Red Rocks chomped by Gators

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

The U swim team said it owed the Red Rocks a favor. So nine men from the swim team paid the U gymnasts back by painting “Utah-Utes” on their chests, which helped create one of the most raucous gymnastic crowds ever to grace the Huntsman Center.

The U gymnastics team used the energy from the crowd to tie its best performance of the season against the No. 1 Florida Gators. The Red Rocks’ score was not enough, however, as the Utes faded in the last rotation of the meet and ultimately lost their first home meet of the season Friday night, 197.050-196.725.

In a losing effort, the Utes still showed steady signs of improvement. The progress the Red Rocks have made was no clearer than the performance the Utes turned in on beam.

After trading early punches with the Gators through the first two rotations, the Utes found themselves trailing Florida by just .05 points at the meet’s midway point. For the Utes to seize control of the meet, they were going to have to put together something special on their most daunting event of the season. The Utes did just that.

Kristina Baskett, who usually performs later in the lineup because of her big-score capabilities, led the Utes off Friday night with a scorching routine that resulted in a 9.875. Freshman Daria Bijak carried the momentum Baskett generated into her routine as she scored a 9.9, which is practically unheard of for a gymnast in the second spot. Sarah Shire then turned in a solid beam score of 9.825 before Nina Kim missed her difficult round-off layout mount and had to settle for a 9.375.

With the pressure on Nicolle Ford and Ashley Postell to turn in flawless routines, the two Ute leaders did not disappoint. Although her routine did not have the typical sharpness fans have become accustomed to, Ford still turned in a 9.825, which set the table for Postell.

Utah’s All-Around All-American turned in one of the crispest beam sets the Utes have had this season. Her reward was a 2007 team- and personal-high of 9.95 for the Red Rock junior.

Not only did Postell’s beam routine make her the front-runner in the All-Around, but her near-perfect score put the Utes in front of the visiting Gators, who were busy limping off one of their third-worst floor routines of the season.

“Beam was good and we needed that,” Ford said. “Everybody looked like they were pretty confident up there?which is what we’re trying to get people to do.”

The Utes’ season-high 49.375 on beam turned their .05-point deficit into a .15-point lead going into the final rotation. Once the score posted on the JumboTron, the 12,202 people in attendance erupted into a frenzy that could have triggered car alarms in Presidents’ Circle.

“The crowd was great tonight. I do think the swimmers set the tone and kind of got us going,” Marsden said. “It was a much more enthusiastic crowd than some other meets we’ve had. They make it fun for us.”

The ovation was so intense that Gator senior Katie Rue was forced to plug her ears as she prepared to start the final rotation off on beam.

To the Gators’ credit, the buzz of the Huntsman Center did not break their concentration. All six of Florida’s beam workers steadily plodded their way through their routines without a fall or major mishap. Unfortunately for Utah, the same could not be said for its performance on floor.

“A number of (the U gymnasts) had tears in their eyes. We all realize it was right there for us and we let it get away,” Marsden said. “But don’t get me wrong. Florida?they’re a great team. You don’t come all the way across the country?with the crowd the way it was and handle it the way they did if you’re not a great team.”

The energy from the crowd seemed to juice up each Ute gymnast, and the Red Rocks let that energy spill onto the floor.

Freshman Stephanie Neff got a late start on her last tumbling pass and stepped out of bounds. Floor specialist Annie DiLuzio-who has been out with an Achilles tendon injury for the past two weeks-did not have enough stamina to finish her final pass, which resulted in another fall out of bounds for the Utes.

With the meet visibly slipping away from the Red Rocks, Kristina Baskett nailed her routine for a 9.9, leaving Postell as the lone Ute left to perform. With the meet all but out of reach for the Utes, Postell still had a chance to end the meet on a good note with a win in the All-Around.

Although Postell became the third Ute to step out when she couldn’t keep her triple twist in bounds, her performance was still impressive and her score of 9.775 was still good enough for a first-place finish in the all-around.

“I know I over-tried and I’m sure other people did, too,” Postell said. “It was just silly mistakes?just really little things.”

The Utes, however, would have to settle for their first home loss of the season and just their second loss in the Huntsman Center since the team uncharacteristically dropped three home meets in 2003.

The loss is also the third for the Red Rocks in four meets. Still, nobody on the Utah team feels this is the time to panic. In fact, the Utes’ confidence has been steadily rising since their meltdown against Georgia on Feb. 16.

“I think (the team) is going in the right direction, even though we’ve taken a little while to get there,” Postell said. “Tonight was, I think?definitely a plus.”

Lennie Mahler

Daria Bijak prepares for a pass as Nicolle Ford and Katie Kivisto yell encouragement. After an early lead, the Utes lost to No. 1 Florida after a few slipups during the floor at the Huntsman Center on Friday.