Fayetteville, Ark. • Being one of the least populous states in the nation, Utah rarely gets to show off its muscle when it comes to athletic participation.
But just look at what little ol’ Utah has done this week, with four gymnastics teams from the state among the 36 teams to qualify for Saturday’s NCAA Regional Championships.
The top two teams from each region advance to the NCAA Championships, scheduled for April 18-20 in Birmingham, Ala.
The fifth-ranked Utes, fresh off their historic Pac-12 win, should have the best chance to advance to the NCAAs. SUU, Utah State and BYU are all underdogs in their regions, but those teams should be proud of simply qualifying, say those who are involved.
Only California, with UCLA, Stanford, UC Davis and San Jose State, matched Utah’s numbers.
“It’s a great thing for our state,” Utah coach Greg Marsden said. “With our population base, it’s huge to have that many teams in regionals and with them all doing a great job.”
The last time the state was represented by two teams at nationals was in 2005, when the Utes were third and BYU finished 11th.
This year, the Cougars are ranked 25th, while Utah State and SUU are not among the Top 25. However, T-birds coach Scott Bauman is hopeful his team can pull off a surprise.
“We are a scrappy team and we aren’t going to give up,” he said. “Whoever is going to win it is going to have to earn it from us. Hopefully we can have our best outing of the year.”
So, what is Utah’s secret? How did it make such an impact?
Bauman gives credits to the Utes for bringing exposure and popularity to the sport. Utah has averaged more than 14,000 fans in the last five years, a statistic that Bauman believes has helped little girls throughout the state grow up dreaming of being gymnasts.
Only a few, such as current seniors Hailee Hansen and Mary Beth Lofgren, have the talent to join the Utes. But others are good enough to compete at the other schools. BYU has seven gymnasts from Utah on its roster while Utah State and SUU have three each.
Bauman said he modeled his program after the Utes’.
“It’s a fun place to compete up there with great crowds,” he said. “We wanted to make our events a fun atmosphere and get involved with the community, but yeah, we are all still trying to catch up to Marsden.”
The Utes are hard to catch this year. Utah suffered losses at Stanford and Michigan, but has come on strong of late and won or tied for every award at the Pac-12 Championships except the balance beam title.
The Utes are confident they can continue to carry the flag for the state this weekend and qualify for the NCAAs.
“We can’t get too hyped up, but if we go in and do our job, we should be good,” said Breanna Hughes.
Winning the Pac-12s didn’t create more pressure on the Utes. If anything, it has helped take pressure off, said Utah co-coach Megan Marsden.
“This group of athletes, I think, needed to believe that they could win,” she said. “I don’t get a sense that they peaked too soon or that they will tank at regionals. I get a sense that they are continuing to build and to realize their potential.”
The same perhaps could be said of all teams in Utah in regionals. Chances are slim any of the underdogs will make the NCAA cut, but Greg Marsden said their presence at the regionals could be a good sign of things to come.
“I hope what we have done has helped other programs in the state and even across the country realize what can be done,” Marsden said.
Local teams at regionals
Utah (coach Greg Marsden)
Regional • Fayetteville, Ark.
Of note • The Utes scored a 197.925 to win the Pac-12 title two weeks ago. … The Utes have won 24 of the 32 NCAA regional meets in which they have competed. … The Utes have never competed against UC Davis or in Fayetteville. … Georgia Dabritz has won the last two NCAA regional titles.
Utah State (coach Nadalie Walsh)
Regional • Fayetteville, Ark.
Of note • Last regional appearance was in 2007, when the Aggies finished sixth. … Senior Paige Jones is making her fourth appearance at regionals, having competed as an all-around competitor in 2012 and 2014 and on vault and floor as a freshman in 2011. … Finished fifth at the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Championships with a season-best 196.075.
SUU (coach Scott Bauman)
Regional • Minneapolis
Of note • SUU beat San Jose State, earlier in the season. … SUU last competed in Minneapolis in a regional meet in 2008, when the T-birds finished fifth. … Finished third at the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Championships with a season-high of 196.125. … Memory Shettles was named the co-freshman of the year in the conference.
BYU (coach Brad Cattermole)
Regional • Seattle
Of note • Has qualified for its fifth straight regional. … Went 1-2 against regional opponents this year, beating Washington and losing to Denver and Boise State. … Posted its third-best score of the season at the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Championships with a 196.1.
Fayetteville, Ark. • No. 5 Utah, No. 8 UCLA, No. 17 Arkansas, No. 24 Arizona State, Utah State, UC-Davis
University Park, Pa. • No. 1 Florida, No. 12 Oregon State, No. 15 Penn State, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire
Seattle • No. 4 Alabama, No. 9 Nebraska, No. 16 Boise State, No. 20 Denver, No. 25 BYU, Washington
Minneapolis • No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 11 Illinois, No. 14 Minnesota, No. 19 Cal, SUU, San Jose St.
Athens, Ga. • No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Michigan, No. 18 Central Michigan, No. 22 Ohio State, North Carolina State, Rutgers
Baton Rouge, La. • No. 3 LSU, No. 10 Stanford, No. 13 Auburn, No. 21 Arizona, Kent State, Iowa State