A defending national championship team, individual champions, Olympians, a seasoned rivalry and a goodbye to a long-time coaching foe. Saturday’s showdown between the fourth-ranked Utah gymnastics team and No. 2 UCLA at 1:30 p.m. in the Huntsman Center has everything a gymnastics fan could want in a meet.
The Utah coaches, who often try to stick with the mantra that the Utes are more focused on themselves than the competition, acknowledged that this showdown is special. Coach Tom Farden referred to it as a ‘little,’ more meaningful earlier in the week.
Yes, he was being sarcastic.
Even before the Utes and Bruins were in the Pac-12, the two programs had a healthy rivalry since they were often competing for national titles together and met in the regular season. The Utes lead the series 54-33-1, but UCLA beat the Utes for the Pac-12 title and won the NCAA title while Utah placed fifth.
In addition, this is the last time the Utes will see Valorie Kondos Field in the Huntsman Center as the Bruins’ coach. Kondos Field, who has led the Bruins for 29 years, will retire at the end of the season.
Finally, this showdown is occurring just a few weeks before the Pac-12 Championships, so the winner gets a boost of confidence in addition to bragging rights.
“I don’t know how you can downplay this meet,” Utah coach Megan Marsden said. “There is no question this is a big meet in the Pac-12 and on the national level with the rankings of both beams and the quality of athletes. There is a lot to look forward to and it’s a big deal.”
The Utes haven’t scored less than 197 all year, an achievement they’ve never enjoyed before, but the Bruins went one better last week, earning a season high 198.025 in a win over Arizona.
For the Utes to score that high or beat the Bruins for that matter, they must improve their beam efforts which have been their most inconsistent area.
Lower than average scores resulted in a loss to LSU and could be their downfall again if they don’t clean up their routines by Saturday.
“It has been different people at different times who have struggled so we have to continue to work on the mental approaches,” Marsden said. “We have to help them find their confidence and swagger in meet settings.”
The Utes have also decided to stick with senior Kari Lee in the leadoff spot instead of Shannon McNatt or Alexia Burch. Lee led off on beam for the first time this year against Stanford and scored a 9.8.
“She has a lot of experience and can set the tone for us and she has the ability to score extremely high,” Marsden said of Lee, who is also in the leadoff slot on vault and bars. “She can go 9.9 and floats across the beam and makes the event look easy. I think that is what we need to build confidence.”
Lee acknowledged the Bruins have a lot of talent, but still likes the Utes’ chances.
UCLA returns all but four of its routines from last year’s NCAA Championship squad and is led by Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, who were members of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams as well as Katelyn Ohashi, the defending NCAA floor champion.
“Week in and week out whenever I watch their gymnastics they have confidence and are relaxed,” Lee said. “But I know that it benefits us that they are coming into our home arena. We have a chip on our shoulder because we haven’t performed the way we wanted to.”
NO. 4 UTAH VS. NO. 2 UCLA
At the Huntsman Center
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700
Series: Utah leads 54-33-1
Last regular season meeting: Utah won 197.55-197.425, Feb. 18, 2018
Of note: UCLA returns all but four routines from its 2018 NCAA Championship team…Kyla Ross won the 2017 NCAA bars and beam titles… Even though Utah won the last regular season meeting, UCLA beat the Utes twice in the post-season, for the Pac-12 title and then in the NCAA Championships…Utah is calling the meet a ‘Red Out,’ with proceeds of red wigs sold going to the funding the Duke Gymnastics Center expansion.