In a program stuffed with national championships-10 in all-and top three finishes (17), just where does the 1997 Ute team fit?
To be tied.
At the 1997 NCAA Championships, the Utes appeared on their way to another Super Six after a furious comeback shoved them into a tie for third in their session. Unfortunately, Utah won the battle but lost the tie: The tiebreakeroand a ticket into the Super Sixowent to Nebraska, snuffing Utahis chance at an 11th national title.
The heartbreaking ilossi marred an otherwise sensational season for Utah. From a season-opening win at highly ranked Arizona, to the gritty comeback at nationals, the 1997 Utes competed like their much-decorated predecessors. And they did it without the benefit of experience. Eight-tenths of the roster was freshmen and sophomoresofour in each class. Just a single junior and senior rounded out the youngest Ute team ever. Utahis youth showed up only on paper, though. On the floor, the Utes racked up an 11-1 record and won the NCAA Midwest Region crown against the strongest regional field in the country. Earlier, they shattered the school scoring record in a win over powerful Stanford and finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Even the national championships werenit without istandardi Ute fare. Sophomore Summer Reid won her second straight balance beam title and joined elite company in the process. Reid linked her name to former stars Missy Marlowe (Utah) and Jenny Hansen (Kentucky) as the only gymnasts in NCAA history to win two beam championships. Also on beam, an event where Utah ranked No. 1 in the nation all year long, junior Traci Sommer won All-America honors. A vicious bout with the flu kept her bedridden until her name was called to compete, but Sommer still took third, behind only the co-champion iReidsi (no relation), Summer and Elizabeth; the latter from Arizona State. Sophomore Angie Leonard made first-team All-American on two events, placing fourth on vault and sixth on bars.
Ironically, although the Utes failed to make the Super Six for the first time, they created the most exciting race of the championships. Georgia and Arizona State ran away from their respective fields on opening day. Third place in the second session was also secured early. A night later, at the Super Six, UCLA won its first national championship by a relatively comfortable margin. But the fight for third place in the opening session of the championships was another story indeed.
It didnit start out like a cliffhanger, as Utah looked like a non factor after the first rotation. The Utes hit all six floor routines in their initial NCAA test, but werenit sharp. Here, more than any event, Utah was hurt by the weakened condition of top floor performers Sommer and Reid, both battling the flu, and the absence of injured star freshman Jenny Schmidt.
Round two produced a better result, but no net gain. Angie Leonardis 9.90 highlighted a solid vault setoone that received a 49.025. Unfortunately, it was not enough to gain ground on Utahis prime competitor for the final Super Six qualifying spot. In fact, at the halfway point, Nebraska led the Utes by a nearly insurmountable seven-tenths of a point. To make matters worse, Nebraska refused to crack the doorosticking all 24 of its routines.
But Utah, famous for imiraclei finishes over the years, felt tradition kick in at that point. Led by Leonardis 9.90 bar setowhich tied for the best bar score in session oneoUtah clawed to within .375. While Nebraska sat out the last rotation with a bye, Utah approached the balance beam needing a 49.25 to tie. The beamoinfamous as a meet-wreckerowould induce dread in most teams facing Utahis scenariooespecially on a day when only Georgia had even reached a 49.00 on the apparatus. But this was Utahothe No. 1 rated beam team in the nation.
Molly Northrop opened the set with a beautifully executed 9.825 routine, followed by a pair of 9.80s from Denise Jones and Ashley Kever. The comeback stalled temporarily when Leonard, a rock all season, fell, but Sommeris 9.90 got Utah back on track. Utahis hopes then settled on Reid, who needed a 9.925othe highest score of either sessionofor her team to tie for the cutoff spot. The fearless, peerless Reid cooley pirouetted to just that, leaving the outcome in the hands of the rule book.
The pall cast on the Utes after ilosingi the tie dissipated with the passing days. After all, the youngest, least experienced team in U. history ran the programis string of years with one or fewer regular season losses to seven. Over the course of the regular season, the Utes defeated NCAA qualifiers Michigan, Washington and Minnesota, as well as traditional powers like Arizona, Brigham Young and Stanford. They won the NCAA Midwest Regional championship, ahead of eventual NCAA runner-up Arizona State and sixth-place Nebraska. The regional win qualified Utah for a 16th-straight NCAA Championship. In doing so, the Utes, along with Florida, became the only teams to qualify for every NCAA meet to date. Once in the championship arena, these Utes hit 23 of 24 routines and their score held up as the seventh best, even after the traditional higher scoring evening session ended.
So, who was this team? Well, consistency, a thread woven throughout Utahis storied history, clearly held together this team too. Despite averaging less than two years of collegiate experience, the Utes were easily the countryis most consistent team. Including their near perfect night at nationals, they hit an amazing 92 percent of their routines (312 of 340) over the course of the season. Ability to handle pressure, another longtime Ute trait, also belonged to this team. The Utes won meets at Minnesota and BYU on the last rotation and their clutch performance on beam at nationals brought them within an eyelash of the Super Six.
Same traits, different result, but no question. The 1997 Utes tie right in with their national caliber predecessors.