This season, the storied Utah gymnastics team has a title they've never had before, defending Pac-12 Champions. Living up to and successfully defending that title will take work and talent, but the Red Rocks have never been a team who shoots for conference or even regional titles. Utah is all about national championships, and to compete with the strong SEC teams, Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden knows it will take four strong events, especially beam.
"We did a great job winning the Pac-12 Championship and regionals last year," Marsden said. "But when we faltered on beam at nationals, it was devastating. We hope to keep our other three events as strong as they were last year and bring beam up to their level. If tonight is any indication, I think that's possible."
The Utah gymnastics team enters its 40th season picked sixth in the preseason coaches' poll behind Florida, Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama, and Pac-12 rival UCLA. The Utes, who finished seventh at the 2014 NCAA Championships, received 604 total votes and one first-place vote. Conference meets will be very challenging this season, as seven of the eight Pac-12 schools were ranked in the preseason top 25.
"I think our preseason ranking is about right given our finish last year," said coach Greg Marsden. "We thought we were a top-three team last year, but had some problems on the balance beam in the NCAA semifinals and missed making the Super Six by less than a tenth of a point. We are much deeper and stronger on the beam this year and we should once again be very good on the other three events. We are optimistic about our chances of returning to the Super Six."
The Utes return nine letterwinners, including six All-Americans. Among Utah's returning All-Americans are senior tri-captains Tory Wilson, Georgia Dabritz, and Corrie Lothrop. Wilson was the 2014 Pac-12 all-around champion and Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, Dabritz is a four-time Pac-12 event titlist and the 2013 NCAA uneven bar runner-up, and Lothrop was 2012 Pac-12 all-around champion.
Last Friday, the Red Rocks held their annual preview event, and the crowd of 4,346 spectators that attended saw something they have missed over the past few years, a deep, confident Utah team on the balance beam. Utah filled two complete lineups on the beam, fielding six gymnasts for both the Red and White teams, and all of them looked competition ready.
"That was a big step forward for Baely Rowe," said Marsden. "She performed well on all four events. Last year, she was a role player, but she made a strong case (to go all-around) this year. Kari Lee was also exceptional on all four events."
If Utah had a weakness, it was on floor where there were some hops and steps on landings.
"We don't do a lot of hard landings in practice, and this was really their first time on the hard floor," Marsden said, while adding that Utah also missed handstands on bars. "That's why you do these things (intra-squad meets). It's difficult to simulate a meet in practice."
The Red Rocks welcomed back two gymnasts returning to full strength from injury, as well as Becky Tutka whose arm is in a cast. After missing all of last season with an Achilles tear Kassandra Lopez, who hit both routines, returned to the bar and beam lineups. Senior Lothrop, the 2012 Pac-12 all-around champion who was limited to bars and beam last year after missing most of the 2013 season with an Achilles tear, was back in the floor and vault lineups tonight. Tutka did a dance through on the floor with some front tumbling as the last competitor of the night.
The Red Rocks will open their season Jan. 9 at Brigham Young. The first home meet is Jan. 16 against Southern Utah, Boise State, and UC Davis at 7 p.m. in the Huntsman Center.