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College Gymnastics: Gripping drama

Published March 6, 2006 1:31 am

Nicolle Ford's hand injury is one of many subplots in tonight's highly anticipated matchup between No.1 Georgia and No. 6 Utah
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

No. 1 Georgia at No. 6 Utah

TONIGHT, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center, KJZZ

What to look for: Utah is 9-0, its best start since 1999. . . . Defending NCAA champ Georgia hasn't lost since falling to Alabama on Feb. 18, 2005. . . . Utah's Nicolle Ford will compete despite a dislocated finger. . . . Georgia's Courtney Kupets, a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist on the uneven bars, is ranked No. 1 in the all-around and the bars. . . . Utah's Ashley Postell is ranked No. 1 on the balance beam.

Collegiate gymnastics' two winningest programs, two undefeated teams, two gymnasts who earned the title as the world's best, two coaches who fight like siblings and one rivalry spiced up by close wins and controversies.

In the words of Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden, tonight's showdown between No. 1 Georgia and No. 6 Utah doesn't get any better for collegiate gymnastics fans. The NCAA Championships are almost two months away, but tonight's meet will have all the atmosphere of a title bout. The teams are separated in the rankings by a mere .805 points.

"Neither one of us, I hope, is going into this with the attitude of 'Oh, we just want a good score and we don't care if we win or lose,' '' Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan said. "That's not my thinking, and I don't think it's Greg's. No matter who I'm competing against, I'm going in it to win."

Georgia hasn't competed in Salt Lake City in a dual meet since 1991, when Utah won 194.65-193.25. Utah fans who attended that meet will remember one of Georgia's gymnasts, Heather Stepp, suffered a gruesome arm injury during vault warmups that threatened to end her career.

This time Utah has the key injury, with Nicolle Ford set to compete despite a dislocated finger she suffered in practice a week ago Sunday.

The meet promises to be as tight as the tape that holds her fingers together and as tough as the callouses on her hand.

"This meet has been on everyone's mind all week," Ford said. "It's going to be scary, and exciting."

Utah has had top-ranked teams in its arena before, most recently when UCLA opened the 2005 season as the defending champion. This meet has more anticipation

because Georgia hasn't competed in Salt Lake in a regular-season competition in 15 years and it's being held at the end of the season instead of the beginning, so both teams should be close to championship form.

"Some meets are less about winning and losing and more about what you do, but we both want to win this one," Marsden said. "You've got two teams loaded with talent and tradition."

Georgia and Utah ended the series after 1991 because the coaches got into an argument when Utah won at Athens, Ga., 193.55-193.5. Yoculan thought Marsden intimidated the judges into giving the Utes the win.

The two made up, but spats over the years have prevented the series from reviving until last year, when Georgia won 197.275-197.125 in Athens. This time it was Utah that protested the scores, believing it was robbed of a win. Ford, the team's leader, memorably said Georgia would "have to wait until they get to our place."

Well, that time is finally here.

"I just hope I don't have to eat my words," Ford said. "But it would be nice if we get a chance to prove what we didn't get to prove last year."

Georgia is ranked No. 1 in every event. The Utes' averages have been hurt by their inability to hit on the road, but at home, they've been virtually untouchable.

The Gym Dogs are led by Courtney Kupets, the nation's top-ranked all-arounder who was a 2004 Olympian and the bronze medal-winner on the bars. She also won the 2002 world championship on the uneven bars, a day before Utah's Ashley Postell won the same title on the balance beam.

Postell isn't ranked among the leaders in the all-around because she's had trouble hitting her floor, but if she hits, she'll be in the thick of the all-around battle with Ford, Kupets, and her former club teammate, Georgia sophomore Katie Heenan.

"I'm a little nervous, but that's not all bad because when I'm nervous I usually do well," she said. "It'll be fun. One minute we might be up, one minute we might be down."

Asked about his relationship with Yoculan, Marsden gave a mischievous smile, and his answer was an appropriate description for his rival, and tonight's meet.

"With us," he said, "there's always going to be a little smoke, and a little fire."

lwodraska@sltrib.com