Is this the year Utah breaks through and wins another national championship?
The Red Rocks last won a national title in 1995, but after a season filled with challenges and successes, is this the year Utah finally comes out on top again?
Sydney Soloski was not happy.
Exasperated might be an even better description.
It was a little after noon on Monday, Feb. 14. Two days prior, Utah’s gymnastics team had just lost its first meet of the 2022 season, a setback against conference rival Cal.
Sitting crosslegged on the floor of the Dumke Gymnastics Center on the campus of the University of Utah, Soloski was still morose about it. To tell the truth, all the Red Rocks were.
“We are upset. No one likes to lose,” Soloski said, eyes flashing first with irritation, then resignation. “It sucks when we have as much potential as we have.”
Flash forward to the present day and there was Soloski again, seated on the floor of the Dumke Center.
This time, though, her eyes were filled with joy and a confidence that threatened to brim over.
Heading into this week’s NCAA gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Utah could not be more enthused or sure of itself, even as it is slated to compete against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Minnesota.
That competition will be Thursday, the first of two national semifinals. Only two of the four teams are destined to advance to the championship (the semifinals will be televised on ESPN2).
And yet ...
“I think the team is feeling very excited and confident,” Soloski said. “There is an energy going into nationals that I don’t think we’ve felt in previous seasons.”
It is a far cry from the state of things in mid-February, so how did the Red Rocks get here?
A mindset shift
The loss to Cal wasn’t just any regular loss.
Heading into the competition, Utah was on an unprecedented run of success in the Pac-12. Going back to the 2020 season, the Red Rocks had defeated 16 consecutive conference opponents during the regular season.
When postseason competition is included, Utah hadn’t lost to the last 28 Pac-12 teams it had faced.
The Bears, on paper, were Utah’s biggest test in the conference, but after adding star freshmen Kara Eaker, Grace McCallum, Amelie Morgan and Sage Thompson last offseason, the Red Rocks were supposed to be the best team in the West and arguably in the entire country.
The loss at Cal, spurred by the collapse of Utah’s vaunted beam team, upended all of that.
Suddenly, the Red Rocks had doubts and doubters. All of a sudden the pressure that Utah had reveled in early in the season appeared to be too much.
Something had to change and the team knew it.
“I think it was a humbling moment,” Soloski said on that Monday in February. “A moment for us to be like, ‘You know what guys? We might be super talented, we might have the potential to win this, that and that, but right now we haven’t won anything.
“We are at the halfway point (of the season) and there is a lot of gymnastics that has to happen for us to get to any of those goals.’”
The Red Rocks made a purposeful shift in the way they thought about gymnastics and in the way they approached the season.
Lofty goals of conference and national titles were set aside, which is a difficult thing to do at Utah with its storied history, made all the more difficult by the individual accolades of the gymnasts on the team.
Champions forgot about championships, though, and instead focused on gratitude for the sport, living in the moment and increased accountability. The Red Rocks tried to be less outcome-based and more focused on the day-to-day.
It might be cliche, but Utah took things one day at a time.
“As a team, we have undertaken a mindset shift,” Soloski said that day. “Let’s just identify the problems, work on them, fix them and be accountable for them and move forward.
“Nothing is fatal or final at the end of the day. We have nothing to lose and we are going to do gymnastics like we have nothing to lose. We were so afraid of failure and that is sometimes a really restrictive mindset.”
A slow burn
The new approach didn’t pay dividends immediately.
It was the Red Rocks’ first loss to the Wildcats in program history, another significant setback.
“When we are clicking, the result is much different in terms of everything,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said after the meet. “You can probably deduce or come up with a theory on mental things that are going on with the kids so that they can do what they need to in the decisive moment.
“And believe me, in practice these are simply things we are not seeing. That is why this is perplexing. I’ve said it before and I’m not kidding, obviously we need to figure out how to handle this.”
The loss to Arizona could have sent Utah into a tailspin and ruined the season. The Red Rocks were all but out of the conference title race at that point and simply didn’t look capable of consistently competing with the best teams in the country.
But instead of a collapse, the opposite happened.
The following weekend, Utah recorded the second-best score in program history, a 198.575 in a lights out performance against Minnesota.
“We were absolutely incredible,” Soloski said in the present day, reflecting on the performance.
The following week Utah lost again, this time to LSU, but the 197.875 score in Baton Rouge, without the services of Maile O’Keefe or Randall, both of whom were out with illness, was nothing if not encouraging.
At the Pac-12 championships, Utah was great again and recorded its third score of 198 on the season, winning the conference title for the second consecutive year.
Most recently, in Seattle, at the Seattle Regional, Utah weathered an injury to Abby Paulson and won both its regional semifinal and final, defeating Alabama in thrilling fashion both times.
Things are looking up
Thanks to the last month and a half, Utah is where it hoped to be, headed to nationals as one of the preeminent title contenders.
Per College Gym News’ postseason simulator, Utah has a 67% chance of advancing to the national final, which is slated for Saturday afternoon and will be televised on ABC.
From there, the Red Rocks have a 50% chance to finish in the top 3, a 31% chance to finish in the top two, and a 12% chance of winning the whole thing.
So yeah, Utah is optimistic and has every right to be.
“It is exciting,” O’Keefe said. “Every year is different, and I think we are on a very good path. I still don’t think we have peaked yet.”
“We obviously have a sense of confidence because of the second half of our season and what they’ve done,” Farden added. “We really feel like the athletes are in a good place right now.”
That includes on the health front.
Paulson, an All-American and a regular on three events during the season, competed only once at regionals after tweaking her back during warmups. She is back now, and “tentatively slated to compete on more events than just floor,” Farden said.
To even have a chance to compete for a national title, Utah will have to beat two of the three teams in its national semifinal, which, as previously mentioned, are Oklahoma, Alabama and Minnesota.
They are all elite teams, there is no doubt about that. Each has broken the 198 barrier this season and is more than capable of posting the kind of score that could undo Utah.
The thing is, the Red Rocks have already beaten the Sooners, Crimson Tide and Golden Gophers at least once each this season. Arguably each time, excluding the win over Minnesota, Utah wasn’t at its best either.
The Red Rocks are treating that as an advantage.
“I think it is,” Soloski said. “You don’t really look around and psych yourself out. We already know them.
“There is a level of comfort when you’ve already seen a team and we’ve beaten every single one, so if that doesn’t give us confidence I don’t know what will.
“It is a good position to be in. You can convince yourself that it is or it isn’t, so we are going to convince ourselves that it is an advantage and run with that.”
The greatest advantage Utah has, of course, is its gymnasts themselves. Utah was a preseason national title favorite for a reason and boasts some of the best gymnasts in the country, including five 2022 regular-season All-Americans, multiple Olympic medalists and an NCAA national champion.
Throw in the mindset that turned their season around and the Red Rocks are as well positioned as they’ve been in years to do something truly special. Perhaps even bring a national championship back to Salt Lake City.
“This team is just really excited because we all really believe in ourselves and I think that is unique,” Soloski said.
“We want what we want and we are hoping to survive to the second day and give it our best then, but we are really going into this thinking we are going to go all out. We are not going to leave anything on the floor. And if I know one thing about this team, we are not going to regret what happens.”
How things have changed from that Monday in mid-February.