Understandably, the University of Utah really wanted to make a good impression Saturday. Conducting the school’s first Pac-12 championship event, with conference commissioner Larry Scott attending the first gymnastics meet of his life, the Utes staged their usual full-scale production in front of 10,000-plus fans at the Huntsman Center.
"We might have spoiled him," said Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden, who designed this gymnastics entertainment package, disguised as a sporting event.
In that tradition, organizers scripted everything, right down to the suspenseful moment when the team scores were announced with the runner-up being … Utah, evoking loud cheers.
Wait, what? The Utes were so preoccupied with doing everything right and being good hosts that they overlooked the little detail of winning the school’s first Pac-12 title.
Given a choice of labels for the outcome, Ute senior Stephanie McAllister preferred the description of Utah’s finishing a close second to UCLA, as opposed to losing this meet. Next month’s NCAA Championships will define the Utes’ season, as always, so even the program’s first opportunity in 19 years to compete in a conference event was mostly just another warmup exercise.
Yet you just know Marsden would have loved for his gymnastics team to claim Utah’s first Pac-12 trophy. In the interview room, while endorsing the sports psychology talk from his gymnasts about having fun and not worrying about the outcome, Marsden acknowledged what actually winning the conference meet would have meant.
"Oh, are you kidding me? Yeah, that would have been thrilling," he said, more expressively than those printed words suggest.
The Utes settled for merely making it interesting, with their 197.375 score not quite matching UCLA’s 197.425. While that order of finish reflected the rankings-based seeding for the meet, it came as a surprise in the end, considering how Stanford was dominating the proceedings before suddenly crumbling on bars in the final rotation.
UCLA rather innocently jumped ahead with its closing effort on beam, while Utah earned the runner-up finish with a stirring floor performance after having struggled on beam. The Utes’ Corri Lothrop won the all-around title, among other strong showings.
"There were so many good things, I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up," McAllister said.
So the Utes will dwell on their outstanding bars set and nice finish, while trying to learn from their beam troubles. "If there’s any nerves at all," Marsden said, "that’s the event that it magnifies."
Well, all the gymnasts were being asked to do was save the Utah athletic department in its first year of Pac-12 competition. That’s not to say the Utes have embarrassed themselves at all in the new league, just that they have not produced any elite teams at this level — other than gymnastics, ranked No. 7 nationally.
The Utes barely missed an opportunity to play for the Pac-12 football title. Yet their 4-5 conference record was worth only a tie for sixth overall. Utah’s best showing before Saturday came in women’s soccer, with a 6-5 mark resulting in fifth place.
So it was left to gymnastics to present itself as Utah’s flagship program in the Pac-12. As hosts, the Utes delivered. "We knew Utah would do it big," said UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field. "They would do it just like a national championship. That’s exactly what it felt like."
Having cited Utah’s "tremendous reputation" for marketing and staging gymnastics meets, Scott undoubtedly left impressed.
So the Utes earned the positive reviews they sought in conducting the Pac-12 meet. The trophy, though? That’s headed to Los Angeles.
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