Natalie Nicoloff was one Ute who lived up to the challenge presented at Michigan.
Feb. 14, 2004
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -
Utah head gymnastics coach Greg Marsden initially planned to give several of his gymnasts a chance to earn a spot in the regular lineup some day by competing in exhibition against Michigan. But after injury and illness to three starters, he scratched that plan. The subs competed to count, with mixed results, and the Utes suffered their first loss of the year to No. 12 and rising Michigan, 196.725-196.350.
Utah, 5-1, started the night with just one starter out to injury: Gritt Hofmann, one of Utah's best on beam and floor missed her third meet with hip and back problems. After warm-ups, Stephanie Lim, who had earned the final position on the floor exercise, scratched due to illness. By event three, All-America all-arounder Annabeth Eberle was gone with an ankle injury.
The piecemeal lineup competed just that way, leading after the first and third events, but suffering through its worst performances of the season on the vault and beam. It wasn't just the second string, which went four for six, that ran into trouble. All three of Utah's all-arounders fell or had a major break and freshman Rachel Tidd fell on both vault and beam. The only multi-event performers to make it through the night unscathed for Utah were Kristen Riffanacht on vault and floor, Natalie Nicoloff on beam and floor and Eberle on bars and vault. Eberle improved her season record to 22 of 22 on "hit" routines and kept her vault win record perfect at 6-0, but her vault landing cost her. The winning 9.95 routine proved the last of the night for Utah's star, who has been competing all season with a bone chip in her ankle.
Utah showed no signs of disarray out of the gate. In Dominique D'Oliveira's return to the bar lineup after a one-meet absence, she recorded a season-best 9.85. Vituj and Eberle matched her score from the No. 2 and 4 positions and sandwiched between were nice 9.90 routines by Veronique Leclerc and Rachel Tidd. Only Utah's final performer, Nicolle Ford, struggled through her set, which scored a 9.55 and was tossed anyway. After one event, Utah was up 49.35-49.275.
Trouble struck on the second event. On vault, where Utah has been the nation's top-ranked team all season, Vituj and Tidd both fell on their landings. Instead of counting a big score from each (Vituj has a 9.925 season best and Tidd a 9.975), Utah counted a fall. Not even a 9.95 by Eberle and a 9.90 by Ford could push Utah into the 49.00 range and its 48.95 score dropped the Utes behind UM at the midway point, 98.375-98.300.
By the third rotation, Utah was without its star (Eberle) and also minus big tumbling Lim. Lim had a bad cold and was so congested, "it would have been dangerous for her to compete, especially with the routine she performs," said Marsden. Subbing in for the first time all season was sophomore Natalie Nicoloff, who responded with a 9.80 routine. Not as fortunate was Utah's other replacement, D'Oliveira, who fell at the end of her routine. Tidd (9.90), Ford (9.925) and Vituj (season-best 9.95) finished Utah's set strong and helped Utah to temporarily regain the lead. After three events, Utah led 147.675-147.325.
A big night by Michigan on the floor and two falls by the Utes on the beam erased the lead and then some and sent Utah to its fourth loss in as many tries in Ann Arbor. Substitute Leclerc fell, as did starter Tidd. Replacements Gabriella Onodi (9.85) and leadoff Nicoloff (9.825) fared well and Ford (9.90) and Vituj (9.95) had the two best scores of the night.
Despite the loss, Utah won three of four events. Eberle won vault (9.95), Ford won beam (9.90) and Vituj won floor (9.95).