Utah expected to be a force in Pac-12
Coaches expect intense competition in conference play
UCLA's Valorie Kondos Field and Utah's Greg Marsden had been talking about it for years.
What if Utah women's gymnastics joined the Pac-10? The two veteran head coaches imagined how great it would it be to have another strong program from the West in a league with the likes of UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State.
When No. 5 Utah travels to No. 1 UCLA on Sunday for the Utes' inaugural meet as member of the Pac-12 Conference, Kondos Field and Marsden won't have to wait any longer.
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"We're thrilled that Utah is the league," Kondos Field said. "The fact that this has come to fruition is wonderful."
Utah, along with Colorado, joined the former Pac-10 members, expanding the league to 12 schools to form the Pac-12, which is in the first academic year of competition in all sports.
"This is really better than we even anticipated," Marsden said.
An independent program for several years in gymnastics, Utah has always scheduled tough competition with opponents from the Pac-10, Big Ten, Southeastern Conference and Big 12.
"That won't change much, but what will change is that now we're a part of a very prestigious conference that's a very strong gymnastics conference," Marsden said. "It is going to be fun to share the camaraderie of that. I think it will make the competitions even more intense … it will just bring everything up a notch."
UCLA and Utah are two of only four teams to win the NCAA title (Georgia and Alabama are the other two). The Bruins have captured six titles, while Utah has won nine.
The Bruins and Utes will meet to open the season for the ninth time in the last 10 years. Utah is 6-2 against UCLA in season openers since 2004, and won last year's meet in Salt Lake City. The home team has won the meet in each of the previous three seasons.
"We like to open against Utah because we know it is always going to be a great competition," Kondos Field said. "They will always open well-prepared and it helps our athletes get more motivated for the first meet and be a little bit more on track. It's been a great rivalry without having them in the conference, and now that they are in the conference and they are hosting the Pac-12 Championships this year is a great way to start off the new Pac-12."
"It does give you an early barometer of where you are and what you need to do to be competitive," Marsden said. "You don't have to say a lot to get your team motivated because they want to be competitive against a team like UCLA. I think UCLA feels the same way about meeting Utah. I think it's a very friendly rivalry there and a lot of pride because both programs have a great tradition of success. It's a great way to start out the year."
The Bruins, who finished as the NCAA runner-up in 2011, return eight All-Americans, including last year's NCAA beam champion Samantha Peszek, 2010 NCAA vault champion Vanessa Zamarripa and 10-time All-American Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs.
"Interestingly, we have a really good group of girls that get along really well, but to a point that (assistant coach) Chris Waller and I felt there was a bit of complacency," Kondos Field said. "So, we stirred up the pot and started really talking about the fact that they've got to be challenging each other for those top spots. We've intensified their training and that has created a good friction we think. We're in the middle of that pot being stirred right now, and we're hoping that is going to create good energy for them to battle for lineup spots."
Utah, which finished fifth at nationals last year, returns four All-Americans -- Stephanie McAllister, Kyndal Robarts, Mary Beth Lofgren and Corrie Lothrop - but is extremely young as 11 of 15 gymnasts on the roster are freshmen and sophomores. Freshmen could perform as many as nine of Utah's 24 routines.
"We have a very young team and opening on the road against a team of UCLA's caliber will certainly be a challenge," Marsden said. "We like the talent on our team and this will be an excellent measuring stick for us in terms of where we are at this point and where we need to be to compete against the top teams at the end of the season. Our preseason training went well and there was heated competition for starting positions throughout the lineup."