Wade Denniston, USU Athletic Media Relations
Amy Smith (right) walks across the floor. Smith is in her first season as the head gymnastics coach at Utah State.

Utah State’s gymnastics program is ready to usher in a new and exciting era under first-year head coach Amy Smith.

Not only is Smith in her first season at the helm of Utah State, but this is also her first-ever head coaching gig. Despite that, she has extremely high expectations for the Aggies, not only this year but for the future as well.

“My vision for Utah State gymnastics is to build a powerhouse program that will become the dominant force in the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference,” Smith said. “I want Utah State to be a continuous mainstay at the national championships, winning titles with student-athletes who excel in the classroom and understand the value of social responsibility and embrace the immense privilege of being a Utah State Aggie.”

Smith inherited a program coming off its fourth-consecutive NCAA Regional Championships appearance, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since the program appeared in 17 straight regionals from 1986-2002.

As nice as it is to reach regionals on a consistent basis, Smith envisions her new program elevating to even greater heights. Three of the team’s 2018 goals attest to that.

“We want to come out of the gates by scoring a 195-plus at our first meet, we want to be a top-18 team and we want to win (the) conference,” Smith said.

The fourth goal the team set for itself this season has already been met, which Smith is hoping will prove to be a springboard into the 2018 competition season.

“We already reached one facet of our goals this year with the team’s cumulative GPA being over a 3.2, and they were fired up about that,” Smith said. “With that, the team is super excited to come out of the gates with our athletic goals and start the season. This team has so much energy and enthusiasm to compete.”

Meet the Aggies

Youth will certainly be served in 2018 as the Aggies only have three upperclassmen — a pair of juniors and one fifth-year senior.

“It should be an interesting year,” Smith said. “We graduated three great seniors (Katie Brown, Bailey McIntire and Hayley Sanzotti), and unfortunately, we had to medical our two rising seniors (Miranda Hone and Melanie Oster) during the summer for the upcoming season. So, we are incredibly young with one super senior and two juniors with the majority of the team being underclassmen. I’m excited to get out there and see what this team can do. They have made great improvements throughout the preseason and have set high goals and standards.”

The lone ranger

Keri Peel is the only senior on the team. The 5-foot-1 native of Fort Collins, Colorado, elected to use her fifth year of eligibility at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Peel only competed in one meet as a freshman in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury.

“Being the only senior in the gym has its challenges, but I’ve really been able to get to know the other girls and come alongside them in their journey at Utah State,” Peel said. “My role is to be there for everyone, whether it is gym related or not, and help them have the best season they can possibly have. Most of them only get to experience a season four times in college, so I want them to make the most out of their time here.”

A year ago, Peel (bars, beam) earned first-team all-MRGC honors on bars as she recorded a career-high-tying 9.875 to tie for third at the league championships.

“We expect Keri to be the voice for this team and come out and get the job done on bars and beam,” Smith said. “She’s such a consistent athlete. Nothing really rattles her, which makes her a great leader and example on the competition floor for such a young team.”

Dynamic duo

The junior class is comprised of Madison Ward, the reigning MRGC Floor Specialist of the Year, and Emily Briones, who is back after suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth meet of the 2017 campaign.

“We are so excited to have Emily Briones on the comeback trail,” Smith said. “She has made great strides on both beam and floor. Emily is such a solid, pretty beam worker and should consistently put up big scores for us. She is still making her way back on the floor but is getting very close. Hopefully, she will be a later-in-the-season addition to the lineup on floor because I have never seen an athlete light up the way Emily does when she is competing. It is absolutely pure joy and it is infectious.”

Briones (beam, floor) garnered academic all-MRGC accolades as a freshman in 2016.

Ward (all-around) had a sophomore season to remember in 2017. Along with garnering MRGC Floor Specialist of the Year honors, the native of Rexburg, Idaho, also earned first-team all-league honors after tying for first on floor (9.900) and tying for third on vault (9.800) at the conference championships.

“We expect big things from Madi Ward,” Smith said. “She came into this year with new standards and expectations for herself, which was really exciting to see. Madi has goals of being an all-arounder and wants to come out of the gates strong. She has been a very dynamic performer on vault, bars and floor over the last two years and has been working diligently on beam this preseason to bring that event into the mix and is looking incredibly strong. I’m very excited to see her break into the beam lineup, and I truly believe that she could be a top all-arounder in the MRGC.”

Ward finished the 2017 campaign with a floor average of 9.871, which ranks second all-time in school history, and her eight floor titles set the sophomore class record on the event. Furthermore, she captured a team-best 11 total titles, which is tied for fifth all-time in class history.

“The expectations for this team are higher than ever this year,” Ward said. “We have a lot of talent and a lot of hard workers, which makes it easier for us to raise our expectations. What we need to do is be confident and trust both ourselves and our gymnastics. This year I have been more excited than ever to get out there and compete. I have a feeling this is going to be a great year for Aggie gymnastics.”

Super sophomores

Seven gymnasts — six returners and one newcomer — comprise the sophomore class.

The lone new face in this group is McKinley Pavicic (all-around), who transferred to Utah State following her freshman season at Boise State in 2017.

“McKinley is a phenomenal athlete that is coming back from surgery and we are hoping to see her back in action on beam later in the season,” Smith said.

The six returning sophomores include MaKayla Bullitt (all-around), Jazmyn Estrella (vault, bars, floor), Elle Golison (vault, beam, floor), Brittany Jeppesen (bars, beam), Kiera Miller (vault, beam, floor) and Logan Nugent (bars). Both Miller and Nugent are out for the season due to injury, although Nugent does have a “teeny-tiny chance” to return, Smith said.

