Leadoff gymnasts are a little like kickers in football, in that no one notices them much until they mess up. Their role is to get a good score to start the team, then disappear in the shadows and hope their effort doesn't count in the final tally, because if it does, it probably means others had mistakes.
But unlike kickers, leadoff gymnasts rarely have a guaranteed spot in the lineup.
It's anything but a glamour position, and the only ones that envy leadoff gymnasts Dominique D'Oliveira, Kristen Riffanacht and Jessica Duke this week are the gymnasts trying to bump them out of their spots.
The trio is slated to start Utah's rotations at the NCAA Championships on Thursday, with D'Oliveira on the bars, Riffanacht on the beam and floor and Duke on the vault.
While they're often seen as expendable, their scores are just as important to the rest of the team because it sets up everyone else in the lineup and creates a level of expectation for the judges. Starting the team off well is critical in the regular season, but it's a must at nationals, where championships are lost with one little hop.
"If your first person doesn't hit, then you're playing defense," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "You should just go up and be aggressive, but it's really hard to do that when the first person in the lineup has missed and you have five more that have to hit. It's important in order to get things started in a positive note and to do as well as they can so we can build on that."
None will have more pressure on them in Thursday's preliminary competition than Riffanacht. Utah opens the competition on the balance beam. The event has been one of Utah's best this year, but the Utes suffered two falls on the event at regionals, from first-up Gabriella Onodi and then Kristina Baskett.
He Marsden can change the lineup if warmups don't go as well as he wants, but Marsden he expects to go with Riffanacht in the leadoff spot Thursday based on her consistent training in the last week. The senior has hit all seven beam routines in which she has been the first up on that event this year.
"She's a senior and she has competed very consistently in the beam lineup," Marsden said. "I have a lot of confidence in her or I wouldn't put her in that position."
Riffanacht knows she will set the tone of the meet for the Utes, and has worked with team sports psychologist Keith Henschen to get some extra help.
"I still know I'm going to be nervous, but we've been working on how to put myself in a certain frame of mind and relax," she said. "There are certain things I can do, like certain steps I'll take, and the way I see the beam before I go."
More than just staying on the beam, Riffanacht said she wanted do a great routine for the judges and her teammates' sake.
"If we start strong, hopefully we can get on a roll," she said.
Duke is comfortable in the leadoff role on the vault, a spot she has held for the last eight meets. Other than missing her landing at BYU when she scored a 9.375, Duke has earned a 9.7 or better.
"I'm not the type of gymnast who can do a big vault and get a high score, so I just try to go as big as I can and act as excited as possible," Duke said. "You want to help everyone else out in the lineup."
Of all the opening spots, bars is the most inconsistent, after season-ending injuries to Katie Kivisto and Natalie Nicoloff. D'Oliveira has led off the last three meets, scoring 9.775, 9.675 and an 8.95 at regionals.
"My hand just slipped at regionals," she said. "I'm pretty confident about my routine."
BriefsBoldLeadin o f=interstate-blackcondensed s=9.5 w=9.7 Briefly: o Sophomore Ashley Postell was back at practice Monday and said she had put Friday's incident, when she was told to leave practice by Marsden, behind her. "I wasn't the first, and I won't be the last," she said of getting kicked out.