I have been here for almost a decade and this is definitely a special group. —Utah co-head coach Tom Farden
SALT LAKE CITY — Prior to the season, the Red Rocks had a goal, or rather a series of goals. They wanted to be, per co-head coach Tom Farden, “a premier team.” Not only that, they wanted to be, “an elite team. A feared team.”
After Saturday’s meet against the No. 15 Washington Huskies, the Utah gymnastics team is well on its way to accomplishing each and every one of those goals, if the gymnasts haven’t already.
Led by a threesome of elite all-around competitors, MaKenna Merrell-Giles, who claimed the all-around title, MyKayla Skinner and Kari Lee, not to mention a pair of lineups on vault and floor exercise that were simply sensational, the Red Rocks put on their best performance of the season.
The result was a 197.700-196.250 victory over the Huskies and a season-best team score for Utah gymnastics.
“I have been here for almost a decade, and this is definitely a special group,” said Farden. “For this team to throw up a 197.700 to keep us amongst the elite teams in the country says a lot. It says a lot about their drive, their determination and the chip on their shoulder.”
“(Our) confidence is so high right now,” added Merrell-Giles.
Nowhere was that confidence more visible than on floor and vault, the leg events. The team tallied season-high scores on both apparatuses, with a 49.625 on vault and a 49.600 on floor.
“Both of the leg events were exceptional, obviously,” said Farden.
Utah's Makenna Merrell-Giles competes on the vault Saturday. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Leading the way was Merrell-Giles, who got the capacity crowd of 15,588 at the Huntsman Center roaring early with a perfect 10.0 on vault.
“That was really fun,” said Merrell-Giles. “I just tried to do exactly what I have been doing in training, did all the things Robert (Ladanyi) told me to, and it happened to work out.”
Her perfect score was the cherry on top of the vault lineup, as three additional gymnasts scored a 9.900 or better, including Tiffani Lewis (9.900), Kim Tessen (9.950) and Skinner (9.925).
“Right after vault, we knew it was going to happen tonight,” said Skinner. “We felt really strong. We worked really hard this last week and picked up from what we did in Arizona.”
The two intricate rhythm events, bars and beam, weren’t perfect by any means for the Utes, who scored a 49.250 on bars and a 49.225 on beam, and yet, even in disappointment, the Red Rocks found success.
Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler, who was hampered by a sore foot, struggled on bars and beam, respectively, each from the fifth spot in the rotation no less. Tessen had a fall on bars, her first this season, and a couple of wobbles on the beam undid Reinstadtler’s routine.
Utah's Mykayla Skinner competes on the beam during a meet against Washington at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
In response to both of those miscues, Skinner came out and put on a show, earning a 9.850 on bars and a 9.900 on beam. Both routines saved those events for the home side and kept the season-best score very much in reach.
“For MyKayla to come back and hit those routines was just indicative of the courage this team has and the tenacity she has,” said Farden. “We needed that.”
From there, all that was left for the Red Rocks was the floor, an event they have thrived on all season long.
Saturday was no different.
Merrell-Giles led the way, again, with a 9.975, followed by Skinner with a 9.950, and Lee and freshman sensation Sydney Soloski each with a 9.900.
Throw in a 9.875 by Macey Roberts and a leadoff 9.850 by Lewis, and the Red Rocks had their best showing of the year on floor.
“To end this meet on the floor with that kind of performance is unbelievable,” said Farden. “They love to perform, and you can see that. They love the fans here, and you can see that. They lit it up. It was incredible.”
If this season has been any indication, however, Saturday’s showing was merely the beginning of what is to come for the Red Rocks.
“The coolest thing about (today) is we got our highest score so far, but we still have things to work on,” said Merrell-Giles. “When we hit all 24 routines it is going to be amazing.”
“We have improved so much from last year.” added Skinner. “It has been really fun to have everybody healthy, strong and competitive. I think we are going to do amazing this year, and I am excited to see what this team can do.”