More than 15,000 fans filed into the Huntsman Center to watch the season opener between the No. 4 Utah Red Rocks gymnastics team and BYU. Friday’s meet marked the beginning of a new era for the program following the retirement of former head coach Greg Marsden last April.
Marsden, who founded the program in 1975 and guided the team to an unprecedented 40 national championship appearances during his four decades at the helm, was replaced by the coaching tandem of Megan Marsden and Tom Farden. Along with the changes to the coaching staff, the Utes also had to replace four All-Americans who graduated from last year’s team, including team standout and NCAA bars champion Georgia Dabritz. In spite of the changes, the Red Rocks looked solid in their season debut, as Utah’s veterans led the way to a convincing 196.175-193.850 victory over their in-state rivals.
The Utes kicked off the night’s events with a good overall performance on the vault. The sophomore triple-team of Tiffani Lewis, Samantha Partyka and Kari Lee led off the event, tallying a 9.725, a 9.800 and a 9.650. Fourth up for the Utes was Senior Kailah Delaney, whose near perfect vault electrified the home crowd and had many in the audience on their feet. The judges awarded Delaney with an 9.850.
A 9.825 and a 9.750 from fellow upperclassmen Breanna Hughes and Baely Rowe rounded out the Red Rock’s total vault score at 48.950, and Delaney’s 9.850 would be the most points awarded for a vault. BYU had some difficulty with the vault. In spite of a respectable 9.775 score for sophomore Sin To, the Cougars missed a couple of routines and combined for a total of 48.525 points.
In the second stage of the meet, Utah took to the uneven bars for the team’s strongest event of the night. Marking her first NCAA appearance on the uneven bars, and first all-around performance for the Utes, Lee earned a 9.775, her highest score in any event. Freshman Sabrina Schwab received a 9.750 in her debut. Senior Kassandra Lopez’s 9.875 score was followed up by a solid 9.850 routine from Hughes and a stellar performance from Rowe, who topped her personal best with a 9.925, the highest score awarded in any event that night.
Lewis closed out the Utes’ uneven bars lineup with another strong routine that garnered a 9.800, and brought the team’s bars score up to a 49.225. In their efforts on the bars, the Cougars totaled 48.275 points, with sophomore Brittni Wilde leading the team with a 9.775.
The Utes continued to extend their lead in the third part of the meet when they took to the balance beam. Partyka, in her first appearance on the beam, and Delaney, a veteran on the apparatus, led off for the Utes with a pair of 9.800 scores for their performances. Freshman MaKenna Merrell was docked for a balance check early in her routine, but finished strong. Lee and Rowe added to the Utes’ consistent performances with a 9.750 and 9.800. Sophomore Maddy Stover concluded the Red Rock’s time on the beam with a 9.825, tying BYU’s Makenzie Halliday for first in the event. Halliday would go on to win the all-around, but missed routines took a toll on the rest of the Cougars, who tallied a 48.475 on the beam.
Utah got off to a hot start during the floor routine segment, opening with a 9.850 performance from Hughes. Immediately after, Schwab made some huge waves in her debut following a tremendous 9.900 routine. Although Partyka was penalized for a fault and Lee took a tumble near the end her routine, the Utes were able to make up for the lost points with a 9.825 for Delaney and a 9.775 for Lewis. Once again, Halliday was BYU’s top scorer, earning a 9.800 for her routine, while the rest of her teammates combined to make their total 48.575 points.
“We’re very pleased, it was a great start,” Farden said. “It’s a very young team. They had some very uncharacteristic things that you can kind of expect, but once they get a few meets under their belt, they’re only going to continue to gain confidence. They have all the signs that we’re looking for in good competitors.”
As the team progresses through the season, the Utes hope to iron out the small details that held them back in Friday’s meet, and freshmen like Schwab will try to adjust to the high intensity of Utah gymnastics.
“There is definitely a lot of jitters going on when you walk out for the first time and see fifteen thousand people, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Schwab. “Bars was not the best I would have liked it to go, but for floor I just tried to forget about the crowd and do it like I did in practice. At the end of it, to hear that roar and everybody cheering for you, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Despite the questions surrounding the Utes heading into the season, the team was enthusiastic about their performances in Friday’s meet and are eager to show that the team is as good as ever.
“We definitely feel that there’s something special about this team,” said Schwab. “There’s a lot to prove, though I feel like we can do it.”
The Red Rocks will return to action Friday, Jan. 15 when they travel down to Cedar City to face Southern Utah.