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Scott G. Winterton, KSL

‘Underdog’ Utah gymnastics feeling good ahead of Pac-12 Championship

By Holli Joyce, Contributor | Posted - Mar 22nd, 2019 @ 10:47am

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s not exactly a home meet, but it will sure feel like it to the Utah gymnastics team.

Saturday’s Pac-12 Gymnastics Championship is a short 17-minute drive from campus for the Red Rocks. The Maverik Center will be home to the sport’s conference championship for the next three years and Utah is excited about it.

“It’s as close to a home-field advantage as we’re going to get without having it in the Huntsman,” senior MaKenna Merrell-Giles said.

“It’s a really nice complex and there’s nothing like being in Utah and having our fans there,” junior MyKayla Skinner added.

Peaking at the right time

Not only are the Red Rocks feeling good about having the Pac-12 Championship in their backyard, they’re also feeling good about their team. Utah earned its season-high score (197.975) just over two weeks ago, then followed with a season-best road effort (197.45) last weekend.

“I feel like we’re peaking at the right moment,” Merrell-Giles said.

Utah’s coaches agree. Co-head coach Megan Marsden said senior day, when the team earned its highest score yet, was “the closest we’ve come to really hitting all four events about as good as we can do.

“There’s still a little more out there for us to hit what Tom (Farden) and I would feel is our ultimate potential," she added. "What’s exciting is that it’s still there and we have postseason coming."

Confidence is key

Skinner is no stranger to competing in significant meets. Her secret to success? Confidence. She believes that’s the key to Utah being successful in the postseason.

“We’re just missing that little piece of going out there and believing in our routines,” Skinner said. “As long as we have another performance like senior day where we whipped it out, followed each person and felt the confidence build, that will help us reach the potential of being up where we want to be.”

Confidence has proven to work. As soon as Utah settled its beam lineup with senior Kari Lee as the leadoff, the team became more confident and its event scores increased, reaching its highest beam score (49.425) last week.

“I think that’s the biggest goal, to hit not perfect but how we do in practice — just compete like we practice,” Merrell-Giles said.

‘U’ is for underdog

Rivals UCLA and Utah are the conference’s top teams as they nationally rank second and sixth. The next Pac-12 team ranked is Oregon State at No. 14.

First-seeded UCLA and second-seeded Utah have won six of the last seven Pac-12 Championships. For what it’s worth, the Red Rocks beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion last year and UCLA went on to win the conference title. A similar situation happened this season when Utah suffered its first home loss since 2012 a month ago to UCLA. The Red Rocks are using that loss to fuel them throughout Saturday’s meet.

“We talk about being the underdogs,” Skinner said. “It helps having UCLA beat us because last year we beat them at their home, so that gave them an extra push to want to beat us at Pac-12s. It sometimes helps to be in that position because it’ll make us work harder and make us attack everything bigger and better. We’ve had the fire since UCLA and even before.”

The team says the rivalry makes gymnastics fun and encourages them to train even harder.

“We get fired up because they’re a phenomenal team,” Merrell-Giles said of UCLA. “We definitely have to watch the other teams, but it’d be more satisfying to beat them because they’re our rival.”

Utah competes in the evening session at 6 p.m. MDT against UCLA, Oregon State and California. Seeds 5-8, which compete in the 1 p.m. afternoon session, are Washington, Arizona State, Stanford and Arizona. Both sessions will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

Holli Joyce

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