Since 1976, no collegiate gymnastics national championship has gone on without Utah gymnastics’ involvement.
As senior Kari Lee put it ahead of this weekend’s NCAA Baton Rouge Regional, “we’ve been a top-10 program since the beginning of time.”
Lee and her fellow Red Rocks had no doubt that they would advance to this year's national championships.
After all, Utah gymnastics had done so 43 consecutive times before.
“We know what our capability is and what our end goal is,” said Lee. “We have prepared for this.”
After Saturday night’s regional final at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the campus of LSU, that number — an NCAA record — now stands at 44.
No. 6 Utah finished second to No. 3 LSU in the regional final, 197.500-197.250.
The top-two finish secured Utah a berth in the NCAA Championships, which are to be held April 19-20 in Fort Worth, Texas.
No. 11 Minnesota came in third place with a 196.900, while Auburn finished a distant fourth with a 195.725.
No Red Rock was better than senior MaKenna Merrell-Giles Saturday night.
Merrell-Giles tied with LSU’s Sarah Finnegan for the all-around title with a 39.600.
She also walked away with the individual vault title, thanks to a 9.925, an honor she shared with teammate MyKayla Skinner.
Skinner, for her part, claimed the floor exercise title with a competition-best 9.950.
Shockingly, she also saw her NCAA record streak of consecutive routines completed without a fall end at 161.
Utah started the meet well enough, kicking off the competition on floor exercise.
The Red Rocks recorded a 49.375 on the event thanks to strong performances by Skinner, Merrell-Giles (9.900), Lee (9.850) and Macey Roberts (9.850).
From there Utah went to vault, an event that turned out to be its single best of the night.
The Red Rocks recorded a 49.425 on the event. Again it was Skinner and Merrell-Giles who led the way, with Lee (9.850), Roberts (9.850) and Alexia Burch (9.850) each adding a solid contributing score.
Uneven bars stood as the third event of the night, and it turned out to be anything but what Utah wanted.
Lee and Hunter Dula led off the rotation with a 9.775 and a 9.75, respectively, well below their season averages.
After that, Kim Tessen fought and saved her routine, despite a near fall-inducing miscue, to earn a 9.800.
A pair of strong routines by Merrell-Giles (9.900) and Missy Reinstadtler (9.875) appeared to right the ship, however, especially considering that Skinner held the anchor position in the rotation.
It was, however, at the end of Skinner’s release move, the high-flying Ray, where things came apart.
Skinner nearly missed the bar entirely on her way down, and ultimately her hands slipped off and she fell to the mat.
As a result she scored a career-low of 9.175, while the team earned a disappointing 49.100.
“When MyKayla fell, the team was in shock and Myk was speechless,” co-head coach Tom Farden said. “I told them to brush it off, that it didn’t do much damage and we would fight to the finish.”
Fight they did.
The Utes closed out the competition on balance beam, an event that had been a struggle at times this year.
With a national championship berth on the line, it was not.
Lee led off the rotation with a 9.90, while Skinner, Merrell-Giles and Sydney Soloski each recorded 9.875.
The final team score of 49.350 was more than enough to secure Utah the second and final qualifying spot.Comment on this story
“To lock it up on the balance beam is a testament to how far this team has come on that event,” Farden said. “This was a tough environment to finish on beam with a deafening LSU crowd cheering for their team. Once Kari scored that 9.90 to lead us off, it boosted the confidence of the beam team and everyone else followed suit.”
Set to join Utah and LSU at nationals will be No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 UCLA and No. 5 Denver, each a regional champ, as well as runners-up No. 8 Michigan, No. 9 Georgia and No. 15 Oregon State.
The Beavers pulled off the upset of the postseason thus far, edging out No. 4 Florida for the final spot at nationals.