Bullitt and Golison garnered first-team all-MRGC accolades on vault last season as that duo tied for third with matching 9.800s at the conference championships. For Bullitt, it was a personal-best score.

“I’m so pumped for this year,” Golison said. “Our team is looking great. Even though we only have three upperclassmen, their knowledge and experience give us underclassmen the confidence that we can be successful. As underclassmen, we are aware of the high expectations everyone has for us and we are thrilled to get out there and show that we can meet them. We have been working so hard all of preseason and we have a lot of amazing talent on this team. I have high hopes for everything we’re going to accomplish this year.”

Bullitt tied for the eighth-best vault score in school history at an NCAA Regional Championships meet with her 9.800 at the 2017 Seattle Regional.

“MaKayla has worked so hard this preseason to clean up her gymnastics and has done a great job,” Smith said. “She has also been working on a tucked Yurchenko 1.5, which is a 10.0 start value on vault. MaKayla trains all-around and is capable of making the lineup on any of the four events.”

Golison ranks eighth all-time in school history with a single-season beam average of 9.770 and is tied for 14th with a single-season floor average of 9.795, both of which were set in 2017.

“Elle is so powerful and dynamic,” Smith said. “I don’t think I’ve coached a quicker twitch athlete than her. She has a huge 10.0 start value on vault with her Kaz. We’ve been pacing her a little more on floor and really working on details on both floor and beam with her.”

Jeppesen ranks 10th all-time in school history with a single-season bars average of 9.769 set last year, where she competed as a bars specialist in 12 of the team’s 14 meets, including the final 11.

“Brittany is one of the prettiest bar swingers out there,” Smith said. “She has high goals for herself this year and has been relentlessly attacking the little things in her bar routine to really make herself stand out.”

Estrella competed in all 14 meets for the Aggies last season and placed in the top three on both vault and bars four times to rank tied for sixth on the team.

“We have been playing with a new combo on bars (Tkatchev to immediate Pak) and hopefully, that will be put in play later in the season,” Smith said. “We will likely bring her back into the floor lineup later in the season. The key with Jaz is keeping her healthy.”

Eight is great

A school-record-tying eight freshmen round out the Aggies’ roster. Included in those eight is one set of twins, Leighton and Logan Varnadore, who are from Aiken, South Carolina. Leighton trains in the all-around, while Logan is currently a bars specialist.

The remaining six freshmen include Annie Beck (beam), Autumn DeHarde (vault, beam, floor), Taylor Dittmar (beam, floor), Faith Leary (vault, floor), Maddie McIntyre (vault) and Mikaela Meyer (vault, bars, floor).

“This upcoming season is going to be one to remember for me,” said DeHarde, a native of Sussex, Wisconsin. “The gymnastics team here at Utah State has so much talent and energy that we are extremely excited to bring into this 2018 season opener at Bowling Green.”

The schedule

Utah State opens the 2018 slate on the road at Bowling Green on Saturday, Jan. 13, marking the second-straight year the Aggies have begun on the road.

Utah State’s home schedule features three matchups with MRGC foes Boise State (Friday, Feb. 2), BYU (Friday, March 2) and Southern Utah (Friday, March 16). The Aggies welcome San José State and Sacramento State to the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Friday, Jan. 19, for their home opener.

Utah State will hit the road seven times during the season, including a stretch of four-straight meets in a span of just two weeks.

Highlighting the Aggies’ road campaign is the 2018 Elevate the Stage meet on Friday, Feb. 23, at the Sea Gate Centre in Toledo, Ohio. Joining Utah State at the quad meet are Bowling Green, Denver and Michigan.

“To compete against teams that were represented at the NCAA Nationals, such as Michigan and Denver, will only strengthen us competitively as we push to get back to the national championships,” Smith said. “Additionally, the Elevate the Stage meet is on a podium, which will be invaluable competitive experience for our team.”

The 2018 MRGC Championships will be hosted by Southern Utah on Saturday, March 24, at the 5,300-seat America First Event Center.

NCAA Regionals will take place Saturday, April 7, at one of six sites across the country. Just two weeks later, St. Louis, Missouri, will be home to the NCAA Championships.

The staff

Harris Bergman and Whitnee Johnson are both in their first seasons as assistant coaches with the Aggies.

“They are two stellar up-and-coming NCAA coaches,” Smith said. “Their passion and love for the sport, the desire to constantly learn and evolve and relentless work ethic fall completely in line with my expectations for the program. Additionally, their drive for academic and athletic excellence and dedication to maintaining a positive student-athlete experience make Whitnee and Harris a perfect fit for taking Utah State gymnastics to the next level.”

Johnson will serve as the head vault coach at Utah State and assist Smith on floor, while Bergman is the Aggies’ head bars coach.

Prognostications

For the third-consecutive season, Utah State was selected to finish tied for third in the MRGC preseason coaches’ poll.

Three-time defending conference champion Boise State was selected first in the annual preseason poll. The Broncos garnered nine points and three first-place votes and were followed by Southern Utah with seven points and one first-place vote. The Aggies and BYU rounded out the poll tied for third with four points apiece.

Additionally, the Aggies were selected 32nd in the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women (NACGC/W) Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

All four teams from the MRGC are ranked in the NACGC/W Preseason Coaches' Poll. No. 13 Boise State leads the conference and is followed by Southern Utah at No. 24, USU at No. 32 and BYU at No. 34.