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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Painting the town red

By Tony Pizza

Toward the end of the season, anybody who mentioned the year 1999 around a U gymnast ran the risk of getting slapped — at least until April 14.

It was then that the Red Rocks’ fears of not qualifying for the National Championships they were hosting were finally extinguished. Even now, 1999 is still a touchy subject for the U gymnastics team.

That was the last time Utah hosted the National Championships, and the results of that experience have haunted the Red Rocks ever since.

“That’s basically what we’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the year — clear back in August,” said U captain Nicolle Ford. “Nationals (are) at home, we have to be there. What happens if it doesn’t work out, and what happens with the whole curse?”

The Red Rocks have never been held out of Nationals in the 26 years the event has been held, but the team has been shut out of the Super Six twice — once at the 1997 Nationals in Florida and then again at home in 1999. The last time the team won a national title was in 1995.

This year, with six freshmen and a team that was clearly not performing the way it was capable of for part of the season, the pressure was overwhelming at times.

“Now that we know we’re in, it’s like a huge weight has been lifted off of us, and you can tell with everyone,” Ford said. “I was kind of surprised to see how easy-going and laid back everyone seemed to be during Regionals, especially with knowing what was on the line. Afterwards everyone was on cloud-nine.”

The reason the Utes are not just participants at Nationals but are actually poised for their first championship in 11 years is the way the team started practicing after its final meet of the regular season at BYU.

It started with one good Tuesday practice on April 3. Next it was two practices. Before long it was six consecutive productive practices. Pretty soon the streak got so long that the teammates had to ask each other what number they were at.

“It feels good to know we’re more together as a team,” Annie DiLuzio said. “Everyone’s working together, everyone’s working hard and we’re seeing more of those results in practice. I think it’s changed a lot.”

Couple that with the recent season-high score of 197.325 the Utes posted at the West Regional, and the Utes have developed into a legitimate national title contender.

“If we hit, we are just as good as everybody else,” Ford said. “It’s just getting to that point where everybody is confident enough to go out there and just do it and not worry about outcome and not being intimidated by other teams.”

With that momentum, Greg Marsden and his team are confident about their chances of ending the 11-year championship drought.

“It takes us taking advantage of the opportunity,” Marsden said. “You’ve got to be on two nights in a row; in fact, you have to be better the second night than the first night. I think we’ve got a chance.”

As luck would have it, the Utes were randomly drawn into what looks like the easier of the two preliminary sessions.

Instead of having to mix it up with the likes of Florida, Georgia and Alabama for a chance to get to the Super Six, some of the Utes’ stiffest competition will come from teams they have already had success against this season.

Utah has already found ways to beat UCLA and Michigan. Stanford and Louisiana State are unfamiliar foes this year, but Utah hopes to squeeze out any advantage it can with its wild fan base.

“People thought it was crazy (with) Florida. I think it’s going to be even crazier than that,” Kristina Baskett said. “Having fans from every school?I know ours will be the loudest.”

Although Nationals will be rooted on by a large contingency that won the national attendance record for the third-straight year, the Utes are trying to treat this as any other meet. More specifically, with Nationals being held at home this year, the Utes are trying to think of this more as an away meet.

They’ve even tried to separate themselves from as much distraction as possible by staying in a hotel until team finals are over Friday night.

“We just decided?because we’ve been through so much this year it might be better if we have that time together,” Marsden said. “Parents are coming to town, boyfriends, finals; there are a lot of distractions and we’re just trying to minimize it.”

The Utes also have the chance to have a substantial showing at the individual finals on Saturday night.

The big three of Ford, Baskett and Ashley Postell are poised to compete in at least one event, while DiLuzio and fellow freshmen Sarah Shire and Daria Bijak could also find their way into event finals if they have solid showings during prelims.

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