A new season is here for Utah's gymnasts, who find themselves right back where they finished, and finished, and finished.
The Utes, who open the season Friday against No. 4 UCLA, are ranked second in the coaches' preseason poll. It's a nice spot for most teams, but a position the Utes are getting tired of monopolizing.
"It's bittersweet," said senior Kristina Baskett. "Second is cool, but three years in a row, you know? We keep closing the gap to Georgia. We just need to get a little tighter in our routines, a little better in our landings."
All that separated the Utes from first place in 2008 was 0.325 points. Georgia celebrated its fourth straight title while the Utes wondered if their best chance in many seasons at a national title was lost by a step here or a bobble there. Now, an offseason later, the Utes believe they have just as good a chance at winning this season as last, and maybe even a better one.
That thought sounds a little off-base considering the Utes no longer have Ashley Postell, who in four years established herself as one of the best gymnasts in NCAA history, earning an NCAA-record 20 All-America awards and an individual title on the balance beam.
The Utes also lost Katie Kivisto and Jessica Duke, who as seniors were some of their strongest leaders.
How do you replace those three and remain strong enough to contend for a national title?
Utah can no longer count on Postell's big scores to finish their rotations, so they must all contribute more they say. The same goes for the leadership roles.
"We all have to pull our own weight on this team," senior Nina Kim said. "We'll never be able to replace Ashley, Jess and Katie, but we each have our own ways and we have to try to be the best we can be."
The Utes aren't just talking about being great. They've put the sweat behind the idea too. Many of the gymnasts stayed in Salt Lake City during the summer and worked out with other athletes, including Utah's football players who seem to have inspired the gymnasts.
"We worked our butts off this summer preparing for this moment," said Baskett, sounding very Brian Johnson-like in describing her single-minded focus this season. "We knew any little extra we did would help us this year and we were all so motivated. I knew I wouldn't ever have another summer to prepare, so why not do it right. This year is set up for us, so why waste it?"
Some of the hope has been tempered, at least momentarily, with the news that sophomore Kyndal Robarts is out indefinitely with a torn shoulder muscle. She was expected to contend for an all-around spot.
"It's a big loss for us," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "At this point, I'm not calling it a loss for the season, but we know she at least won't be available to us the first few weeks."
In addition, junior Annie DiLuzio will be limited some early in the season as she recovers from ankle surgery and Daria Bijak won't be asked to do too much early on as she gets back into the college mode following a busy summer in which she competed at the 2008 Olympics.
Marsden predicts his lineup will change quite a bit from week to week in the first part of the season with the injuries and as he works newcomers Cortni Beers and Stephanie McAllister into the lineup.
"We have some very talented people on the team," he said. "It's a matter of filling the roles and getting the right people into the right positions. It'll take some time to do that."
The ever-positive Baskett doesn't think it will take that long.
"Replacing Ashley, we're all just going to shift down the lineup," she said. "We've all improved over the summer, every single one of us. We can fill the gaps."
Kristina Baskett Sr. Normandy Park., Wash.
7-time All-American one of the best in all-around
Nina Kim Sr. Houston, Texas
Has hit 18-for-18 at NCAA Championships
Daria Bijak Jr. Cologne, Germany
Competed for Germany at 2008 Summer Olympics
Jamie Deetscreek Jr. Hatboro, Pa.
Pegged as one of the most improved gymnasts
Annie DiLuzio Jr. Folsom, Calif.
Had ankle surgery in the offseason
Beth Rizzo Jr. Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Only the second walk-on to earn All-America honors
Jacquelyn Johnson So. West Chester, Ohio
Missed most of 2008 with broken foot
Gael Mackie So. Vancouver, B.C.
Should contribute early on vault, bars
Kyndal Robarts So. San Marcos, Texas
Indefinitely sidelined with shoulder injury
Cortni Beers Fr. Tulsa, Okla.
Two-year national team member
Stephanie McAllister Fr. Indianapolis
Best events are bars and floor
1. Georgia (26) 814
2. Utah (4) 770
3. Florida 742
4. UCLA (4) 699
5. Stanford 676
6. Alabama 640
7. LSU 634
8. Michigan (1) 579
9. Oregon State 526
10. Oklahoma 525
11. Nebraska 487
12. Arkansas 467
13. Penn State 382
14. Denver 370
15. Auburn 323
16. Illinois 230
17. Michigan State 228
18. Arizona 218
19. Boise St. and Missouri 216
21. Ohio State 165
22. Minnesota 135
23. West Virginia 106
24. Arizona State 95
Friday »UCLA, 7 p.m.
Jan. 19 »Georgia, 2 p.m.
Jan. 23 »Washington, 7 p.m.
Jan. 30 »at Oregon St., 8 p.m.
Feb. 6 »BYU, SUU, TWU, 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 »at Utah State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 13 »at Nebraska, 6 p.m.
Feb. 20 »Michigan, 7 p.m.
March 6 »Arizona State, 7 p.m.
March 13 »Florida, 7 p.m.
March 20 »at BYU, 7 p.m.