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Ute gymnasts begin quest for title tonight

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LOS ANGELES — Once upon a time — well, nine years ago to be precise — gymnasts who committed to the University of Utah probably expected to graduate with at least one national championship ring. It wasn't arrogance; it was just fact. From 1982 to 1995, Greg Marsden's teams won an unprecedented nine NCAA championships.

Then the freshman class of 1996 arrived.

Despite four productive years from that class, those gymnasts graduated without a coveted national championship. The scene of college gymnastics was changing, and Utah's dominance was over.

Since that historic first championship-less group of Utes, four other senior classes have departed without experiencing the top podium.

"Even when we were winning it was all about doing our best," said Marsden, who is coaching in his 24th NCAAs. "At Boise in 2000, even without our two best all-arounders, we still finished second. There has never been a year I was more excited about our program than that year."

Utah's quest to end the nine-year drought begins tonight at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion at 8 (MDT).

By virtue of finishing with the highest score of the six regional championships, the Utes are actually the top seed entering the 2004 NCAA Championships, even though UCLA is regarded as the heavy favorite.

"I think it's becoming more and more difficult to get to the championships, and each time you do it, you enjoy it more and more," said Marsden.

The Utes were randomly placed in the evening session of today's qualifying — by far the tougher of the two sessions. The Utes are joined in the evening session by four-time champ UCLA, four-time champ Alabama, along with the always-tough Michigan, LSU and Arizona State.

"I think everyone would agree that we're in an extremely tough session, but we're choosing to look at the positives," Marsden said. "We're in the evening session with UCLA, so there should be a better crowd and more excitement."

The afternoon session features five-time champ Georgia, along with Stanford, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Iowa. The top three teams from each session advance to Friday's Super Six, where the eventual national champ will be crowned.

For fans not attending the event, they can get live updates at www.ncaasports.com/gymnastics/womens/results.

This year's competition will be the first time the NCAA Championships are staged on a podium similar to international gymnastics. During Wednesday's press conference, that was the hot topic of discussion among the coaches and media.

"The biggest thing is it highlights the athlete," said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn about the three-foot podium. "It raises the level of competition and makes it much more audience friendly."

For Utah senior Melissa Vituj, this is her first time ever competing on a podium. For Ute junior Annabeth Eberle, she's competed on a podium many times during her U.S. National Team days — and loves it.

"The atmosphere is different, and it's easier on the body, it's bouncier," said Eberle, who finished the regular season tied for sixth with an all-around score of 39.65.

Even though Eberle was only 12 years old the last time the Utes won a national championship, she knows all about Utah's rich tradition. There are nine championship banners hanging in the Utes' practice facility, but she doesn't get caught up in the pressure of contributing another.

"It's really just living in the moment and wanting what's best for the team at that moment," said Eberle.

If that moment means a national championship, so be it. If not, Marsden just hopes his Utes compete well.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com