SALT LAKE CITY — Coming off their first bye week in six years, the No. 4 Red Rocks are set to compete against some familiar faces Saturday afternoon.
Not a Pac-12 opponent, mind you their regular season conference schedule is complete but rather the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines.
Since 2001, Utah and Michigan have met in the regular season every single year, with the lone exception coming in 2013.
Utah has emerged victorious in 12 of those 16 meetings. The Utes are 29-12 all-time against the Wolverines, including last season’s triumph at the Huntsman Center.
This time around the Red Rocks are headed to Ann Arbor, where only a few of the current gymnasts have actually competed.
One of those gymnasts, junior All-American MaKenna Merrell-Giles, remembers her visit to Crisler Arena, in 2016, vividly.
“It was crazy. It was our last away meet of the season, just like this one,” Merrell-Giles said. “They were ranked No. 4 and we were ranked No. 5 and we were only behind them by half a tenth. It was so fun (Utah pulled out a 197.525-197.050 victory). Their crowd is big and loud, and Michigan always has an amazing team so there is added pressure. You have to be on your ‘A’ game.”
That is true once again this season.
The Wolverines are undefeated at home, with a win over No. 6 Alabama to their credit. Their only losses have come at No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 13 Nebraska. Even in defeat, the Wolverines have been impressive, as they earned their season-best road score of 197.175 this past weekend against the Sooners.
Above all else, Michigan is great on balance beam, where they are ranked fourth in the country. The Wolverines aren’t too shabby on the other events either, as they are ranked in the top 10 on every other event.
Junior Emma McLean has been a standout and is currently a top 15 gymnast on both vault (15) and floor exercise (11), while senior Paige Zaziski is ranked in the top 25 in the all-around (24) and on vault (22) and uneven bars (17).
“They are always a good team,” said senior Maddy Stover. “It’ll be a good competition. Getting out of conference is always good, too; that is postseason once we get beyond Pac-12s.”
Besides the experience derived from high-level competition in a hostile atmosphere, road trips have taken on an added importance for the Red Rocks — they provide the gymnasts quality time together, something that is often lacking during the season.
“Going on the road with the team is one of our favorite things to do,” said Stover. “We genuinely like hanging out with each other.”
They have been especially important for freshman and Salt Lake City native Lauren Wong.
Wong joined the team midseason and as such has had significantly less time to get to know, let alone bond with her teammates. Road trips provide an opportunity for her that otherwise wouldn’t exist during the hectic season.
“I think it was a little hard for me in the beginning just starting out, barely knowing these girls and being on the same team as them,” said Wong. “Traveling has helped because you get really close when you travel together. You share a room and get to know each other.”
“I do think of them as a family now,” Wong added. “It took some time, but they have just been so welcoming. I have been changed by every single one of them this year and I have definitely impacted their lives for the better.”
That positive impact on each other is what Utah gymnasts are all about, aside from winning that is.
“You are recruited here for gymnastics and education first and foremost, but college is a time where you are figuring out who you are as a person,” said Stover. “A lot of that development happens better when you are in a group of supportive people. I always say that here at Utah, and I think I can say this now that I am on my way out, I think they recruit talent but I think they recruit the person before they recruit anything more.”
RED ROCKS ON THE AIR
No. 4 Utah (197.415) at
No. 7 Michigan (196.930)
Saturday, 12 p.m. MDT
Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
TV: Big Ten Network
Online: Live scores and commentary: UtahUtes.com
Official live scores: mgoblue.com