The Red Rocks record-setting night could be a preview of a wild postseason — and some changes to college gymnastics

As scores continue to climb, coaches expect the matter will be addressed in the offseason

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristal Isa on the uneven parallel bars as the University of Utah’s sixth-ranked Red Rocks compete at the NCAA 2021 National Collegiate regional championships Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Maverik Center.

The craziest thing about Utah’s school record-setting uneven bars effort Friday against Minnesota wasn’t the 9.96 average that led to the 49.8 score.

It was that, despite the huge score that included two 10.0 marks, Minnesota only trailed the Utes by a mere .35 difference.

Such a close margin illustrates how difficult the judges’ tasks are this year to differentiate between schools that are hitting.

The Utes ultimately beat Minnesota 198.575-197.85 Friday, but Utah’s score, the second-highest in school history, wasn’t in its own stratosphere.

Florida and Auburn also had a barn burner, with the two teams tying at 198.575-198.575 Friday in a meet that earned Florida the SEC regular-season championship.

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Utah at LSU

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Earlier this season Michigan and Oklahoma posted similar scores, earning 198.535 and 198.475, respectively.

So while Utah’s meet was special, the score doesn’t seem unattainable by many teams in the Top 10.

There was a time when breaking the 198 mark was a magical achievement, much like the 4-minute mile was for track athletes.

Not anymore. This year nine teams have broken the 198 mark, including LSU, Utah’s opponent on Friday. Another seven have logged scores of 197.5 or higher.

What all this means is, be lucky you aren’t a collegiate gymnastics judge.

You could almost see the trepidation on the judges’ faces Friday when Sage Thompson and Maile O’Keefe scored back-to-back 10.0s on the bars with Cristal Isa remaining.

It was highly possible that they were pinned in a corner and would have to give a third 10.0. Judges are loathe to do something like that because it makes their credibility suspect, particularly from those not at the meet.

Isa made it easy on them with a slight waver on a handstand, warranting a deduction that earned her a 9.95 total.

If the judges have trouble discerning routines in a team’s lineup and between two teams, what the heck is going to happen when the post-season begins?

The Pac-12 Championships are shaping up to be one of the closest meets in history with the way Utah, Cal and other teams are competing, but then regionals and nationals could be absolutely bonkers.

It’s going to be extremely difficult for judges to decide which eight teams will advance out of the regionals to nationals, then decide which teams will make the cut for the final four. Consider there will be at least one team that has scored a 198 this year that won’t even make it out of the regionals.

For those who hate math, a 198 is an average of 9.9 for the counting routines, that is an astounding average that leaves judges very little room for separating teams.

Utah coach Tom Farden acknowledged the top teams need around 198s to be competitive at the top, noting the Utes scored a 197.9875 last year but it was only good enough for third.

Michigan won the title with a 198.25 and Oklahoma was second with a 198.1625.

In the past, depth, not just difficulty, separated teams, but clearly there isn’t much of a gap there anymore.

“When you build a team for a few years you have a vision of one through six being capable of going 9.9,” Farden said. “We need one more vault to be there, but that is the goal, and that gives you consistent 198s.”

Likely what will happen after this season is another push for codes to change. There have been several in the past when scores were high, including the 2004 season when the Utes earned their highest score ever, a 198.6 against BYU.

The scores were soaring so much that year, then coach Greg Marsden doesn’t even remember that high score being anything special.

“It had gotten to the point where it was just embarrassing,” he said. “We could all see that we knew we had to make some changes.”

The biggest change then was the requirement for schools to use a regional assigner for judges, which prevented some of the so-called home cooking that led to high scores, but also suspect scores and results.

There have been several changes to the difficulty of routines too, such as downgrading the Yurchenko full from 10 to 9.95 in 2016.

Farden said it was probably time for the coaches to visit the difficulty in changing the codes again. The coaches can do so every two years but there weren’t any changes made recently because of the pandemic.

“We didn’t even know we were going to have seasons so we chose to do that as an association,” he said.

In the near future, Farden would like to see the vault landing area have a line down the middle like the one used at the elite level to help judges see if the vaults are straight. He can also envision some ways to make the bars more difficult as well.

“I know there are coaches who want parity and I understand that, but the gymnastics keeps advancing so we have to as well,” he said.

Changes would help in the future, but for now, just wish the judges luck in their post-season tasks.