Utah gymnasts have the weight of expectations on them this weekend

The Utes’ streak of national championship appearances will be on the line.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abby Paulson on the beam scores a 9.975 as Utah hosts California, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Going by the averages, Utah’s gymnastics team should have no problem advancing to the NCAA Gymnastics Championships.

Wonder how many teams have had that thought then sat home and watched the NCAAs?

This is the thing about regionals, which take place this week, they always offer up a surprise or two or three when it comes to setting the NCAA field.

The competition has been so topsy turvy, only one team has qualified for every national championship — the Utes.

So with that streak of 47 appearances comes the weight of carrying the distinction, no team wants to be known as the one who ends it.

Welcome to pressure city.

The good news is if there is any team ready to deal with the pressure, it is this one.

From their rally at the Pac-12 Championships to the way they compete on the balance beam in tense moments, the Utes are all about competing well under pressure.

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe attributes Utah’s success to the senior leadership and attitude that permeates through the team.

She, along with fifth-years Abby Brenner and Cristal Isa, and seniors Jillian Hoffman, Abby Paulson and Jaedyn Rucker have formed a solid union that has kept the team level.

That was best illustrated at the Pac-12s when the Utes started in third then had several bobbles on the balance beam. The Utes didn’t panic, put up some big scores to save the rotation and went on to win their third straight Pac-12 title.

“We are an even-keeled team and we lean on each other,” O’Keefe said. “We have a lot of experience and that helps us stay calm and trust the process. We don’t need to lead through the whole meet, we just keep doing what we do.”

Within the group of six leaders, duties are often split along personalities, Brenner said.

Brenner, Isa and Rucker are the emotional leaders while Paulson, O’Keefe and Hoffman are the “tactical” ones as Brenner puts it.

Between the two groups, the rest of the team doesn’t have much of a choice to follow along and develop the same no-panic will to win.

“We all have a common goal and we just build that trust and determination,” Brenner said. “In the dull parts of the season, in February and March when the championships still seem a long way off, we are striving to get better and keep us all on the same page. I think that’s critical.”

The Utes feel their chemistry will get them through the regionals, too.

All the Utes have to do is be one of the top two teams at the end of Saturday’s competition and they will advance to the NCAA finals.

The Utes beat UCLA in the Huntsman Center, but the Bruins are favored in regionals since they are a higher seed and are at home. However, all the Utes really need to do is hit their average and they should best the rest of the field. Auburn has a national qualifying score of 197.48, compared to Utah’s 197.91, with a high score of 197.75.

It would take the Utes a very poor meet to fail to advance. This team is one that just doesn’t seem to let that happen.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of us,” Brenner said. “I love what happened at the Pac-12, it was pure fight from our team. Not every team was perfect but what you do in the moment defines you and we want to keep fighting.”

How to watch the NCAA Gymnastics Regionals

March 29-April 1

Los Angeles Regional

Thursday, 3 p.m.


Norman Regional

No. 8 Alabama, No. 9 Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa; Session 2 No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 16 Ohio State, Arkansas, North Carolina State/Ball State

Denver Regional

No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Oregon State, Georgia, Nebraska; Session 2 No. 3 Michigan, No. 14 Denver, Minnesota, Arizona/North Carolina

Los Angeles Regional

No. 5 Utah, No. 12 Auburn, Southern Utah, Washington; Session 2 No. 4 UCLA, No. 13 Missouri, Stanford, BYU/Boise State

Pittsburgh Regional

No. 7 Cal, No. 10 Michigan State, Western Michigan, West Virginia; Session 2 No. 2 Florida, No. 15 Arizona State, Maryland, Towson/Penn State