SALT LAKE CITY — This easily could have been another story about what might have been for Utah gymnastics. That is what the 2020 season will largely be remembered for, the “what-ifs.” 

What if the Red Rocks had been able to have Senior Night? Another team score above a 198 may have been in the offing and a score that high would have convinced all but the most critical of observers that Utah was a legitimate national title contender. 

“If we are healthy, we are going to assemble another talented team. We want to set realistic goals and roll our sleeves up, but on paper we look to be another force next year.” — Utah coach Tom Farden

What if the Pac-12 Championships had taken place? With a win inside the Maverik Center, Utah might have gone down as the best team in conference history, with both a regular season and postseason championship in hand.

What about the NCAA Gymnastics Championships? Would this have been the year that Utah finally broke through and won another national title?

Those questions exist because there was something different about the 2020 Red Rocks. It was why fans gravitated toward the team and it is why the unceremonious end to the season hurt so much.

“The sad part is the ‘what-ifs,’” former Red Rock Macey Roberts, a student coach this past season, said. “With how much talent there was on the team and the drive they had to compete and win, I was so excited to see what the postseason would bring. There was just something different about this team. I can’t really tell you what it was, but it was different. Seeing what happened at the end is devastating.”

This isn’t a story about that, though. Rather, it is about the future. And while the abrupt end to the season was devastating, the future is bright up on the hill.

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All but two Red Rocks — Missy Reinstadtler and Kim Tessen — are slated to return in 2021, including All-Americans Sydney Soloski, Cristal Isa, Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson. Throw in a trio of incoming freshmen in Jaylene Gilstrap, Deanne Soza and Lucy Stanhope, who head coach Tom Farden described as “proven elite competitors,” and Utah might be even more talented next season than they were this past one. 

“Every year you have to assess things, but I believe if we are healthy, we are going to assemble another talented team,” said Farden. “We want to set realistic goals and roll our sleeves up, but on paper we look to be another force next year.”

It will start with the rising senior class of Soloski, Alexia Burch and Emilie LeBlanc.

Soloski came into her own this season, both as a gymnast and a leader. And while Farden couldn’t help but talk about her excellence on floor exercise, as well as her contributions on vault, it was her leadership which impressed him the most. 

“She bought into it and was determined to push the team,” he said. “I thought that was great.”

Burch, too, had a breakthrough campaign, highlighted by the addition of a difficult and much needed Yurchenko 1.5 on vault. That was only the beginning, though. Farden expects special things from Burch in her senior season, as she has competition-ready routines on every single event, including an unseen uneven bars routine.

“She has done a really good job on bars,” he said. “Bars is there and she upgraded her dismount. I am excited for her senior year.”

University of Utah gymnast Emilie LeBlanc competes on the uneven bars in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020.   | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As for LeBlanc, the transfer from Maryland is 100% a Red Rock now, and her versatility will make her an invaluable asset going forward.

“For her to come into our program and embrace the level of intensity our environment provides for the athletes is just incredible,” said Farden. “She was interchangeable on bars. That was really valuable for us. I thought we could pop her in anywhere in the lineup, from 1 to 6. I really, honest to God felt that.”

The rising junior class of Isa, Hunter Dula, Cammy Hall and Adrienne Randall may very well be the core of Utah’s team, with Isa arguably the most valuable gymnast.

“Everyone got a taste of what Cristal is capable of,” said Farden. “Big scores everywhere, personality with her gymnastics. What people don’t know is that she brings a lightness to our team. A love for gymnastics that is infectious.”

Randall, meanwhile, brought an intensity that was almost unmatched — Farden described her as fierce — and boasts all-around potential. Then there is Hall, who showed off elite ability on vault, which Farden believes is only the beginning.

“She got a taste of competition that will ignite the fire for the rest of her career here,” he said.

Dula’s season was undone by a back injury, but she showed her potential as a freshman on bars, and health permitting, that gymnast will be back in 2021.

The sophomore class, O’Keefe, Paulson, Jillian Hoffman and Jaedyn Rucker, might be the biggest reason for optimism, though.

The group validated considerable preseason hype — “That class, depending on the publication, was the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked class in the country,” said Farden — and that only due to the efforts of O’Keefe and Paulson, as Rucker missed the entire year with a torn ACL, while Hoffman battled a debilitating toe injury.

University of Utah gymnast Abby Paulson competes on the floor in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020.   | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Abby and Maile headlined the freshmen class and really showed, I believe, the NCAA what they are capable of,” said Farden.

Paulson impressed with her consistency, not to mention high scores, while O’Keefe has barely scratched the surface of her potential.

“The thing I really enjoy about Abby is what you see in the gym is what you see in competition,” said Farden. “It is almost mirrored. Her consistency is uncanny. And with Maile, we are super glad we got this first year under her belt. She can bring more next year. She is eager and motivated.”

Hoffman, when healthy, might be a match for both, but she will need offseason surgery, which is currently in question given the COVID-19 crisis.

“When that will happen we are not sure, but we want to get that kid back on line. When Jillian is 100% healthy, she is arguably as talented as anyone in that class,” said Farden.

As for the trio of newcomers, Gilstrap, Soza and Stanhope, Farden only had good things to say.

“They are dedicated gymnasts with hardworking mindsets,” he said. “They bring unique skills and outstanding execution, and each of them have dynamic opportunities ahead of them.” 

There is no guarantee that the Red Rocks will put it all together in 2021. That is what made this year’s team so unique. And yet, with 11 gymnasts back, and even more talent headed to Salt Lake City, the Red Rocks are primed to reload, rather than rebuild.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, on paper, that they might be able to sustain the same level we had this year,” said Farden.

And maybe, just maybe, the heartbreak of 2020 will give way to something much better.