Gymnastics: Utah's roster will change, but talent level will not
The NCAA Gymnastics Championships weren't officially over before Utes coach Greg Marsden and his team started getting questions about next year.
Georgia, so dominant in 2006, beat the Utes twice, in the regular season and at the NCAA Championships. Marsden himself said, going into the championships, Utah was a Rachel Tidd away from being able to duke it out with the Gym Dogs, referring to his All-American who was forced into retirement with a back injury prior to the season.
With five seniors graduating and six freshmen, his largest class ever, coming in, what does 2007 have in store for the Utes? Right now, those familiar with the program only see positives.
The number of gymnasts Utah graduates sounds high, but the Utes only lose seven routines from the lineup of 24 they used in the NCAAs. They return their top two gymnasts and leaders, Ashley Postell and Nicolle Ford, and welcome a highly touted rookie class led by elite gymnasts Sarah Shire and Annie DiLuzio.
Utah can only hope they have as much of an impact as this year's freshmen, Nina Kim and Kristina Baskett. Both worked their way into the all-around lineup and on Saturday Baskett became the first Utah gymnast to win a national championship since Theresa Kulikowski in 2001.
"I can't wait for next year," Baskett said. "If someone asked me to tell the freshmen what to expect, I couldn't explain it. You come in here and the atmosphere and the team make it so much fun."
Having such a large group of rookies is the only thing keeping Marsden in a conservative outlook, but the coach who thinks about gymnastics 24/7 admitted it was hard to look at the roster and think that way.
"Half of our team is going to be new next year, and I'm trying to be guarded in my expectations," Marsden said. "But I am excited about what might be. Hopefully we'll be much more capable of going toe-to-toe with Georgia."
The Gym Dogs were so strong, the general assumption among coaches was everyone else was competing for second place. Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan predicted her team would win, and her archrival, Alabama coach Sarah Patterson, called Georgia the best team she'd seen in 10 years.
Georgia finished the year 36-0 and was 13-0 against its championship competition in the regular season and earned 17 All-America honors during the weekend.
Finishing second to such a juggernaut was no shame for the Utes, who celebrated their second place as much as Georgia celebrated its title.
"They were unstoppable," Marsden acknowledged. "They had the team, and their staff did a great job of keeping them focused from the start of the season to the end. They didn't dodge anybody in their schedule."
If you want an early prediction for 2007, a Georgia-Utah finish might not be too far off the mark. Fans can debate the order they prefer.
Georgia graduates just one athlete, Brittany Smith, and she didn't compete in the Super Six. Like Utah, its signing class is strong and includes 2004 Olympian Courtney McCool.
"As good as we were this year, we're going to be even stronger next year," Yoculan said. "To beat us next year, a team is going to have to be six deep, and Utah is going to be six deep. I was impressed with them because they had some of that Georgia fight. They got off to a bad start, and they never quit."
If there is a positive that can be turned into a negative for the Utes, it's that they had to rally time and again after poor starts to win meets, particularly on the road. The only time Utah hit all 24 routines was at home against Brigham Young and in Thursday's preliminary competition.
In the Super Six, the Utes' rocky start on the bars didn't hurt because even if they'd hit, Georgia was too far ahead to be caught and Alabama had a costly fall on beam that allowed the Utes to slip past for second. But imagine if Georgia had been a little weaker, and Utah's last poor start had cost it a title.
Marsden acknowledged the pattern of getting behind early is one he would like to see end next year.
Others are simply looking forward to next year, particularly since Utah plays host to the NCAA meet April 26-28, 2007.
"I can't wait," Ford said. "When I found out we were hosting my senior year, that is perfect."