‘Watch out’ for Utah gymnastics in NCAA national championships, national analyst says

The Red Rocks start their journey toward a national championship Thursday.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Makenna Smith performs on the bars as Utah hosts Stanford, NCAA gymnastics at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

Going into this season, the Utah Red Rocks had every reason to expect they’d make a 48th consecutive NCAA gymnastics national championship appearance. When adversity befell them by way of coach Tom Farden leaving the program amid accusations of verbal and mental abuse, no one would’ve faulted the team for taking a small step back under first-time head coach Carly Dockendorf.

But through the program’s “We Over Me” mentality, and overcoming some hiccups along the way, the Red Rocks managed to end up right where they’re used to being — on the national stage with yet another opportunity to compete for a national title.

“Watch out,” commentator and former gymnast John Roethlisberger said. “The smooth road sometimes isn’t leading you to the destination that you want to get to. Sometimes it’s the circuitous route and the rough-and-tumble journey that, all of a sudden, lands you in a spot that maybe got you ready for it better than that smooth road. So look out for Utah. Don’t take them lightly.”

Roethlisberger said the situation for the Red Rocks before the season wasn’t ideal for anyone involved — particularly for Dockendorf.

“She wanted to be a head coach for sure,” Roethlisberger said. “That was definitely in her time horizon at some point. But nobody wants to do it this way. Suddenly, she’s put in that spot. She doesn’t have a preseason, really. They’re right into fall training. It was a hard spot to be in.”

Now the Utes’ biggest challenge is the quality of their competition.

“We absolutely have to be at our very best,” Dockendorf said last week. “Everybody at nationals is exceptional. So it’ll come down to small little tenths and small little landings.”

The two semifinal meets are Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, and will be televised starting at 1 p.m. on ESPN2.

No. 5 Utah competes at 7 p.m. in the evening event, and will face No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida and No. 6 Alabama. The first session features No. 2 LSU, No. 3 California, No. 7 Arkansas and No. 8 Stanford.

The top two teams in each session move on to the finals Saturday on ABC.

Utah has faced many of those teams already this season. The two times they faced Stanford, the Red Rocks scored above 198. They saw Oklahoma and LSU early in the calendar and lost to both. They also lost to Cal.

But Roethlisberger has seen how the Utes rallied around each other and their new coach, and thinks the Red Rocks will be a force to be reckoned with during nationals.

“This wasn’t the season they thought they’re going to have, the coaching staff they thought they’re going to have,” Roethlisberger said. “But I’ll tell you what: This team, from everything I’ve seen and talking with the coaches, they’ve responded in a way that they might be better because of the adversity that they have faced. I think they’ve really rallied.”