Utah’s gymnastics team is often described as trendsetting for the way it leads the nation in popularity, pushes for rule changes and more. However, this season is about breaking a trend.
In the last several years, the Utes have performed extremely well throughout the season, but when it comes to the NCAA Championships they’ve been unable to lift their level of execution the way other teams have.
The result has been some finishes that would be considered fantastic for most teams, but not for Utah, which prides itself on being a national title caliber program year in and year out. The Utes, who last won an NCAA title in 1995, have claimed three Pac-12 titles since joining the conference in 2012. Yet despite succeeding in one of college gymnastics power conferences, the Utes have had only one top three finish at nationals in that length of time — second place in 2015.
The Utes have had some significant injuries over the last seasons that might have hurt their chances of finishing higher, but there remains a nagging feeling of perhaps underachieving at nationals.
Utah coach Megan Marsden said finding a way to compete better at the end of the year is the Utes’ top goal as they head into the 2019 season. Utah hosts Penn State on Saturday in the Huntsman Center at 4 p.m. in the season opener.
“Our only way to really practice that is in our competitions,” Utah coach Megan Marsden said. “Every competition is important because your teammates are counting on you. We want to see this team better negotiate that with performance quality rather than an ounce less of what they are doing in training or equal to training. We are hopeful they will rise to that level and feel confident under pressure. It isn’t an easy task. That is why you see only a few rise at the end of the season.”
Luckily for the Utes they believe they have the right elements to help them lift their efforts to championship status like Florida (2013, 2014, 2015), Oklahoma (2016, 2017) and UCLA (2018) have done.
Season opener: Saturday vs. Penn State, 4 p.m.
Where • The Huntsman Center
Stream • Utah Live Stream
Conference and national ranking: No. 2/No. 5
Outlook: The Utes have a lot of depth with four returners who can compete in the all-around.
What is new: Freshmen Adrienne Randall is competing for a lineup spot on three events.
Fellow veterans Kim Tessen, Sydney Soloski, Shannon McNatt, Lauren Wong and Alexia Burch are also expected to contribute. Freshmen Crystal Isa, Adrienne Randall and Hunter Dula will get their chances as well, but the Utes have the luxury of working them into the lineup as needed thanks to their depth.
“We think our top four are as good as anyone in the country,” Marsden said. “But it’s a long season so we might not have all four of them out there in all four events every meet.”
Skinner said she liked how hard the freshmen were working and believed the Utes could put together the kind of finish they need.
“We have been peaking too soon at the beginning of the season and then it was a roller coaster,” Skinner said. “We want to lead up to that finish this year.”
The Utes have other elements than just seasoned talent helping them in their quest to be a top three team. Marsden said the Utes need quality competition to get accustomed to competing under pressure and they will get it in the regular season with the Utes facing 10 teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, including top-ranked and defending champ UCLA, No. 8 California and No. 9 Michigan.
The Utes will also see No. 4 LSU in the Gymquarters Invitational in St. Charles, Mo., a meet that also features Missouri and Stanford.
There are two significant changes in the post-season scheduling that Marsden likes. The first is the league decision to allow the Maverik Center in West Valley City to host the Pac-12 Championships for the next three years.
Marsden acknowledges the Utes will have some hometown advantage due to proximity, but she believes all teams will benefit from the Maverik Center’s commitment to buy a podium setup in which to hold the event.
Training and competing on such a setup is crucial she believes because the NCAA Championships are held on a podium. In such cases the equipment is set up on a high platform that has a different feel.
“The SEC and other powerhouses have been doing it for years,” Marsden said. “We are thrilled to have it.”
The other significant change is for the NCAA Championships. The Super Six format that has been in place since the 1993 finals is being replaced by an eight-team field and a four-team final dubbed “Four on the Floor.”
The regional competitions are being expanded from a one-day affair to three days. Regional sites are Ann Arbor, Mich., Athens, Ga., Baton Rouge, La., and Corvallis, Ore. The first round will be a play in between two teams with the winner joining seven automatic qualifiers in the second round. The top two teams in the two semifinals will compete in the regional finals.
The winner and runner-up from all four regionals will move on to the NCAA Championships in Ft. Worth, where the eight teams will compete in two semifinal sessions and the top four will advance to the finals.
Marsden chuckled acknowledging it was her husband and long-time Utah coach Greg who pushed for such a format that eliminated the need for byes, which made the meets so long.
Now she and co-coach Tom Farden are faced with the challenge of coaching the Utes to the championships under more challenging circumstances. “I’m shaking in my boots a bit,” she laughed. “But it’s best for our sport and the teams so Tom and I have to figure out how to get this thing done.”
Sounds like it’s time for a new trend.
HOW THE UTES HAVE FARED
Utah’s recent finishes at the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships:
Year Pac-12 NCAA
2012 2nd 5th
2013 3rd 9th
2014 1st 7th
2015 1st 2nd
2016 2nd* 9th
2017 1st 5th
2018 2nd 5th
*Tied with Oregon State