Competing against Pac-12 teams is nothing new for Utah’s gymnastics team, which has had a longstanding practice of scheduling the West Coast teams.
But holding its first conference meet is still a significant moment for the Utes, who will celebrate their first league meet at home Friday when they host Stanford.
The Utes are marking the occasion by handing out mini replicas of the Huntsman Center to the first 1,000 fans.
Utah, which leads the nation averaging 14,454 fans, views its move to the Pac-12 to be as important for its gymnastics program as it was for the football team.
Being independent allowed some flexibility in scheduling opponents, but the Utes are enjoying the benefits and competition of being in a league even more.
“We haven’t had an opportunity like this before,” Utah coach Greg Marsden said. “Believe me, we know it’s important from a lot of perspectives. The athletes are excited about it and we as coaches feel it’s good for us as a program.”
Utah athletic director Chris Hill acknowledged football is viewed by many as the primary sport that received a boost by moving to the Pac-12, but he has an eye on all the sports, including gymnastics.
“Every program is different, but gymnastics has been phenomenal nationally,” he said. “They’ve been at the top level from the beginning, so there is no reason why we wouldn’t expect them to stay there.”
While handing out replicas of the Huntsman Center is a nice marketing strategy for the Utes, they also hope to celebrate by beating the Cardinal, which has won the last two meetings between the teams.
The Cardinal finished ahead of the Utes at the 2010 NCAA Championships and won a dual meet 196.825-196.5 in the Huntsman Center last year.
Even though they hold a 16-4 overall record against the Cardinal, Utah hasn’t beaten Stanford in Salt Lake City since the 2007 NCAA Championships when the Utes finished second and Stanford was fifth.
Marsden imagines the rivalry with Stanford will only get tougher since the program more and more frequently is finishing near the top of the national standings.
“They’ve always had a lot of talented people there,” he said. “They’re like UCLA, they’ve struggled to get the fan support and media support there and that kind of thing since they are in a big metropolitan area, but there is no question they are a good program.”
After competing as an independent for so long, the Utes feel a sense of responsibility to perform well against their Pac-12 foes to uphold their reputation as one of the nation’s elite program.
The Utes will get their best shot at doing so when they host the Pac-12 Championships on March 24, but would like their first home Pac-12 meet to stand as a good opening statement of their potential too.
“Everything we are doing helps us prepare for the post-season,” Marsden said. “Besides, it’s exciting to be a part of a prestigious and strong conference.”
No. 12 Stanford at No. 5 Utah
P Friday, 7 p.m. Huntsman Center
Records • Utah 5-1, Stanford 7-2
About the Utes • The Utes dropped from No. 1 to No. 5 following their 196.05-194.85 win at Michigan...Sophomore Corrie Lothrop leads the Utes with 10 wins...Stephanie McAllister has been Utah’s highest finisher on the uneven bars in five of the six meets...Friday’s meet is the first of three in a row at home for the Utes.
About the Cardinal • Have beaten Utah in the last two meetings but are just 7-1 against the Utes in Salt Lake City...Friday’s meet is the fifth in a row on the road for Stanford...Season high is a 196.375 earned a week ago...Nicole Pechanec (39.325) and Ashley Morgan (39.3) are the top all-arounders...Coached by Kristen Smyth (167-44-1, 11th season).