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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
The Red Rocks cheer on Makenna Merrell-Giles during her floor routine at the 2018 NCAA regional between Utah, BYU, SUU, Stanford, Auburn and California at the Jon Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 7, 2018. The Utah Red Rocks won the meet with a combined score of 197.475.
We are just super excited for nationals. I think we are in a good spot heading in. —Utah junior MaKenna Merrell-Giles

ST. LOUIS. — On Dec. 15, 2017, the Utah gymnastics team put on its annual preseason exhibition, otherwise known as the Red Rocks Preview.

In it, they introduced the 2017-18 team to its fans and the rest of collegiate gymnastics.

Afterward, MyKayla Skinner, Tiffani Lewis and Kari Lee gathered together to answer questions regarding the upcoming season.

Offseason training was discussed, as was the team’s chemistry and diehard fanbase. Preseason jitters were joked about and injury concerns assuaged.

One thing was made abundantly clear by the Red Rocks in that post-meet press conference — they were determined to improve upon their fifth-place finish from the season before.

“We want really bad to finish in at least the top three at nationals this year,” said Skinner.

After months of competition and seemingly endless amounts of training, that dream is before them.

The Red Rocks will begin competition at the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship Friday evening at 5 p.m. MDT, in Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University, with a return to the Super Six on the line.

In their session, the second of two six-team semifinals, are the No. 1 and two-time defending champion Oklahoma Sooners, No. 4 Florida, No. 8 Kentucky, No. 9 California and No. 11 Washington.

The top three teams from the session will earn a spot in the Super Six and with it a chance at a national title.

“We are just super excited for nationals,” junior All-American MaKenna Merrell-Giles said. “I think we are in a good spot heading in.”

“I think we all feel really good about this weekend,” added Lee. “We are ready to enjoy the moment.”

That moment provides the opportunity for the Red Rocks to see just how they stack up against Oklahoma, the prohibitive favorites to take home the title.

“I like that we get to see our team compared (Oklahoma) on the same competitive floor, in the same kind of rotation, with the same judges comparing us,” Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden said. “That is the only way you really know how you compare.

“They look to be the team to beat, so we want to get them on a competitive floor and see where we stand.”

They will also be able to see how they compare to a Gators team that beat Oklahoma early in the season, by a score of 198.15 to 198.125, and boasts the defending all-around champion in Alex McMurtry.

Kentucky, Cal and Washington are not too shabby either, though the Red Rocks have, for the most part, proven their worth against the latter two.

What it may ultimately come down to for Utah, aside from hitting 24 of 24 routines and sticking their landings, is the performance of the four all-arounders and Lewis.

The Red Rocks rely heavily on that particular group of gymnasts and, for the most part, Skinner, Merrell-Giles, Lee, Missy Reinstadtler and Lewis have delivered.

The quintet has performed 19 of 24 available routines in the majority of Utah’s meets and led the team to a 20-4 record, a second-place finish at the Pac-12 Championship and a win at the NCAA regional held in Salt Lake City.

For some reason, however, they have yet to all perform at their best, or even at their established capabilities, in the same meet this year.

Since Lee began competing on at least three events, following the season opener against BYU, one of the five has earned a score of 9.750 or lower in every single meet.

At least two of the five have scored a 9.775 or lower in eight meets this year and every meet but one has seen one of those gymnasts score a 9.800 or worse.

The closest the five have come to being on the same page was against the Georgia Bulldogs. None of the gymnasts scored lower than a 9.825 that night in the Huntsman Center and the result was a dominant victory for Utah.

The Red Rocks will need to be on that level Friday night if they intend to advance to the Super Six, which of course, they do.

“We like to think we are a top competitive team and people look at us the way they look at Oklahoma,” said Lee. “We think we are at their level.”

“I definitely think so,” added Skinner. “We really want this. I know we have had some ups and downs throughout the season, but our team is super talented. We have the desire to be the best and I know we can, as long as we put our heart into it.”


Red Rocks on the air

2018 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship

Semifinals (Session 2)

No. 5 Utah vs.

No. 1 Oklahoma,

No. 4 Florida,

No. 8 Kentucky,

No. 9 Cal and

No. 11 Washington

Friday, 5 p.m. MDT

Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, MO

TV: ESPNU

Radio: ESPN 700 AM

Online: WatchESPN

TWITTER: @trentdwood