“We are competing against the nation’s best.”
Week in and week out, that is the mindset of Utah’s gymnastics team.
At the Best of Utah last weekend, Utah physically competed on the same floor as BYU, Southern Utah and Utah State. In the minds of the Red Rocks, though, they were facing off against Florida, Oklahoma and LSU.
Every week in every season, Utah is competing to be the nation’s best team and that means putting up scores on par with the very best, so that is how they approach every practice, showcase and competition. They are continually, constantly, always competing against the best.
“We approach every meet that way,” said Utah coach Tom Farden. “Whoever is in the arena with us shouldn’t really matter. We are competing against the nation’s best.”
Sunday’s meet is different, though. Utah, ranked No. 3 in the country, actually gets to compete on the same competition floor as No. 2 Oklahoma.
Now, the Red Rocks aren’t strangers to high profile and high pressure regular-season competitions. In the last decade alone Utah as faced off against national champions, national runners-up and the like time and again.
Last year, Utah defeated No. 3 UCLA in dramatic fashion in Westwood, announcing to the college gymnastics world that they were one of the up-and-coming national title contenders.
In 2017, there was No. 4 UCLA. In 2016 it was No. 5 UCLA and No. 6 Georgia.
The Red Rocks are no strangers to taking on the nation’s best, in person or in their minds, but as great as all of those opponents were, and others that weren’t listed, none of them were Oklahoma.
Sunday’s meet is the biggest regular-season meet in a decade for Utah.
Utah simply hasn’t competed against a team in the regular season with Oklahoma’s track record since the late 2000s, when Suzanne Yoculan-led Georgia was in the midst a five-year national championship run.
The run the Sooners are currently on is about as good as the one those GymDogs had, if slightly less dominant, but more prolonged.
- Since 2013, Oklahoma has finished each season as either the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country, save for 2015.
- In that time, the Sooners have won at least a share of four national titles (if not for COVID-19, they likely would have secured a fifth title last spring).
- Oklahoma has earned the best meet score in national championship history, a 198.3875 in 2017, and the second-best score, too, a 198.3377 in 2019.
- The Sooners haven’t lost a meet since the 2018 national championship, when they finished second to UCLA. In other words, Oklahoma hasn’t lost in 1,001 days.
- Oklahoma has defeated 34 consecutive teams. By comparison, Utah has defeated 14 consecutive teams, which is the second-most in the NCAA currently.
- After opening week, the Sooners are the only team in the country to be ranked in the top three on every event. No. 1 Florida didn’t do that, nor the Red Rocks. Only Oklahoma.
When Farden talks about competing against the nation’s best, Oklahoma is it, and Utah knows it.
“It is really exciting,” senior Alexia Burch said. “It is kind of crazy because we don’t usually get that kind of exposure early into the season, with who were are going to be competing with at nationals or regionals. I feel like this is a really important step in our season to get some experience.”
The Sooners, for their part, feel much the same way. That is why Utah and Oklahoma are locked into a four-meet agreement that will see OU come to Salt Lake City twice in the next four years. Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler believes Utah to be one of the best teams in the country, an appropriate warm-up for the postseason.
“We are excited about that agreement with them and really excited that they are still coming to town,” Kindler said. “They (Utah) are an exceptional team. Honestly, from top to bottom (they are) consistent across the board and very well-coached. We are very excited for the challenge and it will be a challenge. This only makes every team better, pushing yourselves against the best. That is what we always try to do.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Utah, too, is embracing the challenge. Every week they compete against Oklahoma. But this week, on the same competition floor and with the same judges, the Red Rocks hope to prove that victory over the Sooners is not only achievable, but that they, not Oklahoma, are the team to beat in college gymnastics, both now and come season’s end.
“(This meet) is going to show who is better that day,” said Burch, “and at the end of the season it is still that. It is all about who can compete better, who can mentally be better at nationals. I think we are honestly heading toward becoming that team.”