SALT LAKE CITY — Throughout the preseason and even now a month into competition, much of the discussion surrounding Utah’s gymnastics team has centered on what the Red Rocks lost.
There have been countless mentions of the 14 routines that Utah had to replace this year — here’s another one — routines that were performed by superstar gymnasts MyKayla Skinner and MaKenna Merrell-Giles, not to mention key contributors in Kari Lee, Macey Roberts and Shannon McNatt.
There has also been talk of the end of the Marsden era at Utah, what with the retirement of legendary coach Megan Marsden last spring.
It is all understandable discussion to be sure, but with the season about to move into its second month and Utah ranked No. 4 in the nation, it’s time to look at what the Red Rocks gained.
The easiest answer would be some incredibly productive freshmen, namely Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson. O’Keefe has been Utah’s sole all-arounder, won her first collegiate all-around competition against Arizona State and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week as a result. Paulson, meanwhile, has scored a 9.9 in every meet and is one of just two Red Rocks, the other being senior Kim Tessen, to pull off that feat this season.
Another answer could center on sophomores Cristal Isa and Cammy Hall, who are in reality in their first year of competition up on the hill. Isa has arguably been Utah’s most reliable gymnast and is averaging around a 9.85 on both balance beam and floor exercise. Hall, for her part, has been one of Utah’s more successful vaulters after returning from a ruptured Achilles.
You can also bring up junior Emilie LeBlanc, the transfer from Maryland who has led off the uneven bars and beam lineups all season and is coming off her best meet as a Ute.
Then there are assistant coaches Carly Dockendorf, Courtney McCool Griffeth and Garrett Griffeth.
Head coach Tom Farden remade the Utah coaching staff during the offseason when he promoted Dockendorf to assistant and brought in Garrett and Courtney as assistant and volunteer assistant coaches, respectively. Behind the scenes, the trio have already made a significant impact on the program.
The Yurchenko 1.5 that Burch performed to great success against Arizona State last weekend? A side effect of Garrett Griffeth’s work on vault. The Utes’ excellence on beam this year, where they are ranked No. 5 in the country and are far and away the best team in the Pac-12? A line can be drawn directly to Dockendorf.
The team’s continued excellence on floor, where the Red Rocks are ranked No. 6 nationally and are just a hair behind the pace set by the record-breaking floor lineups of the past two seasons? Credit has to go, in large part, to Courtney McCool Griffeth.
“The common thread that all of them have is they are very passionate about coaching gymnastics and coaching at the highest level,” Farden said. “All three of them are extremely hard workers. For as little time as our staff has been together, I feel like we’ve done a good job.”
Each has brought something different to the team.
Garrett Griffeth, who Farden compared to Greg Marsden due to his not being a former gymnast himself, has proven approachable and has given the vault team a “quiet confidence” while asking them to do bigger and more difficult vaults.
“He is a student of the sport,” said Farden. “Sometimes when you’ve never done the sport you have to study even harder. He unearths things and is willing to learn from everybody and has a really good perspective.”
That has already made him a beloved part of the team.
“I love Garrett,” Tessen said. “With Garrett, you’ll do something and you can have a good conversation about it. With him it is a ‘we’ll figure it out together’ type thing.”
Dockendorth, meanwhile, is low-key hypercompetitive, which shows up in the Red Rocks’ beam work.
“Carly is a very aggressive coach,” junior Sydney Soloski said. “She is not about playing it safe and going up and doing a clean routine. For example, Carly is not afraid to have Cristal throw the triple series every time or have a D mount. Cristal doesn’t need any of it — she has seven or eight tenths bonuses in her routine — but Carly is really aggressive in her approach to coaching. On beam we have definitely upgraded skillwise. We aren’t playing it safe and that is paying off for us.”
Her background with the team — Dockendorf is in her third season at Utah — has made her universally well-liked too.
“I know a lot of the girls, me as well, get along with Carly really well,” said Tessen.
As for Courtney McCool Griffeth, she might be the most enigmatic of the bunch. A former Olympian, she does things that Farden, a veteran of the sport, has never seen, balancing an acute attention to detail — intense is a word thrown around by a few gymnasts — with an extremely supportive nature.
“Courtney is a little more intense, and inspirational if you want to call it that,” senior Missy Reinstadtler said.
“Courtney is incredible with her details,” said Farden. “I’ve never quite seen anybody build floor routines like she does. It has been really fun and eye-opening for me. She is very creative in how she builds floor routines and is great individually with each kid and is attentive to their needs.”
Perhaps the biggest thing the three have brought to Utah is a youthful energy and optimism that has inspired an unrelenting push for improvement.
“They brought a whole new level of gymnastics with them,” said Burch. “They are really there to challenge us to do the bigger skills, to be perfect. In a sense, they brought a more competitive nature to each event.”
So far, with Utah improving upon its team score every week this season, the new approach is working.
Red Rocks on the air
No. 4 Utah (5-0, 1-0) at No. 21 Arizona (5-2, 0-1)
McKale Center, Tucson, Arizona
Saturday, 2 p.m. MST