Logan • Going to NCAA regional championships is nothing new to senior Paige Jones.
Having a few more teammates for the experience, however — that’s a bit unprecedented for the current crop of Aggies.
In years past, NCAA regionals were more of a solitary affair for USU. The best individuals in the program would compete in the all-around or their respective disciplines. The fun part of going to Fayetteville, Ark., this year for Jones, Sarah Landes and Stefanie Daley is that, for the first time since 2007, the Utah State team is going to compete.
"It’s so incredible" Jones said. "It’s an entirely different feeling to take my entire team there."
With powerhouse programs such as Utah and UCLA in the field, the Aggies will be big underdogs against some of the elite gymnastics squads. But reaching a new plateau has its own significance for a team under new leadership this season.
A splash of blue highlights in her jet-black hair symbolizes coach Nadalie Walsh’s attachment to her program. In her first year, Walsh has tried to adopt the idea that she’s part of the team rather than lording over it. Similarly, instead of trying to send Utah State’s best gymnasts to NCAAs, she spent the year figuring out how she could get all of them there.
"We’ve leveled the playing field," Walsh said. "We’ve tried to not just spend time on one or two gymnasts, but rather emphasize that everyone is important. If we’re going to compete together, we have to trust each other."
That culture change required sacrifice on some parts. Jones, a talented all-around performer, gave up performing on the beam in favor of giving stronger performers a chance.
It means she doesn’t get a shot at all-around this time, but Jones said the decision wasn’t hard to make.
"I could’ve done beam, but we’ve got an amazing beam lineup that can hit turn after turn after turn," she said. "I wasn’t necessarily the right fit to help to get the team to regionals, so I didn’t have a problem with it. And now there’s not as much pressure, because we don’t have everything riding on one or two girls."
That has been a boon to the program, which has seen its team scores rise significantly this year. For the first time since 2004, USU notched a 196.000 score (against Southern Utah on March 14). It’s no fluke either: The Aggies have surpassed the mark twice since.
Getting a strong finish at regionals would be a solid season-ending accomplishment, but more importantly for the Aggies, it would be a sign of progress. Home attendance was up this year, and Utah State saw the development of several young stars.
While they’re underdogs for now, the Aggies hope the program has found a way to grow into something more.
"They’re looking at it as being really hungry as seeing what their potential is," Walsh said. "They’re proud to be wearing blue and white, and their proud to be Aggies. That’s really been the lifeblood of the program."
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