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Work ahead for the Utes' non-revenue sports

SALT LAKE CITY – Football is not the only sport at the University of Utah about to get an upgrade in competition.

In officially accepting an invitation to the Pac-10 Conference on Thursday afternoon, the Utes are joining with a conference that has produced a host of NCAA champions in a wide spectrum of sports.

What it means is simply competing for conference titles will take on a whole new dimension when Utah starts Pac-10 play in 2011.

"When you compete for championships in the Pac-10, you compete for national championships," said Ute athletic director Chris Hill. "That's what we've seen."

The short-term challenge for Utah in a majority of non-revenue sports will be finding a way to remain competitive in such an environment. Pac-10 teams have accumulated a significant portion of their 390 combined NCAA team championships in these sports.

Utes baseball coach Bill Kinneberg knows well what to expect from the Pac-10 after stints as an assistant coach at Arizona and Arizona State a decade earlier. He knows Utah has a tough road ahead in his sport.

In the Pac-10, the Utes will deal with a conference where eight teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament this spring and Pac-10 teams have combined for 26 College World Series titles.

"The challenge is we're going to have to step up our game," Kinneberg said. "Week in and week out we're playing teams that are challenging to go to Omaha every year, and we're going to have to meet that challenge."

One thing that will help, Kinneberg said, is that Pac-10 affiliation will make the program more attractive to talented players than in past seasons.

"We can recruit saying we're in the Pac-10 now," Kinneberg said. "I think that will open more doors. We'll get better players, hopefully, to compete."

Competition will be tougher for the Utes in these sports, but there will also be some tangible benefits.

For one, qualifying for NCAA tournaments will become less of an ordeal. Ute women's soccer coach Rich Manning said playing in Pac-10 will mean his team will have more chances to build a solid tournament résumé and will have fewer games harmful to their strength of schedule.

Manning isn't worried about how the Utes will perform against Pac-10 teams because they have a good history against opponents from their new conference.

"We play some of those teams every single year because it's a way for us to measure ourselves and then also to get some RPI points," Manning said. "We've had a winning record against the Pac-10 over the years I've been here and we look forward to just getting after it."

One sport where Utah's ability to compete at an elite level is not in question is women's gymnastics. For the Red Rocks, joining the Pac-10 will only enhance their product.

Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden noted his team already has long standing rivalries and relationships with several Pac-10 teams – including, most notably, UCLA – and thinks the Red Rocks will bring as much to Pac-10 as they get from joining it.

"With our tradition of success at a national level and the tremendous fan base following we have, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us and a step forward," Marsden said. "I hope they feel we also bring something to the table that's going to make an already powerful gymnastics conference even that much stronger."

Marsden said his team typically tries to schedule meets against several Pac-10 teams each season and are already familiar with competing against them. What will change for Utah in gymnastics is going from an independent to finally operating within a conference framework.

Going for a conference championship is an exciting prospect, Marsden said.

Outside women's gymnastics, Hill admitted it could take some time to get many of the traditional non-revenue sports up to a competitive level in the Pac-10. But the Utes are committed to doing what they need to do to make it happen.

"It's about me and the coaches sitting down and putting together a plan," Hill said. "It will be realistic, but be challenging. We don't want to shoot too low, but we don't want to shoot so high that we aren't moving step by step to where we want to go."

e-mail: jcoon@desnews.com