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June 25, 2021

No. 3 Red Rocks embrace regular-season challenge against No. 2 Oklahoma

SALT LAKE CITY — In the last decade, no gymnastics program has been as dominant as Oklahoma.

There have been many challengers, most notably Florida, but the Sooners have won four national championships over a six-year period and established themselves as a newfound favorite over the last decade. Due to COVID-19 canceling the 2020 season, the Sooners remain the reigning champions from the 2019 season.

Oklahoma’s dominant run, though, is nearly a carbon copy to that of its weekend opponent Utah.

Over a six-year period starting in 1990, Utah reeled off four national championships, including a back-to-back run in 1994 and 1995. It’s also the last time Utah claimed the top spot, finishing only as a runner up most recently to Florida in 2015.

During that ’90s stretch, Oklahoma and Utah met in its last regular season meet — Feb. 17, 1992 — where Utah ran away with a 195.800-187.000 win.

A lot has changed in nearly a 30-year period, but both Oklahoma and Utah have one goal in mind: a national championship. And that starts with a Sunday afternoon meet between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country.

Both programs went undefeated last season before the pandemic shut them down, but it was unavoidable the two would have met at nationals. Instead, the two get an opportunity to test themselves early before a potential rematch later in the season.

The regular-season matchup was a strategic decision, at least for Utah, to get an early season test.

“Well, scheduling is a little bit of an art, and it’s something that we had been working on for years,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “We wanted to embrace this challenge to see how we stack up against Oklahoma, which is a perennial national championship contender. And we feel that for our program to take another step in into realizing the biggest dreams and goals, it’s important for us to see out-of-conference foes that are at that highest level.”

Utah will travel to Norman, Oklahoma, this season and then Oklahoma will return the gesture and visit Salt Lake City in 2022.

“Tom is very strategic in picking who we compete against, especially before going to Pac-12, because we’ve never come face to face with OU before nationals,” sophomore Maile O’Keefe said. “So he was like, ‘We need to do this, we need to go face to face with them; it’ll give us a starting point to know where we are against a high-caliber team like that, that wins and wins and wins.’

“So I think it’ll be really good for us to come face to face with them before postseason because then we’ll be more comfortable and we will know what to expect, know what to do, and know how to handle ourselves.”

The benefits of playing the reigning national champion early have more positives than negatives for the Utes, who started out the 2020 season strong with a 196.900 win over in-state competition Saturday. The stakes are high, but senior Sydney Soloski said the meet will give the team “a boost of confidence” before a Pac-12 slate is announced and a potential postseason.

“I’m super excited because in my four years here, the only time that we’ve seen them is at the National Championships, and that’s when the stakes are really high,” Soloski said. “I think we’re going into it just really excited to get to compete against a top, top team in the regular season and not when we get to nationals being like, ‘Oh my gosh — like, that’s our competitor,’ versus getting to do it in the regular season.

“If we see them again, we’re not going to have that same feeling the first time against them,” she added. “But it’ll be exciting; they’re definitely a top-ranked team, but so are we. I think that our mentality going in is we’re just as good if not better.”

Utah's Cristal Isa competes on the floor during the Rio Tinto Best of Utah NCAA gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

Utah’s Cristal Isa competes on the floor during the Rio Tinto Best of Utah NCAA gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Oklahoma opened up its season against Arizona State, beating the Sun Devils 197.450-194.725 to narrowly place second in the opening weekend scores. Top-ranked Florida opened the season with a 197.500 score. It’s for that reason Utah will have to hit on all its routines to compete against a difficult out-of-conference opponent.

Farden said the focus of the week is making sure his gymnasts clean up their routines and chase as many points as possible.

“Well, we’ve got to tighten some things up on bars. I know bars were our first event at Best of Utah, and there was just a lot of fundamental things that were skipped — maybe because they were a little anxious, maybe because they just had to get that first event at the first meet under their belt — but that’s definitely an area where we can pick up several tenths. And then vault, we’re going to continue to look at increasing the difficulty over there.

“We’re going to challenge our athletes to meet us halfway and get that done this weekend.”

After this weekend, the schedule is still up in the air as the Pac-12 has yet to finalize a schedule. Farden said the team already has “a shell” of the schedule and they know who they’ll compete against in the coming weeks, but the conference still has “some last-minute dotting of the i’s and crossing the t’s in terms of our schedule.”

“It doesn’t really matter who we compete against,” he added. “One of the things that we want to prepare our athletes for is just to be the best version of their gymnastic they can be and see where that takes us.”

Soloski added that the opponent doesn’t matter because the gymnasts are always trying to compete amongst themselves and not necessarily who is in the gym with them at the same time.

“The beauty of gymnastics is regardless of your opponent, your team is the same,” Soloski said. “We don’t have to watch film and see what their team does versus ours. So I think we’re just going to go in every week knowing what our job is, and then regardless of where we’re at, who we’re against, if we’re home or away — it’s the same thing.

“Our gymnastics doesn’t change based upon that. Definitely difficult not knowing, but we’re just gonna go week by week. We’ve trained super hard in the last few months so we don’t want to regret anything, even though it’s kind of uncertain.”

No. 3 Utah’s meet against No. 2 Oklahoma will be Sunday at 3 p.m. MST and will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Josh Furlong

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