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Utah gymnastics’ Sunday meet at No. 2 Oklahoma an increasingly rare opportunity for the No. 3 Utes

As Pac-12 expands to a full round-robin schedule, non-conference scheduling opportunities becoming more rare

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abby Paulson performs her floor routine as the fourth-ranked University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics team host Stanford, Friday, March 6, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

Utah’s third-ranked gymnastics team is savoring the chance to compete at No. 2 Oklahoma on Sunday, not only for the competition itself, but for what it means for the future.

“It really gets us prepared for the postseason and competing at regionals and nationals,” sophomore Abby Paulson said. “To see them early in the season, it’s nice to get a competition now to know what to expect later.”

Utah and Oklahoma seemed destined to be two of the final teams battling for the national title last year as both finished the regular season unbeaten.

The unexpected end of the 2020 season dashed those expectations, but all indications are the two will be right there at the end this season.

Oklahoma, which has won three of the last four national titles, opened the season with a 197.45-194.725 win over Arizona State, while the Utes scored a 196.9 in their Best of Utah win Saturday. That score marked one of the Utes’ highest season-opening scores in the program’s history, matching their season-opening effort in 2015 and coming just short of a 197 scored in the 2018 season-opener.

As much importance as the Utes are putting on this matchup, they also know such big clashes are becoming more rare, at least when it comes to non-conference matchups.

Now that the Pac-12 has mandated that conference teams must compete against the other seven teams in head-to-head competitions, the Utes have little wiggle room in their scheduling. The Pac-12 made the change last year in a move instigated by Utah coach Tom Farden so a regular season championship could be awarded.

“It brings gymnastics more mainstream to have that regular season title,” he said.

NO. 3 UTAH AT NO. 2 OKLAHOMA

When • Sunday, 3 p.m. MST

TV • ESPN2

As it turns out, the Utes claimed that inaugural title shortly before the season was canceled, leaving them with at least one bragging right in the shortened season.

The compromise with having seven locked-in meets is the Utes have very little room to add headlining, non-conference meets like Oklahoma. The Utes have three years remaining of their 5-year deal for the Best of Utah meet at the Maverik Center plus the Pac-12 Championships.

That gives the Utes just two open slots to fill in its schedules for the coming years. In addition to Oklahoma, the Utes have scheduled Utah State on March 12 after its plans to compete against Minnesota fell through when the Big Ten decided on a conference only schedule this year.

In the past when Greg and Megan Marsden coached the Utes, there was some allegiance to competing against in-state rival BYU as well as SEC teams like Florida and Georgia.

Farden, who is in his second year as the head coach after sharing the duties with Megan Marsden, said his philosophy isn’t so much allegiance to certain schools but to give the Utes top competition.

The Utes have a home-and-home scheduled to start next year with LSU, a team that has been a consistent national contender lately.

Some fans might be disappointed in the absence of the head-to-head meet with BYU, but Farden is more worried about prepping his team for national competition.

“Our offense is to go into these meets aggressive and confident,” he said. “I don’t want there to be that shock factor when they face teams like Oklahoma. I want them to see they are athletes just like we are.”

NATIONAL RANKINGS

Top 10

(Based on scoring average)

Ranking/School/Average

1. Florida 197.5

2. Oklahoma 197.45

3. Utah 196.9

4. Alabama 196.85

5. LSU 196.55

6. Arkansas 196.35

7. Georgia 196.15

8. Kentucky 195.825

9. Auburn 195.725

10. BYU 195.7


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