Bleeding Red: Red Rocks don’t rebuild, they reload

A tale of two teams up on The Hill
One had a near miss, one paid the bill
When your squad has MyKayla Skinner
It’s winner, winner, chicken dinner

COMMENTARY – Both teams are very young and in what should be a rebuilding year. Both teams played ranked teams within the last week, including a matchup with a top 10 team. With all due respect to the Runnin’ Utes (who will get their props below), the Red Rocks have been truly magnificent and deserve top billing.

MyKayla Skinner has been simply stunning in her first two competitions as a Ute. Seven of her first eight routines have produced event winning scores (including a sweep of all four events at last Friday’s meet against BYU), resulting in two all-around first place finishes.

utes“We have a unique situation in that her teammates make MyKayla better and she makes them better,” said co-head coach Tom Farden. For example, MaKenna Merrell “stuck her (vault) like a lawn dart,” continued Farden. “So MyKayla sees MaKenna’s 9.90 score come up and she’s thinking, ‘I can do that.’ And she did!”

After running away from preseason No. 7 Michigan in its first meet, Utah really put the hammer down and pummeled No. 21 BYU by more than 2.7 points, winning 196.900 to 194.175. For those of you unfamiliar with scoring in gymnastics, that is an absolute blowout (especially against a nationally-ranked opponent). The Red Rocks also swept the top three all-around performances, led by Skinner’s 39.600, followed by sophomore Sabrina Schwab at 39.300, and sophomore MaKenna Merrell at 39.250.

Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

This young squad (one senior, two juniors, six sophomores, and three freshmen) is already proving it can compete at an elite level. Not only should Utah be in the hunt for another Pac-12 title, it should also be in the hunt for the national championship (yet again). Ranked No. 6 to start the season, the Red Rocks climbed one spot to No. 5 after their first meet, and should retain that ranking as the top-ranked Pac-12 squad when updated rankings come out later today.

The reality is that Utah gymnastics never truly goes through a rebuilding year, but rather they simply reload and keep competing at a high level year, after year, after year.

The sole senior on the squad, Baely Rowe, provides outstanding leadership for her younger teammates, and continues to perform outstanding routines. I will never be accused of being much of a Michael Jackson fan, but I was thrilled to see that Rowe had retained her signature tribute to the King of Pop in her beam routine by miming a finger across the brim of a hat while moonwalking across the beam.

Next up for the Red Rocks is a home quad-meet this Friday, with Denver (nationally-ranked in the top 10), Boise State, and Illinois-Chicago. If you haven’t figured out by now that there is more to sports on The Hill than just football and men’s basketball, then I encourage you to treat yourself to one of the most entertaining (and least expensive) sporting events, bar none, and cheer Utah on this Friday.

Even men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak is very familiar with the Red Rocks. Recently, he allowed MyKayla Skinner to hop up on a bed of nails laid across Krystkowiak as part of a physics class demonstration.

Speaking of men’s basketball, this too is a very young team with Lorenzo Bonam and Gabe Bealer being the only seniors on the squad, and nine of the 15 spots on the roster occupied by underclassmen. Even three of the four juniors are transfers and playing for Utah for the first time this year (David Collette, JoJo Zamora, and Tyler Rawson).

Unlike the Red Rocks, the Runnin’ Utes are in a rebuilding year. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t competitive and exciting to watch.

Fans line up for the Utah-UCLA game at the Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 14, 2017 | Photo by Dwayne Vance, St. George News

Last week, Utah blew out 25th-ranked USC by 22 points, and had a heart-breaking 1-point loss to No. 4 UCLA. The Bruins habitually beat teams by double digits, but the Runnin’ Utes came closer to taking them down than any team other than Oregon (which beat UCLA by two points on a buzzer-beating shot for the Bruins’ sole loss of the season).

The hallmark of this squad is that they play as a team. “Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s you, but it is always we,” explains Krystowiak. “That kind of concept of our team is good. We have nice combination post plays. Guys are making 3s, a little bit of versatility. It’s harder to scout [is] what it boils down to.”  Utah had five players score in double digits against both USC and UCLA.

While the miracle of technology allows fans to watch games in the comfort of their own homes (with a lot shorter lines for both the snack bar and the restroom), there is simply no substitute for being in the actual arena for some games. Last Saturday’s game against the Bruins was one of those games.

Watching fans line up outside to get into a Red Rocks meet is the rule rather than the exception, but that is not necessarily true for the Runnin’ Utes. I was thrilled to see fans lining up long before the doors ever opened to get into the UCLA game on Saturday.

Utah gave the fans something to cheer about, and cheer they did. “It was an unbelievable college atmosphere, really fun to be a part of it,” Krystkowiak said. “All the way through to the marketing department, everybody did a great job gearing up for a game of this magnitude.” The MUSS and adjacent Section J (basically the equivalent of the student section for alumni and fans in general) stood for the whole game, but the entire Huntsman Center was on its feet for the final thrilling minutes of the game.

Even with a second conference loss, the 3-2 Runnin’ Utes are still sitting in fifth place in the Pac-12, and only half a game behind 4-2 California in fourth place. There is no reason why Utah cannot finish in top half of the conference, and potentially finish as high as fourth.

If the Runnin’ Utes are not in a position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, then they will be a very dangerous team in the Pac-12 tournament in their quest for an automatic bid. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. There is still plenty of basketball to play in January and February before March Madness sets in.

Next up for Utah is a very winnable road trip with games against 2-3 Washington State on Wednesday, and 1-4 Washington on Saturday.

Here’s hoping the Red Rocks and Runnin’ Utes can keep their momentum rolling and continue to give their fans something to cheer about.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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