SALT LAKE CITY — It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season. In the postseason, it matters who shows up on competition day.
The Utah gymnastics team is about to take on nationals for the 44th-consecutive year. While participating on the biggest stage in NCAA gymnastics is familiar, the set up this time is not.
This year marks the first time that the women’s gymnastics postseason has featured a four-team format instead of the six-team format used from 1987-2018. The change was made to end the two bye rotations necessary with six teams while still allowing 36 teams to qualify into regionals.
With the change comes more pressure. In the Super Six era, three teams qualified from each national semifinal to the biggest meet of the year. Now, it’s trimmed to two.
The Red Rocks have some familiarity with the new format, though, as they’re set to face conference rival UCLA, LSU and Michigan in the first semifinal on Friday — all opponents they’ve met this season.
“We’ve competed against all the teams, so we’re familiar with the kind of gymnastics they bring,” senior Kari Lee said.
Obviously, what happens at nationals isn’t set in stone. But the most likely outcome is defending national champion UCLA advancing and the second spot being a tight race between LSU and Utah.
LSU narrowly edged out Utah by .175 in the GymQuarters Invitational and .25 in the regional final. They’re thin margins and should show up again in the semifinal. Utah didn’t have a slow start this season like LSU did and edged out the Tigers in average scores on vault, floor and the all-around. The Red Rocks say their mistakes earlier this season is what cost them wins against LSU.
“UCLA is our biggest rival, but they’re a very good team,” sophomore Sydney Soloski said. “We’ve been up there with (LSU) the whole time. Every meet we’ve gone against them, we’ve made mistakes.”
As for Michigan, the team has put up big scores, but its standard performance hasn’t met the average of the three other teams.
“We beat Michigan once, so in our minds we can do it again,” Soloski added.
Because Utah has a 1-4 record against its semifinal opponents, the only win coming against Michigan, the team feels like underdogs at nationals.
“I like being the underdog because no one is expecting you to win,” Lee said.
“It’s hard to go in as one of the top teams and having to live up to that expectation,” Soloski added. “People expect greatness from us, but not to be up there with everyone else and we definitely can be.”
As co-captain, Lee likes to remind the team about her freshman season when Utah was again an underdog. The Red Rocks struggled at regionals after senior Tory Wilson suffered a season-ending injury at the Pac-12 Championship. Their first two events were season lows and Utah barely escaped out of the Berkeley regional. The low-scoring effort sent Utah to nationals as the 12th and final seed.
What happened next on the NCAA gymnastics’ biggest stage was remarkable. The Red Rocks finished with Georgia Dabritz’s 9.975 vault and waited for Florida’s last competitor to know if they’d done enough to win the program’s 11th national title. But the Gators’ Alex McMurty’s 9.95 bars routine inched them ahead of the Red Rocks and Florida won the championship with a 197.85 while Utah was second with 197.80.
It’s a tale Lee loves to share again and again to engrain in her teammates’ heads that everyone is now on an even-playing field.
“I like to say it all the time,” Lee said. “We were the 12th seed going in and finished second. It doesn’t matter what seed you are going in or what ranking you are. It matters what you bring on that day.”
Utah will compete in the afternoon semifinal on Friday at 11 a.m. MDT. The meet will be televised on ESPN2.