Three hundred sixty one days ago, on the floor of Dickies Arena in Forth Worth, Texas, the Oklahoma Sooners celebrated their fourth national title since 2016, their fifth in the last decade.

A mere 30 or so feet away stood the University of Utah gymnasts and coaches, most of whom’s eyes were glued on the Sooners’ celebration.

Red Rocks on the air

NCAA women’s gymnastics championships semifinal

Who: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Utah, No. 5 UCLA. No. 7 Kentucky
When: Thursday, 7 p.m. MDT
Where: Dickies Arena, Fort Worth, Texas (14,000 capacity)
Livestream: ESPN+ (individual apparatus feeds)
Radio: ESPN 700

For the second consecutive season, Utah had finished third at the NCAA championships and the Red Rocks felt a degree of disappointment.

As Utah head coach Tom Farden told Deseret, “We set out on a journey to do a little bit more this year.”

That has been something of a theme for Utah gymnastics for more than a quarter century now.

Since last winning the national title in 1995 — the program’s ninth NCAA championship — Utah has strived, in vain, to get back to the summit.

There have been plenty of close calls, the most recent a second-place finish in 2015, but there were also runner-up finishes in 2000, ’06, ’07 and ’08.

The back-to-back third-place finishes in 2021 and 2022 marked the best Utah had done in consecutive years since 2008 and 2009.

Utah strives for national titles, though. Not second- or third-place finishes.

Fortunately, the opportunity to compete for and potentially win that elusive 10th NCAA championship has come back around for the Red Rocks.

After advancing to the NCAA championships for the 47th consecutive time, No. 2 Utah will compete in the semifinals of the NCAA Gymnastics Championships this Thursday.

Utah will compete against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 UCLA and No. 7 Kentucky at 7 p.m. MDT for the right to advance and contend for a national title.

(The top two finishing teams from the semifinal will advance to the national championship meet, which will be held Saturday.)

In many of the previous 25-plus years, Utah wasn’t in true contention for a title. Not really.

There is something different about Utah this season

That wasn’t the case the previous two seasons, though, and it isn’t the case this year.

Ranked second in the country entering competition, Utah is in as good of position to contend for and win a title as ever.

Just ask senior Cristal Isa.

“I think it is really up to your imagination but it (Utah’s potential) is pretty freaking good. ... Tom has had us work on peaking at the right time, at postseason, and I think we are actually catching our stride,” Isa said. “Our regular season was amazing but I don’t think it is really reflective of what we can do these next two meets.”

A look at the competition

Oklahoma’s Jordan Bowers competes on the floor exercise during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas. Bowers is a top-five all-arounder. | Stew Milne, Associated Press

The Red Rocks will compete in what is perceived nationally as the more difficult of the two national semifinals.

(The other semifinal will feature No. 3 Florida, No. 4 California, No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Denver.)

The top-ranked Sooners are the defending champs, who Farden described earlier this season as “the most dominant team in the country for the last decade.”

Oklahoma is, to put it simply, complete. The Sooners rank in the top three nationally on every event and boast the country’s top-ranked uneven bars and vault lineups.

Individually, Jordan Bowers is a top-five all-arounder, while Katherine Levasseur and Ragan Smith are top-five on vault and balance beam, respectively.

Oklahoma is the team to beat until proven otherwise, with a 23-1 record and 10 meets with a score of at least 198.

Putting fan fervor about perceived biased scoring aside for a moment, Oklahoma fell twice on balance beam in the Norman Regional final and still won the competition with a 198.050, topping Kentucky, Ohio State and Alabama.

The Sooners have been that good.

The Bruins, meanwhile, are the darlings of this season.

After missing the NCAA championships the last two years, UCLA is back with no shortage of celebrity.

Following regionals, College Gym News’ Brandis Heffner ranked UCLA as the top team in the country, based off the Bruins’ showing in Los Angeles.

UCLA has two of the best gymnasts in the sport in Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles and former No. 1 overall recruit Selena Harris, and boasts the top-ranked floor lineup.

UCLA also had the single highest meet score of any team during regionals, a 198.275 recorded in the second round.

The Bruins might be the most popular team in all of NCAA gymnastics, both historically and currently, and have steadily improved as the season has progressed, thanks in part to key additions to lineups late in the season, most notably Brooklyn Moors on floor and vault.

