We were internally deflated. No one voiced it, but we were. —MaKenna Merrell-Giles
ST. LOUIS — The Red Rocks entered the 2017-18 season with a host of dreams.
They wanted to defend their Pac-12 title. They wanted to secure a berth in the Super Six. They wanted to defeat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. They wanted to win a regional title. They wanted to win a national title.
If none of those goals were accomplished, Utah gymnastics at least wanted to improve. They wanted to be a better group of gymnasts when it was all said and done.
They accomplished many of those goals over the course of the year.
They defeated the Bruins in L.A. for the first time in a decade. They won the NCAA regional held in Salt Lake City, downing the likes of Cal, Auburn and BYU. They advanced to yet another Super Six, the 21st in school history.
Then there was improvement from the likes of MaKenna Merrell-Giles and Missy Reinstadtler, among many others, which spoke to the growth the team made.
All in all, it was a successful season.
The dream of a national title was not to be, however.
Instead, thanks to one of their worst meets of the year, the Red Rocks finished fifth in the Super Six for the second year in a row.
Rival UCLA took the grand prize Saturday night at Chaifetz Arena, with a score of 198.0750. Oklahoma (198.0375), Florida (197.8500) and LSU (197.8375) finished second, third and fourth, respectively, while Utah, with a 196.900, barely edged sixth-placed Nebraska (196.800).
“It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” said star MyKayla Skinner.
“We are all a little sad,” added Merrell-Giles. “We tried a little too hard to be perfect, instead of having fun.”
That was clear from the outset.
Utah started the meet on floor, its best event, but what is usually a six-routine celebration felt like a funeral.
Tiffani Lewis began the rotation with a 9.7375, and, while the scores improved from there, improvement was less than incremental and rather confidence-deflating.
By the time Merrell-Giles stepped out of bounds, towardsthe end of what had been an excellent routine, the Red Rocks appeared to have the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Even a 9.925 by Skinner, world and all, couldn’t bring them around.
“We were internally deflated,” said Merrell-Giles. “No one voiced it, but we were.”
“It was a little deja vu,” added co-head coach Tom Farden. “We started on floor last year at the Super Six with some mistakes and again we came out and kind of shot ourselves in the foot.”
As a result, the team pressed during the next rotation, on vault, hoping to make up for their mistakes. Instead, they fell further behind.
A general lack of sticking was the main culprit behind the struggles on vault, with every gymnast, save Kari Lee, taking a hop of some kind.
“Everybody tried to make up for (floor),” said Merrell-Giles. “We started trying way too hard to stick every landing, which doesn’t work too well.”
By the end of the vault rotation, Utah was out of the title running.
A bye between events gave the Red Rocks an opportunity to regain composure, and they took full advantage of it.
“At halftime, I talked to the kids and told them all I wanted them to do on the last two events was to be themselves,” said Farden. “I told them, ‘I don’t know who is putting this pressure on you, because it is not us.’ I definitely think they were internalizing things a little too much.”
“We kind of just went back and chillaxed a little in the locker room,” said Skinner. “Tom came in and told us not to put extra pressure on ourselves. He just wanted us to have fun with it and do our routines, because our routines are amazing.”
The Red Rocks responded to Farden’s plea and were their normal selves on the final two events of the nights, uneven bars and balance beam.
Skinner led the way, with a 9.9125 on bars and a 9.925 on beam, and Utah finished with team scores of 49.350 (beams) and 49.2875 (bars).
Unfortunately, by then it was much too late for anything other than fifth place.
“Bars and beam were typical Utah, which is would what we needed all weekend,” said Farden. “Could'a, should'a, would’a. We are going to regroup, gather and learn from this.”
“We had mistakes, but that is ok,” added Skinner. “It’ll push us harder for next season.”
For now, the Red Rocks will settle for being one of the five best gymnastics teams in the country.
NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championship Super Six Results
1. UCLA 198.0750
2. Oklahoma 198.0375
3. Florida 197.8500
4. LSU 197.8375
5. Utah 196.9000
6. Nebraska 196.8000