Utah's gymnastics team — with a pre-meet injury to its best athlete and two other hurting competitors so iffy that coach Greg Marsden had told the team a few days before that they wouldn't compete in some events — fell .55 of a point from defending its No. 1 ranking last week at the 2005 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships in Alabama.

No, the Utes didn't win — something they used to do regularly.

But, says Marsden, "We took a big step back to where we want to be — at nationals, in the finals, with a chance to win. We were right there."

Going into the final event last Friday, it looked like Georgia would win, but there was a chance if the Gym Dawgs faltered and the Utes nailed beam that Utah could have won the national title.

It didn't happen. In fact, with Ashley Postell unable to work beam properly on her badly bruised heel and another bobble or two by teammates as Alabama was gaining momentum on vault, the Utes fell to third place by less than .2 points.

"We just can't feel horrible about what we accomplished," Marsden said, pointing out that in a lot of years, Utah's performance would have been good enough to win, even though it made a few mistakes.

And compared to the last two NCAAs, when the Utes were out of the running before the first event was over, this was a great improvement, especially in light of Postell's injury and the way Rachel Tidd went all-around two straight days on a painful back and Gritt Hofmann competed well on floor despite a torn calf muscle.

Add in a regular season that saw Utah rank No. 1 for eight of the 12 regular-season polls, win 12 of 14 meets, win its regional meet with ease, win its preliminary session at nationals and have just one fall in 53 routines during NCAA weekend, and Marsden figures there's good reason to be positive.

"We got back to what we should be," he said. "It was a great season.

"No regrets. No going back wishing we had done something differently. I could not have asked more from this group."

The challenge now is to keep a good thing getting better, despite losing Hofmann and all-arounder Annabeth Eberle to exhausted eligibility that is very hard on Eberle. "She's not ready to be done," said Marsden, likening her to last year's graduate, Melissa Vituj.

Eberle, co-captain the last two years, lent more than just her own athletic excellence to the Utes. She was a strong leader who controlled her welling emotions over the end of her career until team competition was over Friday night, then cracked a bit in individual event finals, when it affected no one but herself.

"Some seniors want it too badly. I think she did in event finals," Marsden said. "I could see it in her face. She wanted to do too well badly."

She took sixth on vault and eighth on floor.

Marsden, who is losing his 13-year uneven bars coach Aki Hummel to a private business opportunity, said it's been arranged for Eberle to stay with the team next year as a student coach as she completes her degree.

Postell showed great mettle gritting out a 39.325 Super Six night all-around on a heel so sore she could barely walk to each event, and Marsden sees more from her in the future now that she knows what college gymnastics is all about and her coaches have a better idea what will suit her.

He's hoping Tidd's back can improve with rest and rehab — she'll spend half the summer in Salt Lake working on it — and Marsden has faith that Nicolle Ford will continue improving after a team-best 39.55 in the Super Six. Ford had the only fall of the meet for Utah in team prelims and came back aggressively. "She was on fire the whole night," Marsden said.

He hopes to find the right coaching buttons to push to help Stephanie Lim and Dominique D'Oliveira regain the starting lineup, much the way his challenge to Gabi Onodi last year helped her be 2005's most-improved team member. Onodi had the vault of her life Friday night, which should help her going into next season.

Marsden expects his two recruits for 2006 to challenge quickly for all-around spots. Nina Kim of Texas comes from the same gym as Olympian Carly Patterson and has had an outstanding career so far. She's a member of the U.S. team and has international experience and excellent technique.

And, said Marsden, "People are going to fall in love with Kristina Baskett," from Washington — tiny and cute and already doing a full-in on floor easily and a double-twisting Yurchenko vault.

Gymnastics on TV

The 2005 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships held last week at Auburn will be shown on CBS this Sunday at 11 a.m. MDT (Ch. 2 locally).

E-mail: lham@desnews.com