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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Utah's MaKenna Merrell-Giles screams w excitement after nailing her vault during the Penn State versus the University of Utah gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — For all the success Utah gymnastics has had over the years, including 10 national championships, 43 championship appearances, 27 individual NCAA champions and 368 NCAA All-Americans, there are still plateaus the program has never reached.

One, albeit not the most monumental, was reached last weekend.

The Red Rocks defeated their rival BYU Cougars last Friday. Coupled with their opening-week win over Penn State, the victory meant Utah recorded back-to-back meet scores of 197-plus to start the season, something that had never happened before in program history.

“I didn’t even know that,” MaKenna Merrell-Giles said. “It is interesting, as I think of that, having two 197s to start out ... that doesn’t sound that crazy. I’m really shocked that we have never done that before.”

She wasn’t the only one, but the fact remains that the 2018-19 Red Rocks have started the year better than each and every Utah team that came before.

How and why they’ve managed such a start is less shocking, if infinitely more varied.

Depth

For years now, since their second-place finish in 2015, Utah has struggled with depth.

Injuries, some of which forced the retirement of gymnasts, decimated a roster that was and continues to be on the smaller side when compared with other collegiate gymnastics teams.

With 14 gymnasts on the roster this season, 13 of whom are healthy and meet-ready, Utah is as deep as it’s been in years.

The effect has been pronounced.

“We’ve had very competitive teams in the past, obviously,” Shannon McNatt said. “We have a long legacy of that, but I think this year we have a little bit more depth. That has created more competitiveness in our practices. We have pushed each other further and further this preseason than we have before.

“We have always worked hard, but that (competitiveness) has really paid off this year. Having more options has really pushed us to be our best to make lineup.”

Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden noted something similar, though she emphasized that the quality of the depth was just as important as the overall number of gymnasts. With the addition of four elite freshmen in Cristal Isa, Adrienne Randall, Hunter Dula and Cammy Hall, the quality has improved.

“There are more people on the team with a competitive edge that want to be out there and look forward to meets,” Marsden said. “I think that helps us. The more kids we have in the nucleus that are like that, the better.”

Chemistry

Every year, team chemistry is touted by gymnasts as excellent and believed to be the strength of the team and the root of any and all success. This year, however, it might actually be true.

“We’ve always been close as a team, like sisters,” MyKayla Skinner said, “but this year has been better for the freshmen than it has in the past. My freshman year, you had the seniors and they had seniority. This year, everyone is on the same page. Everyone is so nice, so friendly, so close, and I feel like we have really benefited from that.”

“I think our team chemistry is just amazing,” Dula said. “I think we have really relied on every class, so even us freshmen have been able to come in and be for the team and help build the program.”

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Utah's MyKayla Skinner competes on the bars against BYU at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019.

Aggression under pressure

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Utes' hot start? The stratagems of co-head coach Tom Farden.

“We have different strategies this year,” Skinner said. “Tom has been putting us under a lot of pressure.”

“Tom has talked a lot this year about being aggressive under pressure,” Merrell-Giles added. “When you are under pressure, you tend to hold back a little bit, especially in gymnastics. When we get to those meets at the end of the year where it is so important to be good under pressure, being aggressive helps so much.”

Intersquad meets, lineup changes: They’ve all been instituted to increase pressure on the gymnasts, to test them and get them meet-ready.

“I think the ways the coaches have tried to make thing different this year are really helping,” said Skinner. “We have changed things, and I think we are already showing progress.”

New world order

The improved scoring may also simply be the result of a changing gymnastics landscape.

“Honestly, I have been here for five years and I don’t really feel a huge difference,” Kari Lee said. “The beginning of the year, you usually just try to get your feet in the door, learn what to expect, and I don’t feel like our approach has been any different this season.

“College gymnastics is changing, though. You have teams like Oklahoma hitting 198 the very first meet. Other schools always hit 197 at the beginning of the year. I think what is different is how college gymnastics has changed. It is very competitive, and we know what we need to get to be at the top.

“At the beginning of this year, we wanted to come out of nowhere and show people,” Lee added. “I think we really want to show people that we are here to compete for a national championship.”

Championship aspirations

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Utah's Shannon McNatt balances on the beam during the Penn State versus the University of Utah gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.

Whatever the cause, the hot start has the Red Rocks believing that the national championship trophy may soon be headed back to Salt Lake City.

“One ninety-eight is really that top score that you are looking for, that’ll help you be competitive with the best of the best and contend for a national championship,” McNatt said. “Showing that we can put up consistent 197s and build on them is really encouraging. We haven’t had the perfect meet yet. There have been mistakes. When we look at film, we break down where we can still improve, and we realistically can reach that 198.”

“It is kind of crazy,” Skinner added. “Our scores against BYU weren’t what we wanted, but even with the scores we didn’t get and the mess-ups that we had, we still got a 197.250. That means we are really good.

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“I feel like we are too hard on ourselves, so we can’t always see that, but I feel like this is the year. It is gymnastics; it is hard for everyone to be perfect at the same time, but if we can go out and do what we do in practice and forget about the little things, we can be right there at the end of the year. We will be right there at the top, which is really, really cool.”

• • •

Red Rocks on the air

  • No. 4 Utah (197.213*) at No. 21 Oregon State (195.225)
  • Saturday, 3 p.m. MDT
  • Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Oregon
  • TV: None
  • Radio: None
  • Online: osubeavers.com (livestream/live scores); utahutes.com (live commentary)

*average team score this season