Last season, a young and fiercely determined Utah team reclaimed the Pac-12 title and returned to the Super Six after a one-year drought. With those feats checked off, the Utes have set their sights even higher for 2018.
"The goal of this program has always been to be out on the floor competing for a national championship on the final day of the season," said co-head coach Megan Marsden, who has participated in 37 of Utah's record 42 national championship appearances. "While we accomplished that last year, we left tenths on the floor at the NCAA Championships that might have allowed us to finish higher."
Some of those tenths will come with the return of All-American Kari Lee and former Junior Olympic champion Kim Tessen, whose injuries cost Utah's NCAA lineup several competitive routines. Lee and Tessen (who was sidelined for most of her freshman season) are among several all-around candidates on this year's squad.
"Availability is the best ability," said co-head coach Tom Farden, who along with Marsden navigated the Utes to a fifth-place finish at the 2017 NCAA Championships. "If we stay healthy, we should be even better than last year. Our injury situation dictated that we place a premium on preparing people to fill lineups. This year's team is seasoned and experienced and our athletes are ready to take that next step in perfecting their execution."
In the case of super sophomore MyKayla Skinner, maintaining perfection would be more accurate. Skinner, the 2017 NCAA floor champion and all-around silver medalist, had the best freshman season in Pac-12 history. The Pac-12 champion in the all-around, floor and vault (with teammate Tiffani Lewis), Skinner set conference records for most Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week (7) and Freshman of the Week (6) awards. She continued to dominate in the NCAA postseason, winning the all-around, vault and floor titles at the NCAA Regional and in semifinal action at the NCAA Championships against some of the best gymnasts in the world.
"MyKayla excelled at the national level as a freshman and she will be every bit as good or better this year," says Marsden of Utah's first NCAA floor champion since 1992 and its highest NCAA all-around finisher since 2009. "MyKayla has always had big tricks in her routines and she executed them beautifully last year, but that hasn't stopped her from adding upgrades in difficulty and working on perfecting the little details. For instance, she'll have an impressive combination on beam this season, where she goes from a switch leg leap to a straddle jump to a tuck back. Adding a flip at the end of a leap combo is difficult for most people and MyKayla nails it every day."
Skinner will again be surrounded by high-scoring routines, including those performed by fellow All-Americans MaKenna Merrell-Giles, Maddy Stover, Lee and Lewis—the latter three who are members of the 2018 Gymnastics Leadership Committee. Missy Reinstadtler established herself as a budding star as a freshman and transfer Macey Roberts was also a key contributor. Lending a late-season assist were NCAA Regional beam champion Shannon McNatt and Erika Muhaw.
The Utes reinforced their lineups with three promising freshmen. Former Canadian Senior National Team member Sydney Soloski and two-time J.O. champion Alexia Burch were both members of the 2017 signing class, while Lauren Wong will join the team in January as a midyear high school graduate.
The coaching staff also gained some new talent in the offseason, most notably 12-year NCAA veteran Robert Ladanyi, a three-time NCAA Region Co-Assistant Coach of the Year at Florida. Ladanyi, who also coached at Denver, has three NCAA champions and 45 All-Americans to his credit.
The Romanian has taken over the coaching on vault, as well as the tumbling elements on floor. Overseeing Utah's floor choreography and music for the first year is volunteer assistant coach Carly Dockendorf, a former All-America gymnast and pole-vaulter for Washington.
"Robert Ladanyi is an excellent technician and spotter and he has great rapport with the gymnasts," said Farden. "Robert's experience with coaching NCAA championship teams is evident in every facet. His expectations align with Megan's and mine and he has fit into our program seamlessly. Carly is also a valuable addition to our staff. The floor routines she has designed are energetic and crowd pleasing."
Also new is Utah's approach to the preseason. "Because we had such a young team last year, we accelerated our preseason training to prepare our new gymnasts for the rigors of college competition," said Farden. "Possibly as a result, we peaked a little early, with our best meet coming at the Pac-12 Championship. We're trying to capitalize on our experience this year by changing a few things in our training so that we peak during the NCAA postseason."
