SALT LAKE CITY — With an 11-0 record and a win over rival UCLA, the country's No. 3 team at the time, Utah gymnastics was well on its way to claiming another Pac-12 Championship and a deep run at nationals.
In an instant, it was all gone.
Utah's 2020 meet at the Huntsman Center against in-state opponent Utah State, it's final meet of the season — and Senior Night for Kim Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler — was canceled the day before as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic began to take shape in the state. The entire season would soon follow as sports, and life as many knew it, shut down indefinitely.
"It definitely was a big blow and something I think all of us will remember for a lifetime," head coach Tom Farden said. "But there's a lot of resilience, and we tried to patch things back as best as possible and keep them engaged through that long quarantine."
Senior Sydney Soloski said the end of the season was "extremely devastating," but the team was at ease because "we kind of put our heart and soul into that season."
"We did end undefeated with a regular-season Pac-12 title, so we didn't have any regrets at the end of it, which was really important, but it was definitely really hard to be done when we're on such a good path."
Even with their resilience and ease with how it ultimately ended, Utah gymnasts were left wondering what could have been in a season where the team had to replace 14 or 15 routines, according to Farden, and worked to acclimate a younger squad while still remaining competitive.
"The energy was just fantastic," Farden said. "And then the wins came and they kept coming and we went unscathed last year, which is such a remarkable achievement. And then we get the bottom, it really feels like it dropped out."
With that as the background of a not-so-distant memory, Utah's gymnasts, who enter the season ranked No. 4 in the country in the Women's Collegiate Gymnastics Association, see the 2021 season as a year of "unfinished business."
"They've identified this year as kind of unfinished, and so I think they try to find some motivation through not being able to see where last year took them," Farden said.
"I feel like the athletes are doing the best they can to stay disciplined and focused and keep that edge," he added. "So 'unfinished' is really kind of the theme that they're thinking of, and the thing that they want to carry that momentum into this year."
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But Soloski, who is one of three seniors on the roster this season, said the year will be different — not just because of the pandemic or all the uncertainty that abounds, including its actual season, but because the team is different. Although there will be an "unfinished" mentality on the team, it's all about the "new team."
"Yeah, unfinished business is just kind of something we've talked about in terms of, like, we didn't get to finish everything that we wanted to last year, and we're kind of gonna treat every meet this year as if it's kind of our last one because we don't know what's gonna happen," Soloski said. "The whole unfinished business was kind of what we started with. But as we've progressed through the preseason, we're not the same team we were last year. We have three new freshmen, we lost two seniors, so we can't go into this season expecting it to be the same as last year's team."
Utah will return to the mat Saturday at the Maverik Center in West Valley City as the team competes against in-state opponents No. 17 BYU, No. 23 Southern Utah and Utah State in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah meet. Then they will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, to match up against No. 2 Oklahoma in the first in-season meet between the two programs during the regular season since 1992.
But beyond the two meets scheduled, there's no guarantee of a season — the Pac-12 has yet to give gymnastics its "official release," according to Farden, which leaves questions as to when or if the Pac-12 will host a gymnastics season. Gymnastics is a no-contact sport, and the gymnasts can keep a social distance more than other sports, but the league has yet to sign off on a season.
The lack of a season hasn't stopped Utah from looking at Saturday's meet as an opportunity to get back on the mat and tune up ahead of a big matchup against Oklahoma.
"It's just a spectacular gymnastics venue and experience for the athletes, so (we're) looking forward to it," Farden said. "We're going to focus on what we can learn from it and see if we're doing the right things in the gym and the practice with the sport psychology, the recovery and everything else, so it's really our first task — they haven't competed in just so long."
"It's really hard because not having a schedule makes it difficult to kind of prepare week by week on what we're doing," Soloski added. "But the beauty of gymnastics is regardless of your opponent, your team is the same. We don't have to watch film and see what their team does versus ours. So I think we're just going to go in every week knowing what our job is; and then regardless of where we're at, who we're against, if we're home or away, it's the same thing.
"Our gymnastics doesn't change based upon that. But (it's) definitely difficult not knowing, but we're just gonna go week by week. We've trained super hard in the last few months so we don't want to regret anything, even though it's kind of uncertain."
Fans of the program can get their first look at the Red Rocks Saturday at 7 p.m. MST on BYUtv. A limited number of tickets will be sold for the meet and can be purchased on the Maverik Center's ticketing website.