Fort Worth, Texas • Utah’s gymnastics team likens the season to climbing a mountain, with the goal of improving throughout the year so the Utes are in prime form at the NCAA Championships.
Unfortunately for the Utes, their last few NCAA Championships have ended not at the top, but in the valley of lows.
The Utes, who compete in the NCAA Championships Friday at 1 p.m. in Ft. Worth, finished ninth in 2016 and fifth the last two championships.
Utah is the third seed in its session this year, competing against UCLA, LSU and Michigan, but the Utes believe they can advance to the finals and earn their highest finish since placing second in 2015.
“One of the goals is to do better than we did last season and that takes getting to the final night to do that,” Utah coach Megan Marsden said. “That is the goal of all our teams, to be there on the final night because that is when the champion is determined.”
This year the format makes it harder to reach the finals since only four teams instead of six teams advance. Utah lost to both LSU and UCLA twice in the regular season and has a win over Michigan.
NCAA GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS
Friday-Saturday at the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center
All times mountain
(National qualifying scores included)
Session 1 (ESPN2), 1 p.m. • No. 2 UCLA (396.085), No. 3 LSU (395.31), No. 5 Utah (394.785), No. 6 Michigan (394.595)
Session 2 (ESPNU) 5 p.m. • No. 1 Oklahoma (396.59), No. 4 Denver (394.92), No. 7 Georgia (395.365), No. 8 Oregon State (393.525)
Top two teams from each session advance to Saturday’s finals, 5 p.m., ESPNU
The Utes are matter-of-fact when they say they aren’t sure they can beat the Bruins, who seem to be competing in a league of their own lately, but they do feel they can upend the Tigers.
“We know our seed is kind of hard, but we are going to be in front of six judges so the judging should be more fair and we won’t be in SEC territory,” Utah junior MyKayla Skinner said. “It’s going to go to the team that has the meet of their life that night, and hopefully we can get the job done.”
The Utes are well aware they need to have that kind of meet after their experience at regionals. There, the Utes had a mediocre effort the first night. They didn’t have any falls, but they lacked the big scores too.
Utah knows it can’t afford that kind of showing at nationals, especially after having lost to the Bruins and Tigers previously.
“We are going to have to come out guns blazing on the first day,” Marsden said. “We can’t approach it like we did at regionals when we were flat and good but not great. We were fortunate enough to advance but we have to come out sticking every vault and every dismount from the beginning.”
It sounds like a simple philosophy, but it has been a hard one for the Utes to grasp of late.
While other teams have noticeably picked up their efforts at nationals, the Utes have not. Their weakness hasn’t been so much falls, but just a lack of urgency.
This year the Utes have been very consistent, but do they have the necessary fire?
Skinner, the most demonstrative member of the team, just shakes her head at the question. She is as frustrated by the letdowns as anyone involved.
“I’ve wanted this team to feel that the last two years,” she said. “It’s like we have made it to nationals so cool, we’re here. But we don’t just want to make it to nationals. We want it to end the way we want it to. We have worked so hard and we want to show that. We don’t have anything to lose so let’s go freaking kill it.”
Skinner’s thoughts were echoed by her teammate MaKenna Merrell-Giles, who seems to relish the Utes’ underdog status.
“It’s almost like a movie, all of us in that one session,” she said. “It’s going to be tough, but it has been our goal to get to the final day of nationals. We have been preparing for this all season.”