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Ute gymnasts big on talent

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Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden can't hide enthusiasm for his fifth-ranked 2002 team that begins its season hosting 18th-ranked Ohio State Friday at 7 p.m.

Utah opens defense of the best home-win streak in any NCAA sport, 164 regular-season meets in a row, 22 years' worth, in the Huntsman/Special Events Center.

On paper, and barring disastrous injuries, Marsden said, "This is the most talent we've had in a number of years. I just don't see any glaring hole in our lineup."

Two-time defending NCAA champion UCLA is still the big favorite, and Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska and Utah are still the big challengers.

Utah, however, looks very close after tying for fifth last year. It has a big-time recruit in freshman Annabeth Eberle, chased by all the above schools and more, plus 1999 NCAA all-around champion Theresa Kulikowski, who will be back in the all-around this season after doing two events last year because of a torn ACL. Kulikowski owns NCAA beam titles from 1999 and 2001 and was NCAA runner-up on vault and floor as a freshman.

How big is it to get her back on vault and floor? "You do the math," Marsden said with a satisfied grin, noting her freshman accomplishments

Fifth-year senior Shannon Bowles is better than last year, when she was coming back from a broken cervical vertebrae but hardly showed it, winning 14 events and making beam All-American. She's upgraded her floor and is working a new, twisting vault. Steadily spectacular two-time all-around All-American Deidra Graham is back for a senior season after hitting 50 of 53 routines and scoring 39.725 as a junior. She missed only three routines as a sophomore.

Sophomore Melissa Vituj, who hit 40 of 42 routines and earned All-American in three events as a freshman, is in the thick of things. Look out for second-team All-American Kim Allan, another consistent performer who is back as a junior after missing most of 2001 with a torn Achilles. She "will be big," Marsden said.

Sophomore second-team All-American Veronique Leclerc is "looking great" and bidding for an all-around spot; and seniors Lindsay Tanner and Kylee Wagner lend good scores whenever called upon. Sophomore Annie Medcalf could contend for the all-around, in better shape now than as a freshman, when she reported after having had back surgery.

The other freshman is German National Team member Gritt Hofmann of Berlin, who joined in December after November's World Championships.

NOTES: Parking is available despite Olympic preparations. Crimson Clubbers with 1-2-3 passes may park in the front half of lots south of the Huntsman; the back half of those lots plus the Business and Guardsman Way lots are open and free to the general public. Shuttle buses will run from the Guardsman lot and the Stadium Trax station beginning at 5:30 p.m.

E-MAIL: lham@desnews.com