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Experienced leadership, super soph have Red Rocks believing in title run

SALT LAKE CITY — Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma and UCLA. Even the most casual of collegiate gymnastics fan knows of those programs, what with their combined 28 national titles. That quintet includes most of the blue bloods in the world of gymnastics, with one notable exception — the University of Utah.

Since the creation of NCAA gymnastics, the Red Rocks have claimed 10 national titles, including a dominant run of six in a row from 1981 to 1986. Throw in nine runner-up finishes, three Pac-12 titles and countless All-Americans, and it’s clear that Utah gymnastics is one of the premier programs in the country.

“We have a lot of qualities that make us one of the legendary programs of all time,” said co-head coach Megan Marsden.

Lately, however, success on the national scale has been hard to come by. Since 2010, the Red Rocks have mustered just four top-five finishes.

Perhaps more telling, the last Utah national title came in 1995, or in other words, 23 years ago.

Missy Reinstadtler trains on the floor during University of Utah gymnastics team practice in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

“We believe we belong with the best, but a national championship is something that has eluded us for a while,” Marsden conceded.

As far as she or co-head coach Tom Farden are concerned, however, the 2018 Red Rocks have the talent and leadership to end the title drought.

“We have that possibility,” said Marsden. “There are other teams out there that are extremely talented, but I feel like we are one of the elite teams in the country.”

“(The gymnasts) are determined and confident enough to do better,” added Farden. “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but if we can build on last year, this program will be ecstatic.”

In truth, the Red Rocks boast quite a collection of talent. Utah returns 10 letterwinners from last season's Pac-12 championship squad, including six All-Americans (MyKayla Skinner, Kari Lee, MaKenna Merrell-Giles, Tiffani Lewis and Maddy Stover).

Of those, no gymnast appears likely to play a larger role in a national title run than Skinner.

University of Utah gymnast MyKayla Skinner. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

The sophomore was one of the elite gymnasts in the country last season, claiming the title of 2017 NCAA floor champion. Moreover, she was an eight-time All-American, three-time Pac-12 and NCAA Regional champion and set a Pac-12 single-season record for the most gymnast and freshman of the week awards, with seven and six, respectively.

“She is a world-class athlete,” said Farden.

She is a world-class athlete who has added elements and is considerably more comfortable in her second season with the program.

“It definitely helps a lot (to have extended time within the program),” said Skinner. “When I first came in, I was rushed into everything. This year I got to be here for the summer. It’s just been better. I feel like I’m closer to the girls and it’s been a lot better in training.”

University of Utah gymnasts Kari Lee, left, Maddy Stover and Tiffani Lewis. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

In addition to Skinner, the Utes will rely on junior Merrell-Giles, a three-time 2017 All-American, Lee, a three-time 2015 All-American, and Lewis, a 2017 All-American.

Add in expected contributions from Missy Reinstadtler, who may go all-around for the Utes, and incoming freshmen Sydney Soloski (a four-year member of the Canadian National Team) and Alexia Burch, and the Red Rocks appear to have the requisite depth and talent to compete with any program.

“I feel like we have a lot of depth,” said Lewis. “I truly believe that. Our senior class is amazing, we have a ton of experience. Our juniors are amazing and we have a lot of girls coming back from injuries. I think there is a lot more depth to this team than there even was last year.”

Despite their obvious talent and numbers, the strength of Utah gymnastics is something else entirely.

“What I really like is our leadership. We have some incredible leadership," said Marsden. “We have a leadership council this year that includes Stover, Lewis and Lee. (Each of those gymnasts) have helped us win a couple of Pac-12 championships and move up in the rankings on the national level.”

“There has always been good leadership, but the council has done a great job this year,” added Farden. “There is a different feel to it.”

“The vibe is just really different this year,” said Skinner, echoing her coaches. “The team chemistry is going really good.”

Of the three, none has been more important to the Utes than Stover.

“Maddy is only really allowed to do balance beam for us, so she has worked very diligently to give to her program in other ways,” said Marsden. “She is such a great manager of the group. She has helped the team to feel well cared for, listened to and respected. That can just go miles in terms of what they believe they can accomplish.”

Despite a schedule featuring UCLA (twice), Michigan and Georgia, among others, not to mention BYU on Friday, the Red Rocks believe they have what it takes to be the best.

“We want really bad to be national champions or at least be in the top three at nationals,” said Skinner. “We really want it and we are striving for that goal this year.”

“(Winning the national title) is absolutely the goal,” added Lewis.

“We have to put in the work,” said Lee. “We have what it takes.”