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Stephanie McAllister ready to lead Ute gymnasts into NCAAs

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah gymnast Stephanie McAllister on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, in Salt Lake City.

By Lya Wodraska

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 15 2012 05:23PM
Updated Apr 16, 2012 07:52AM

Shortly after the Utes won their NCAA regional gymnastics championship, Utah senior Stephanie McAllister was asked how she thought the Utes would do at the NCAA Championships.

Without hesitating, she predicted the Utes would do well.

"I think we’re going to surprise some people," she said as she looked down the interview table at some of her teammates.

Prodded along by her enthusiasm, they quickly agreed.

"Yeah, yes we can," said fellow senior Kyndal Robarts, while others nodded their heads in agreement.

Leave it to McAllister to set the tone for the team as it heads into the biggest meet of the season as the NCAA Championships start Friday in Duluth, Ga.

The senior from Indianapolis didn’t come to Utah with many of the elite credentials some of her teammates brought with them, but over her career she has developed into not only one of the Utes’ strongest gymnasts, but also one of their best leaders.

If anyone can help a team that features 11 freshmen and sophomores deal with the pressure of competing for an NCAA title, it’s McAllister.

She has been the vocal leader for the past two seasons but has had her greatest influence this season. Before the season started she helped hash out the team’s focus in their preseason training, then, when the Utes were in their slump, she kept the positive vibes going in practice and wouldn’t allow her teammates to give up on the year.

Now they are looking to her as the calming influence going into the hectic, pressure-filled atmosphere of the NCAAs.

"It’s really important to have someone like her in the gym who always has that positive outlook," Utah co-coach Megan Marsden said. "She has been here four years, and I honestly can’t think of a time when she came into the gym and wasn’t happy. There aren’t many gymnasts I can say that about, but she knows how to keep a team light."

If she is feeling any pressure to carry the team in the NCAAs, McAllister isn’t showing it.

"I know I keep saying this, but I do just want to go in and have fun," she said. "It’s the last time that I am competing, and I want to enjoy being out there in front of a crowd one last time."

Her response might sound like a cliché, but that attitude obviously has worked for her. McAllister was a member of the Junior Olympic team, but she still wasn’t considered one of the elites when the Utes recruited her.

Utah’s coaches were attracted to her for her blue-collar work ethic. She proved them right in their hunch she would turn into a special gymnast by earning All-America status three times and earning a place on the first-team All-Pac-12 team this year.

She started to assert herself last year as a leader when Robarts suffered a season-ending knee injury. Her influence might even be more valuable than the high scores she delivers.

"Steph really stepped up and improved her presence on the floor for the team," said coach Greg Marsden. "She puts so much emphasis on the team. For her, it really is about working hard in terms of what she can contribute to the team."

McAllister, who finished third in the all-around at the NCAA Regionals, knows she will need similar scores if the Utes are to advance to Friday’s Super Six.

She believes she, and the team, can get it done.

"Everyone has been motivated to push each other this year," she said. "We all just have to do what we have been doing and go in there with confidence and have fun with it. If we do that, we should be able to end on a strong note."

lwodraska@sltrib.comTwitter: @lyawodraska

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