As for Kentucky, the Wildcats are in the midst of their most successful season ever.

Kentucky advanced to the national championships for only the second time in program history and the Wildcats’ previous appearance at nationals came during the Super Six era.

A trip to nationals in the current era just means more, as explained by Farden.

“To have a team advance in this format (four on the floor) is really challenging now, since the format change in 2019,” he said.

The Wildcats don’t have the pedigree or rankings of Oklahoma or UCLA — Kentucky ranks in the top 10 on only only two events, bars and vault — but they have proven capable of defeating elite competition, evidenced by multiple wins over Alabama and a victory over No. 6 LSU.

Raena Worley is an elite all-arounder, ranking No. 11 in the country, and if things go wrong for any of the other teams in the semifinal, Kentucky has proven capable of scoring well, with a program-best 197.875 this season.

How is Utah currently competing?

Utah’s Amelie Morgan performs her beam routine during the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The Red Rocks compare favorably with all their semifinal opponents.

Utah ranks in the top six on every event, is the top-ranked team in the country on beam, and boasts multiple NCAA champions in Maile O’Keefe and Jaedyn Rucker.

The Red Rocks also made history at the Los Angeles Regional, recording 198s in back-to-back meets for the first time ever.

Utah has defeated UCLA three times season, during the regular season in Salt Lake City, at the Pac-12 championships in West Valley City and in the Los Angeles Regional final in Los Angeles.

The Red Rocks lost to Oklahoma in the team’s only meeting this year — Week 3 in Norman — but Utah has only improved since then, even while dealing with injuries to Grace McCallum (hyperextended knee), Lucy Stanhope (bruised heel), Kara Eaker (concussion) and Jillian Hoffman.

“This team is something so special and I am just thankful to be a part of it,” senior Abby Brenner said. “We get better every day and every week and every competition.”

Utah doesn’t have a clear weak event, a departure from previous seasons, with the ability to score a 49.5 or better on every apparatus.

Throw in a revamped team culture that has changed many gymnasts’ outlook this season, and Utah has all the confidence in the world.

“We didn’t have a doubt in our mind that we were going to make it (to nationals),” sophomore Amelie Morgan said. “Obviously you can be too overconfident, but in this situation we have to be confident in our ability. We just have to do what we normally do.”

Will Utah get any reinforcements?

Utah’s Grace McCallum performs her floor routine during a meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Utah has a legitimate chance at bringing home hardware this season, but the Red Rocks also got a boost in that regard thanks to the return of their Olympic silver medalist.

McCallum has been out due to injury since Feb. 11, but Utah announced on social media Monday that she will be back in the lineup at nationals (bars and beam are the events McCallum will most likely compete on).

McCallum has been training for nearly a month now, after initially using crutches while wearing an immobile knee brace following her injury.

She was the Red Rocks’ best gymnast through the first half of the season, while competing in the all-around, and any return by McCallum is a welcome one for Utah.

What Grace McCallum said about her injury and recovery, plus future plans

She may also be the Red Rock most suited for a pressure-packed return to competition, given her Olympic history, which includes a surprisingly quick return from a broken hand.

“When I go up for routines, I know I can do it,” she told Deseret earlier this season. “I’ve done millions of routines in the gym that can score well.”

Is this the year for Utah?

Utah’s Jaylene Gilstrap does her floor routine as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Cal in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

With McCallum back, the Red Rocks are as complete as they’ve been all season, and with a team filled with upperclassmen — six seniors and three juniors — this group compares favorably to the best Utah team in recent memory (the Georgia Dabritz-led 2015 squad).

O’Keefe has proven herself an elite all-arounder, Rucker has tapped into her postseason form and others like Hoffman, Abby Paulson and Jaylene Gilstrap are competing as well as they have in their entire Utah careers.

Nothing is guaranteed in sport, though, particularly a sport like gymnastics, where the slightest mistakes can be the difference between victory and defeat.

“It is hard to get to the Final Four,” Farden said last April. “I don’t care what sport. If you get there, you are the elite of the elite.”

That will be Utah’s aim Thursday, to once again earn a spot among the elite of the elite.

After that, a national title will be a possibility. And why not this Utah team?