Analysis: The Utah gymnastics team’s third-place NCAA finish was all about setting the table for what comes next

Utes credit coach Tom Farden for instilling a toughness they believe will pay off in the seasons to come

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah celebrates with the PAC-12 Gymnastics Championship trophy at the Maverik Center, on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

The third-place showing by Utah’s gymnastics team at the NCAA Championships has as much significance for the future as it does symbolism for the effort put forth by the 2021 team.

The Utes were able to achieve something this year that was denied from them last season, the proof they can handle competing against the sport’s best teams on the biggest day of the year.

True, the Utes weren’t able to win a national title, but there actually seems little disappointment in that fact for this year seemed to be about setting the stage for a future run.

Set it they did. There tends to be a prevailing thought about collegiate gymnastics, that winning championships should be relatively easy because there isn’t as much parity as there is in other sports.

That kind of thinking might have been true many years ago, but the recent championships in Fort Worth, and even the NCAA regionals, showcased how tough it is just to get to the NCAA finals, much less win a national title.

Consider this year’s winner, Michigan. The Wolverines have long been known to be a solid team that often is a threat, but it wasn’t until this year they were finally able to win.

As for the Utes, as Sydney Soliski said earlier this year, the program has that rich tradition of winning, but since the last NCAA title came in 1995, that rich history hasn’t really benefited the program much lately in terms of having a championship attitude.

That mentality is something the current team needed to create. And these Utes have done so, going undefeated the last two years in the regular season except for a loss at Oklahoma this year.

The Utes won two Pac-12 regular season titles, the Pac-12 Championship this year and the NCAA Regionals. In reaching the finals the Utes outcompeted LSU, a team many thought would win it all and had some of its best meets when the pressure was highest.

All of that would be good enough for followers to think the Utes have found a new hunger under coach Tom Farden, who sophomore Maile O’Keefe said last week was the driving force behind the team’s toughness.

But the exciting realization has to be of what could come. Soloski, the outspoken team leader and floor anchor, plans to return along with Alexia Burch, who competed on everything but the floor. The seniors are exercising the right to return for a fifth year under the special provisions allowed by the NCAA due to the pandemic.

That means the Utes will only lose Emilee LeBlanc, who competed primarily on the uneven bars.

The Utes also welcome a strong freshman class of Sage Thompson, a junior Olympic uneven bars national champion and Grace McCallum and Kara Eaker, both of whom have been national team members since 2018 and were on the 2018 and 2019 World Championship teams which won gold medals.

Additionally, the Utes might have MyKayla Skinner back after she left the team following her junior year to focus on a possible Olympic spot.

Even if Skinner doesn’t return, the Utes will have one of its strongest teams in many seasons from a physical standpoint.

The underclassmen proved themselves this year with sophomore Maile O’Keefe having a tremendous year that ended with two national titles, sophomore Jaedyn Rucker showing she was over her knee injury to become one of Utah’s best power gymnasts and freshmen Alani Sabado (uneven bars), Lucy Stanhope (vault, beam, floor) and Jaylene Gilstrap (floor) all getting valuable experience in key roles.

If there is one thing about collegiate gymnastics though, it’s that a strong mental game is so evidently necessary to win a national title.

That is one reason that before Saturday, only six teams have won NCAA titles. When they do, they often come in streaks, such as Florida winning from 2013-15 and Oklahoma 2016-17 and 2019.

Perhaps winning on Saturday will start a new streak with Michigan, but the Utes also showed they have the moxie to compete and could end their drought sooner rather than later.

After qualifying for the NCAA finals, O’Keefe said the team adopted the theme of not being out-toughed by anyone. No doubt they will use a similar theme next year, since it seems to be a part of Farden’s coaching DNA.

The Utes won’t be out-toughed, perhaps soon they won’t be beaten either.

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