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SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in 14 years, the BYU Cougars will be represented at the NCAA National Gymnastics Championship.
It will not be as a team, which the BYU gymnasts had hoped they could accomplish Saturday at the Huntsman Center. But sophomore Shannon Hortman-Evans tied for first on the bars and will travel to St. Louis for the April 20 meet to compete as a specialist.
“I actually wanted to make it to Nationals as an all-arounder, but I ended up making it as a specialist, which is harder,” she said. “So I’m really excited.”
BYU last took a team to Nationals in 2005, and an individual specialist competed at Nationals in 2004.
Despite finishing fourth at the meet, which Utah won handily in front of a sell-out crowd of 8,403, BYU coaches and players felt very positive about their performance — and, more importantly, the foundation they laid for the future.
“We just came out and did BYU gymnastics,” said head coach Guard Young, after the Cougars earned fourth with a 196.300 score. Utah won with a 197.475, while Cal was second (196.725), Auburn was third (196.525), Stanford was fifth (195.600) and SUU was sixth (194.625). “That’s what I’ve seen in the gym all year from these girls. Just the grit they showed, marching out and the anthem, and then having to go sit for a bye, it’s hard to get going again.”
The Cougars came out strong with an impressive performance on the bars and then beam. It looked like they might just overtake Cal and earn that trip to Nationals they’ve been dreaming about since summer workouts.
“We hit it out of the park,” said senior Jill Van Mierlo, who had a career high on the floor (9.90) and a career all-around score (39.400). “We started really strong on the bars and beam, and then we were off to the races.”
She said the environment inside the packed arena “fired me up.”
“I use that positive energy in the arena to pump me up,” said Van Mierlo, whose all-around score was good enough to earn a tie for fifth place.
Young said he told Van Mierlo to be ready to compete in the all-around at Regionals long before she earned her spot.
“She was in and out of the lineup all year, in terms of the all-around,” he said. “I told her a month ago, you’re going in at Regionals for the all-around. You’re going to make it. And then, for her to come out and have a career all-around score for her, I couldn’t be more proud. What a way to end a career.”
He praised Hortman-Evans, as well.
“Shannon has been our rock all year, winning our conference tournament two weeks ago,” Young said. “And she’s a sophomore. I know her missing this (as an all-around) is going to give her some more fuel to get back in the gym and get better.”
He said when, not if, she upgrades her vault, “She’ll be there, too.”
Shannon said she will use her experience in two weeks to motivate herself and her young, talented teammates.
“This new blood in the gym, all-around — freshmen, coaches — it’s rising, and it’s only getting started,” she said. “My next two years here, I can just tell you are going to be incredible. We’re only going up from here. We’re really excited about it.”
Despite finishing sixth, Southern Utah head coach Scotty Bauman was pleased with many aspects of Saturday’s performance and hopeful for the young team’s future.
The T-birds graduated seven senior last year, and they were led by sophomore all-arounder Autumn Jorgensen, who finished 18th with a score of 38.400.
“We just wanted to come in and hit our routines,” Bauman said. “This team has been fighting all year, just the injury bug and a couple of little things … I knew if we came in here and hit all of our routines, we were going to have a hard time advancing. But, at the same time, I saw a lot of great stuff from my younger kids.”
The team has 17 freshmen and sophomores, so Saturday was more about development than advancing to Nationals.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s so good for our entire team to compete in front of this crowd, under that kind of pressure. … We’re going to come back much stronger. I couldn’t be more proud and impressed with the way this team fought all year long, just to get to this meet.”