Among the adjustments are tweaks to the strength and conditioning program and an extra emphasis on landings and dismounts.
"Nationals last year came down to landings," said Farden. "We didn't stick one vault landing in the Super Six and we also struggled with our landings on floor and dismounts on bars on that last day. Landings are the separator when you get to that level and so we are emphasizing mechanics that will put our athletes in a position to stick more frequently."
A new scheduling wrinkle could also pay dividends should Utah advance to a record 43rd-consecutive national championship. For the first time ever, the Utes will have an opportunity to compete on podium during the regular season in the Elevate the Stage meet hosted by the Knight Eady Sports Group in Reno, Nev., on Jan. 14. Squaring off against the Utes at the podium meet will be UCLA, Stanford and Washington.
"It is definitely advantageous to experience competing on podium before the championships," said Farden. "There is an adjustment on every apparatus that you cannot simulate on a hard surface. We are really excited about this opportunity and hope it develops into an annual event."
Utah's huge fan base of 15,000 strong will also see a parade of top-20 Pac-12 opponents, as well as SEC power Georgia and instate rival BYU compete in the Huntsman Center leading up the NCAA Regional, which will be hosted by the Utes on Apr. 7.
Tiffani Lewis, a vault All-American and two-time Pac-12 champion (2016 floor, 2017 vault), also excels on bars. Maddy Stover, a reliable scorer on the beam where she is an All-American, is so versatile at her specialty that she can score from anywhere in the lineup. “Tiffani and Maddy combine to make a great all-arounder,” said Farden. Upbeat team player Erika Muhaw adds depth on vault and floor.
The junior class features a pair of three-time All-Americans in all-arounders Kari Lee and MaKenna Merrell-Giles. “We missed Kari’s routines and leadership last year at nationals and she is back to looking just as dynamic as she was as a freshman (before injuries cost her most of her sophomore and part of her redshirt sophomore seasons),” said Marsden. On the flip side, after a freshman year spent adjusting to a four-inch growth spurt, Merrell-Giles lived up to her recruiting expectations as a sophomore, earning second-team NCAA All-America honors in the all-around, beam and floor. She’ll be pushing for first-team honors as a junior. Maryland transfer Macey Roberts was an unexpected gift for the Utes last year. A crowd pleaser on floor, she also starts on vault. Shannon McNatt, the 2017 NCAA Regional balance beam champion, clinched fifth place for the Utes at the NCAA Championships with her pressure-packed routine as the final competitor. She hopes to contribute on other events as well this year.
Who, what, where and when does not concern MyKayla Skinner, a 2016 U.S. Olympic alternate who is capable of beating anyone at any meet, anywhere and anytime. As a freshman all-arounder, Skinner hit all 56 routines, which included an NCAA gold, three Pac-12 championships and three NCAA Regional titles. The best news? She’s still improving. So is Missy Reinstadtler, who Marsden says, “brings a rare quality of movement to her routines that sets her apart.” A three-event performer as a freshman, look for Reinstadtler to contend nationally on all four events this year. Relatively unknown after falling victim to a season-ending injury early in her freshman year, Kim Tessen won’t fly under the radar for long. If her recovery continues at its current pace, she could give Utah three sophomores in the all-around lineup.
Sydney Soloski brings extensive international experience to the team as a four-year member of the Canadian National team (two years on the Senior National team). She won the balance beam at the 2015 Provincial Championships and took gold that same year on floor (placing third all-around) at the Gymnix International meet. Alexia Burch joins the Utes off the U.S. Junior Olympic National team. She is a two-time J.O. champion, winning the all-around and floor at the 2015 J.O. Championships. A late addition will join the team in January. Lauren Wong, a three-time qualifier into Level 10 regionals, plans to graduate from high school early and is enrolled for spring semester classes.