the most exasperating season, dealing with back problems and a long illness.
"I can't even tell you how frustrating this season has been," she said. "My back hurts, it's just something I have to deal with. I don't even know when I've felt 90 percent, it has been so frustrating."
Finally, there is Postell, the freshman who was named the region gymnast of the year and is also ranked No. 1 on the balance beam. After all of her years of international competition, where individualism is stressed, it would be a little forgivable of Postell if she hadn't bought into the team concept yet, but she has.
Believe it or not, she once had a reputation of being difficult to deal with, an image that has never come to life at Utah.
"I couldn't tell if she was putting on a front the other night after she fell off beam," Marsden said. "I pulled her aside, and all she was concerned about was that her fall might keep the team from advancing. She has been the antithesis of her reputation."
But not in her gymnastics, which makes Postell, like her teammates, as dangerous in the race for the all-around title as any gymnast in the country.
"It's still not our first priority. Getting to the Super Six and getting a shot at the team title is," Ford said. "That is so much more important than one person, and all of us take what we do very seriously."
Utah's All-Around champions
1982 - Sue Stednitz
1983 - Megan McCunniff
1984 - Megan McCunniff-Marsden
1992 - Missy Marlowe
1999 - Theresa Kulikowski
At Auburn, Ala.
* Utah is in the morning session, while BYU competes in the afternoon session Thursday