Well that didn’t take long.
Just a year after the Utes missed out on a top-five national finish for the first time in 20 years, there they were back on the NCAA Championships awards stand. No dead dynasty here, thank you very much, as an opposing coach inferred before his nationally ranked team (ironically) lost to Utah three months earlier. Utah, owner of a record 10 national championships, leaped from seventh in 1997 all the way to fourth in 1998. It was the eighth top-four NCAA finish of the 1990s for the Utes and their 18th top-four national finish of all time. It came against one of the toughest fields ever assembled at an NCAA Championship.
This time Utah’s traditional curtain call on the awards stand came with a twist. Famed for their consistency, the Utes typically did not count a fall during the course of the two-day NCAA Championships team competition at UCLA. That consistency came in handy in a meet where less than a point separated finishers No. 2-6. But consistency alone didn’t get Utah back in the title hunt.
Give some credit to Head Coach Greg Marsden. After the Utes missed the Super Six for the first time ever in 1997–despite hitting 23 of 24 routines–Marsden re-evaluated his long time approach.
“We’re not going to panic and make any radical changes to a system that’s worked very well for 20-plus years,” said Marsden. Nonetheless, when the new season started some five months later, he admitted this: His team’s routines already contained as much difficulty as they had at the 1997 NCAA Championships ... and the only way to go was up.
There were some downs on the way up, though. Accustomed to watching nearly every Ute routine go off without a hitch, Utah’s huge spectator base cringed when some big routines resulted in big falls. But those fans who made the trek to Los Angeles for the NCAA Championships found the pain worth the gain. The Utes had hit their stride just in time.
Utah opened the year with a 194.700-188.850 blowout of Arizona in Salt Lake City on January 16. To the 11,522 spectators in attendance, two falls and some wobbles seemed a small price to pay for their team’s tougher routines. But the wheels fell off the next week in Ann Arbor, Mich. Utah was magnificent for three events and went into its final rotation, the beam, holding a one-point lead over powerful Michigan. There, the event in which Utah had built its national championship reputation, proved its undoing. Three Utes toppled to the mat and Michigan surged ahead for the win. The next week, four spills at Utah State marred an otherwise solid meet that hooked the Utes a win (194.950-193.400), but cost them a shot at their first 196.00 of the year. They got that their next time out–impressing the home crowd of 11,468 with a 196.825-194.875 win over rival Brigham Young. Freshman Shannon Bowles nailed a 10.0 on the beam and scored a 39.60 in the all-around–the best score by a Ute all year. Bowles and her teammates hit all 24 routines–the first and only time of 1998 they would win by the method they trademarked. Seven days later, Utah improved to 4-1 with a 194.950-192.175 win over Minnesota in the Huntsman Center.
Then came the breakthrough meet. A Washington team that forecasted its first ever win over the Utes and suggested that Utah’s days as a national power were over, lay in wait on February 20 in Seattle. Utah struggled to field a lineup, with freshman star Bowles limited to the bars due to injury, several other key Utes hobbled and two-time defending NCAA balance beam champion Summer Reid gone for the year. But Utah overcame the behind-the-scene maneuvering and a lackluster warmup to produce perhaps its best overall showing of 1998. The Utes’ routines not only held up to rising national power Washington, their poise on the beam in the final event led to a one-point road win.
Unfortunately, the beam was not as friendly in the next two outings. The Utes moved their record to 6-2 with a win over Utah State despite three falls on beam. They weren’t so lucky the next week in their first trip to Stanford. Utah’s worst showing of the year featured five falls (three on beam) and a number of near misses. The future looked bleak then, with Utah losing 195.550-194.275 and the season winding down. Senior Traci Sommer helped improve the outlook the next week against Oregon State. In her last competition before the home crowd, Sommer’s 10.0 on beam led Utah to a 195.875-190.100 win over the Beavers. The Utes still had some kinks to work out in their “new” approach, though, as they showed the next week. A few steps on vault and a critical fall on beam was all it took for Utah to lose just its second meet ever to BYU, 196.050-195.975, in the regular season finale in Provo. The loss dropped Utah’s record to 7-3, marking its most losses in a decade.
Despite its atypical ledger, Utah entered the NCAA Midwest Region Championship in Tempe, Ariz., as the No. 1 seed. The Utes looked every bit the part of the nation’s top seed for three quarters of the meet. A huge night on its third event–beam (49.225)–put Utah comfortably in first going into the floor exercise. There, the “difficulty demons” struck again and threatened Utah’s shot at an 11th consecutive regional title. Two falls and a bad stumble placed the meet directly on Sommer’s shoulders. The tiny 4-foot-10 inch dynamo came up big with a 9.875 routine. Her gutsy effort pushed Utah past runner-up BYU (195.575-195.500) and into the NCAA Championships as the region’s automatic qualifier.
Off to Los Angeles went the up and down Utes, carrying the No. 6 seed and placed in defending NCAA champion (and host) UCLA’s rotation. Also in the evening session were No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Washington, No. 8 Louisiana State, and No. 12 Penn State. The Utes opened their NCAA competition on a bye, then went to the treacherous beam where they immediately let the rest of the field know their intentions: namely to finish in the top three and get back to the Super Six. A 48.975, the second highest score of either session, jump-started Utah in its quest. Next up was floor, where a solid 49.025 effort landed the Utes firmly in third place. But that momentum couldn’t carry them through their next bye. Back out on the competition floor, Utah ran into trouble on vault, scoring a 48.750 and opening the door for Washington and LSU. A mere quarter of a point separated the three when the final rotation started.
Fortunately, Utah would finish on its best event–the uneven bars. Sarah Northrop set the tone with a 9.85 opening score that was matched by the next two performers–Marilyn Ekdahl and Denise Jones. Then Utah left its two competitors in the chalk dust. Molly Northrop and Bowles each cranked out a 9.90. Angie Leonard then qualified for her second straight trip to bar finals with a near flawless 9.95 and Utah ran away with third place.
The Utes drew the coveted “Olympic” rotation (vault, bars, beam, floor) for the Super Six, but sputtered to fifth out of the shoot thanks to another sub-par vault performance. Again the bar squad came to the rescue. Bowles and Leonard closed another outstanding set (49.375) with a 9.90 each. Next up was beam, where Utah rocked again. Bowles and Sommer both scored a 9.90, which tied for the highest score of the night, and Utah conquered the plank with a 49.075. For the second straight night, it was the second best score by any team on the beam. And it came with an adjusted lineup. Freshman Theresa Wolf replaced Leonard, whose shin injury flared up in Thursday’s competition Wolf responded with a veteran-like 9.725. The big scores on the middle two events couldn’t overcome Utah’s flop on vault, however, and Utah remained in fifth entering its final event. The floor crew, led by Sommer’s 9.85, did its job, scoring a 49.10 and bringing Utah’s score to a 196.025. The Utes spent the final rotation on a bye, where they moved up to fourth without performing again.
Utah’s fourth-place finish was not only impressive in light of its three-place leap from 1997. Its 196.025 was a mere .325 out of second place. Finishing behind the Utes were the defending champion Bruins of UCLA, as well as defending runner-up Arizona State.
Utah finished its NCAA experience on Saturday with three individuals competing for titles. All three were first-team All-Americans, as was Sommer on beam. Bowles, Utah’s only two-event qualifier (who was also a first-team All-America all-arounder), tied for fourth on both bars (9.85) and beam (9.85). Molly Northrop finished sixth on bars (9.825). Leonard, also a 1997 first-team bar All-American, suffered a rare fall on her dismount and finished 12th.