Utah poses tough task for gymnasts

Susan Filkins

In 12 previous meetings, the Gophers women’s gymnastics team never beat perennial powerhouse Utah. On Saturday night, No. 16 Minnesota will get another opportunity to break that streak when it faces the third-ranked Utes at the Sports Pavilion.
Utah is one of the most consistent and strongest women’s gymnastics programs in the nation. This year, it is ranked in the top 10 in every event, including No. 1 on the balance beam.
However, it’s a young team with only two upperclassmen and four sophomores and freshman, respectively. It’s an established Super Sophomore class, though. It includes the defending NCAA beam champion, Summer Reid.
Minnesota hosted Utah last season, scoring its highest team score of the season, but still lost to the Utes, 195.55 to 194.7. The Gophers have thrived against tough competition in the past, and Gophers coach Jim Stephenson said he hopes his team will find itself in a high scoring environment once again.
He concedes, however, there is no way his team can take down this giant.
“I don’t think anybody in the country can beat them one-on-one,” Stephenson said. “They are just finely-tuned, very consistent and have great depth.”
Stephenson would know. He was Utah’s first assistant coach for four years before being hired at Minnesota in 1992. During his time at Utah, Stephenson assisted the Utes to two national championships (1990 and 1992).
In 1992, the NCAA national championships were held at the St. Paul Civic Center. That was Stephenson and his wife Meg’s first exposure to Minnesota. It was an experience that stuck with him.
“We came here and won the meet, and it was a great trip,” Stephenson said. “We got a real good impression of the people here and women’s athletics.
“Because of the experience we had (at Minnesota) a month prior to the announcement (of the head coach position), I was at least willing to look at the situation.”
But Stephenson said, at first, he had no intention of leaving the finest gymnastics program in the nation.
Despite his feelings, Stephenson recognized the strong points in Minnesota’s program. But in looking at the challenges afoot, he eventually had a change of heart.
Stephenson says a program needs to have certain qualities to be successful. They include fan support and an environment that draws recruits. Recognizing the potential at Minnesota, he negotiated for the position with University women’s athletics director Chris Voelz.
Now in his fifth season with the Gophers, Stephenson said the one thing he misses most about his job at Utah is the skiing. He also added he misses the relationship he had with the Utah coaches.
Stephenson said he feels the main reason for Utah’s dominance lies within its coaching staff, and he has a great deal of respect for the staff. In 22 years, Utah coach Greg Marsden has taken the Utes to 10 national championships.
Although the Gophers’ chances against Utah may be slim, Minnesota hopes to be competitive. To win, they must be flawless.
“To maintain a level of respectability against them, we are going to have to have no missed routines,” Stephenson said. “If we can do that, we will look like, someday, we can be in contention with them.”