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Beat UCLA and win the Pac-12? That isn’t exactly the case for Utah gymnastics

Utah’s Missy Reinstadtler competes on bars during a meet against UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. 
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When the University of Utah joined the Pac-12 Conference going on nine years ago now — Utah became a full member, along with Colorado, on July 1, 2011 — fans of college gymnastics couldn’t help but imagine yearly showdowns between UCLA and Utah with the conference championship on the line.

It wasn’t like the teams hadn’t met before. The Bruins and Red Rocks faced off 61 times prior to becoming conference rivals. But the idea of nine-time NCAA champion Utah duking it out with six-time champion UCLA — the Bruins added championship No. 7 in 2018 — for conference supremacy year in and year out was tantalizing.

By and large, the rivals haven’t disappointed those visions. Starting with the 2011-12 season, Utah and UCLA have met 30 times, and most of those meetings have been highly competitive. If that number seems high, consider the programs face off at least three times every season with a dual meet, the conference championships and nationals.

UCLA has been the better of the two, with a 19-11 record — Utah holds a 54-36-1 edge all-time — but each team has won three Pac-12 championships, with Oregon State claiming the other two.

That history, and the fact that both UCLA and Utah are currently ranked No. 3 in the country, according to Road to Nationals, has made this Sunday’s matchup the dual meet of the season for both the Bruins and the Red Rocks.

If history is any indication, the outcome of Sunday’s meet has considerable bearing on whether or not Utah will win the Pac-12 championship.

In each of the years Utah has taken the conference crown — 2014, ‘15 and ‘17 — they beat UCLA in the regular season dual meet before going on to defeat the Bruins again at the Pac-12 championship.

The University of Utah gymnastics team celebrates after winning the 2017 Pac-12 Conference championship.
Deena Lofgren, Utah Athletics

The Red Rocks have beaten the Bruins in the regular season and not won the conference title — two years ago, Utah went to Pauley Pavilion and upset the Bruins, but finished second at the Pac-12 championship — but the Utes have never lost to UCLA during the regular season and then proceeded to win the conference.

It is possible that could change this year, though.

For the first time ever, all eight Pac-12 gymnastics programs were required to have dual meets against all conference members during the regular season.

The reason? To allow the conference to crown a regular season champion.

A win over UCLA would go a long way in helping Utah become that regular season champ, but it wouldn’t guarantee it. No. 13 Washington (4-0) is currently undefeated in conference play — so is Utah — while No. 21 Oregon State and UCLA are each 3-1.

Utah travels to Washington next week and a win over UCLA, coupled with a Washington win over ASU, would make that meet the de facto regular season championship.

A loss by either team this weekend would keep Oregon State and UCLA very much alive in the race, though, headed into their own matchup in Corvallis.

Miss out on a regular season championship and there is still the Pac-12 championship meet, where the winning team will be crowned Pac-12 champs.

With so much on the line, you’d think Utah might be putting a little more emphasis on the meet, but that isn’t the case.

Head coach Tom Farden has been his normal detailed self, and the gymnasts swear they’ll treat this meet no differently than any other.

“I don’t think we are going to really treat UCLA any different than any other meet,” junior Alexia Burch said. “We just want to get a big score.”

Still, Sunday’s showdown with the Bruins has become exactly what fans envisioned back in 2011: a clash of champions, or in this case, potential ones.

Red Rocks on the air

No. 3 Utah (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) at No. 3 UCLA (8-2, 3-1)

Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles

Sunday, 4 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN2