Melissa Vituj's bar routine helped Utah clinch the victory.
April 3, 2004
TUCSON, Ariz. -
The University of Utah gymnastics team survived a late-meet scare to win the NCAA South Central Regionals and advance to the NCAA Championships. Utah beat runner-up Florida, which also qualified for nationals, 197.625-197.050. Arizona (196.375), Arkansas (195.550), Illinois (195.400) and Illinois-Chicago (193.400) failed to advance.
A win appeared a sure thing for the Utes heading into their final event, the uneven bars, since all they needed to secure second place ahead of Arizona was to score above a 48.400. Certainly, nothing appeared amiss early, as Dominique D'Oliveira opened the set with a career-tying 9.90 score and uneven bar All-American Veronique Leclerc followed with a pretty 9.95 routine. But then the unexpected happened and Utah's lock on a record 29th national championship (23rd NCAA) appearance was suddenly in doubt. Junior All-American Annabeth Eberle, who hadn't missed a routine the entire season, fell not once but twice, off the bars. Eberle threw an additional scare into the large Utah contingent in attendance when she peeled dangerously off the top bar on her dismount and smashed to the ground. "Fortunately, the only thing A.B. injured was her pride," said a relieved Marsden. "After she peeled, she somehow managed to land without hurting herself."
A senior and two freshmen remained between Utah and an early exit from the tournament. But if Melissa Vituj, Rachel Tidd and Nicolle Ford felt any pressure, they didn't show it. Vituj unleashed a 9.95, Tidd a 9.90 and Ford clinched the Ute win with career-tying 9.95.
Amazingly, both Tidd and Ford were questionable before the meet. Tidd, battling an illness all week long, told Ute head coach Greg Marsden prior to the meet that she didn't think she could compete. Ford was competing on floor and vault for the first time in five weeks after a back injury. But compete they did and lucky thing as Ford placed third in the all-around competition with a 39.550 and Tidd tied for first on vault with a 9.95.
Freshmen weren't the only stars behind this win, which Marsden termed, "A great team victory." Vituj won the all-around and balance beam titles, scoring a 39.675 and 9.95, respectively. Leclerc, doubtful before the meet with a hamstring injury, scored a 9.875 on vault and a 9.95 on bars. Before her mishaps on bars, Eberle scored a 9.80 on beam, 9.825 on floor and 9.90 on vault. Junior Gritt Hofmann tied for first on the floor exercise with a 9.90. Sophomore Kristen Riffanacht went 9.85 on vault and floor and 9.775 on beam. Sophomore Natalie Nicoloff, Utah's first competitor of the evening, set the tone with a steady 9.75 on the beam.
Utah had a solid, if not spectacular start to the night on the balance beam, where it scored a 49.175. Tidd fell from the No. 3 position, but successors Eberle (9.80), Ford (9.90) and Vituj (9.95) made sure the Utes didn't have to count a fall. Every Ute except Ford and Vituj had a relatively obvious deduction to mar otherwise outstanding routines. Nicoloff (9.75), Riffanacht (9.775) and Eberle (9.80) were tagged for a single bobble-the first two at the end of their flight series and in the case of Eberle, a misstep on her mount. Eberle's incredible strength saved her from a certain fall after one foot missed the beam on her somersault mount, forcing her to land on one leg. She stayed on and finished the routine strong. Ford (9.90) and Vituj (9.95) sailed through their routines without a hitch. With co-favorite Florida sitting out on a bye, Utah trailed Arizona after one event, 49.275-49.175.
Coming out of its first bye, Utah found itself three tenths of a point behind Florida, who nailed a 49.475 bar set in its opening event. Arizona cut the Utes a break, counting a fall on the balance beam to score a 48.75 for a two-event total of 98.025.
Utah hit a really nice floor set on its return to the competition on the most tightly judged event of the night. Hofmann's routine earned a meet-tying 9.90, just ahead of Vituj's 9.875. Utah started off with three straight 9.85 scores from Riffanacht, Stephanie Lim and Ford. After two events, Utah remained in second place, this time behind Florida, 98.650-98.500. Arizona, off on a bye for the third rotation, was third at 98.025.
Utah took the lead for the first time of the evening on the vault, although the lead was misleading since Florida was out with a bye. All six Utes produced nice vaults in a 49.475 set and Tidd looked perfect in a 9.95 result. The freshman, who tied for first on the event, received a 10.0 from one judge and 9.95s from the other three. Ford scored a 9.85 in place of Lim, whose calf injury couldn't hold up to both a floor and a vault routine. Vituj and Eberle sandwiched Tidd's 9.95 with 9.90s. Leclerc and Riffanacht went 9.875 and 9.85 as Utah's first two vaulters. After three events, Utah increased its lead over Arizona, 147.950-147.050.
Then came the wild finish on the uneven bars, a 49.650 event score (Utah's highest of the evening) and a ticket to the NCAA Championships.