SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – It may seem like a certainty that the Utah gymnastics team will advance to the NCAA Nationals. Maybe because they have done it 46 years in a row.
But it’s anything but a certainty, as the competition gets tougher each year.
“We definitely feel the pressure,” said senior gymnast Jaedyn Rucker. “We definitely don’t want to break that streak, but it’s something that we try not to dwell on.”
Utah is the only team in the country to make it to the nationals in all 46 years of the competition.
“Every year that you go to regionals, you have to earn what you’re going to get,” added Maile O’Keefe. “Every year we go there wanting to continue the legacy and continue to being a part of this legendary program.”
It was a bit of a bumpy regular season for the 5th-ranked Red Rocks. They lost three meets, but after winning its third straight Pac-12 Championship, this team may be peaking at the right time.
“I do think this year, yes,” said senior Cristal Isa. “I think we took a lot of the regular season to figure out what we wanted to do in every event. Now that we’re in postseason, people can see what we’ve been working towards.”
“We’ve had our ups and our downs throughout the whole regular season,” said O’Keefe. “But what happens now is what matters, so I’m excited.”
The Utes will compete in the regionals on Thursday in the afternoon session along with Auburn, Washington and Southern Utah. The top two teams move on to Saturday’s meet, where they will join the top two from Thursday’s evening session with UCLA, Stanford, Missouri and BYU. The top two teams from that meet advance to the Nationals in two weeks in Forth Worth.
The Utes take comfort in the fact they regularly compete and Pauley Pavilion, and they have already seen UCLA, Stanford, Washington, BYU and Southern Utah this season.
“I think it’s extremely helpful knowing that we’ve gone up against most of those teams,” said Rucker. “It’s comforting, and L.A. is not that far from Utah, so it’s an easy travel for us.”
Nearly every Utah gymnast has experience competing at the pressure-packed regionals.
“It just calms them a little bit,” said head coach Tom Farden. “They’ve been here, they know what it’s like and they know what to expect when the chaos begins. I think that bodes well for us because experience does matter.”
When the Utes lost top gymnast Grace McCallum to a knee injury, the season could have gone south. But it didn’t. In fact, the Utes scores have stayed consistently high.
“Obviously losing Grace was a big hit,” O’Keefe said. “But I think that just shows our depth.”
“We do miss [Grace],” said Farden. “Any team would. But what happened with the athletes is they bonded together, and got even more determined about making sure that they could cover the scores.”
Utah will begin competition in the NCAA Regionals Thursday at 3:00 p.m. MT.