Red Rocks rolling into regionals

The U gymnastics team (13-1) dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 this week, despite turning in the best score in team history last Friday against BYU. But the drop may have actually benefited the Utes.

The NCAA announced its regional pairings for the NCAA regional tournaments Monday, and the Utes drew a favorable location out of the No. 5 spot. Unlike No. 6 BYU, which will have to fly all the way to Baton Rouge, La., to compete in the Central Regional, the Utes will head to Tucson, Ariz., and compete in the South Central Regional.

The Utes will be joined in Tucson by No. 8 Florida, No. 18 Arizona, No. 25 Arkansas, Illinois and Illinois-Chicago. The top two teams will advance to Nationals, as will the individual event winners and the top two all arounders from nonqualifying teams.

“It’s what we expected after we saw the final rankings,” U coach Greg Marsden said. “We’re pleased because it’s a fairly easy trip, and it’s doable to be in the top two.”

The Red Rocks are the only program to qualify for all 22 NCAA Championships, and they have qualified for the last 28 national championships, going back to the pre-NCAA days of the AIAW.

The Utes have a difficult task ahead of them to keep the streak alive, as they prepare to compete against three quality opponents.

“We’re on Arizona’s home floor, and they just tied Arizona State last week in the Pac-10 [championships],” Marsden said, alluding to a close call the Utes had against Arizona State earlier this season in Tempe.

“We’re also going up against a quality Florida program which has been hanging tough in the SEC for years. Arkansas could also be a contender if they get hot. They’re an excellent floor team, and they have been steadily improving all year. So there’s going to be at least one good team that doesn’t qualify.”

Although Marsden is certainly concerned about his opponents, it’s safe to say that his Ute squad is instilling plenty of fear itself, as it soars into the postseason on the strength of a record-setting performance.

“We seem to be peaking at just the right time,” Marsden said. “We’re also pretty healthy, with the exception of Nikki [Ford’s] back, and we have a lot of depth, so we should be able to survive some last-minute sicknesses or injuries if we have them.”

The regionals don’t begin until April 3, so the Utes have plenty of downtime to heal Ford’s back and fellow freshman Rachel Tidd’s shin.

Outside of those two relatively minor setbacks, the Utes look very strong. They will send the No. 4 and No. 6 all-around gymnasts in the country to Tucson in the form of co-captains Melissa Vituj and Annabeth Eberle.

Vituj is also ranked No. 5 on the floor, No. 10 on the balance beam, and No. 21 on the vault. Eberle is the nation’s No. 2 vaulter, and Tidd is not far behind her at No. 4.

The Utes’ main concern is the balance beam, an apparatus they have been shaky on all season.

They have drawn that event first for regional competition, so their resolve will be tested immediately.

If the Utes turn out a big set on the beam, look for them to roll to an easy victory, as they have been outstanding on every other apparatus lately.

It could be a disadvantage, however, having to compete in their worst event with no momentum to build on and no previous competitors to be judged against.

Either way, the Utes are the favorites to win in Tucson, and if they compete like they have been lately, one shaky event isn’t going to slow them down.

In their last three meets, all Ute victories, the Red Rocks have averaged a 49.250 on the balance beam. However, they have responded in each meet with great success on the other three events.

Their vault average over the same three meets is 49.640, their floor average is 49.625 and their uneven bars average is 49.560.

Florida, the closest team to Utah in terms of statistics, does have a superior floor average over that same span, but the other three event averages fail to eclipse 49.441.

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