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How will conference realignment affect Utah gymnastics?

Utah assistant coach Jimmy Pratt celebrates as gymnast Cami Winger finishes her bars routine as BYU, Utah, SUU and Utah State meet in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah Gymnastics competition at the Maverick Center in West Valley City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024.
Utah assistant coach Jimmy Pratt celebrates as gymnast Cami Winger finishes her bars routine as BYU, Utah, SUU and Utah State meet in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah Gymnastics competition at the Maverick Center in West Valley City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Friday night marks the beginning of the end. The end of the Pac-12 era of Utah gymnastics.

The Red Rocks officially begin conference competition this season at home in Salt Lake City against the Arizona State Sun Devils this weekend, the first of seven consecutive dual meets against Pac-12 foes.

Following the Pac-12 gymnastics championships in late March, that will be it for the Conference of Champions and women’s gymnastics.

Red Rocks on the air

No. 5 Utah vs. Arizona State

Friday, 6 p.m. MST

Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City

TV: Pac-12 (Mountain)

Stream: Pac-12 Live

Radio: ESPN 700

There isn’t much happiness for Utah about the demise of the Pac-12.

The conference proved a great home for the Red Rocks, who — since joining the league in 2012 — have won six conference championships, plus at least a share of four regular season conference titles.

Fierce competition from the likes of UCLA, Cal Oregon State, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington over various seasons steeled Utah for the postseason, helping lead to the most successful run for the Red Rocks since the last 2000s, with three straight third place finishes at the NCAA championships.

“We’ve loved competing against those teams and have kind of formed our own little family in the Pac-12. There will be a little bit of disappointment and sadness that this is our last year together,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said.

There is also added motivation.

Utah has been the dominant team in the Pac-12 since entering the league, outside of a brilliant run by the Bruins from 2016 through 2019.

And in the last year of the conference, Utah wants to make sure it goes out on top.

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“There is just a little more motivation to be the best in the conference, because we will never get this opportunity to get another Pac-12 championship banner in the gym,” Dockendorf said.

There will be time later this season to wax on about the most memorable moments the Red Rocks have had while in the Pac-12. And there have been many memorable moments, involving some of the more notable gymnasts in program history, including Georgia Dabritz, MyKayla Skinner and Maile O’Keefe.

But the future beckons for Utah and that future will — for a time at least — be in the Big 12.

Will the move to the Big 12 benefit Utah gymnastics?

Denver’s Madison Ulrich competes on the floor exercise during an NCAA gymnastics meet.
Denver’s Madison Ulrich competes on the floor exercise during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024 in Las Vegas. | Stew Milne, Associated Press

For years, the Big 12 has been the domain of the Oklahoma Sooners, the premier dynasty in college gymnastics currently.

Oklahoma has won 10 of the last 11 Big 12 championships, with Denver pulling off the upset in 2021.

When conferences were ranked, the Big 12 came in a distant third or fourth behind the SEC, Pac-12 and sometimes the Big Ten, and that was with the Sooners’ weight behind it.

The Sooners are leaving, headed to the SEC next season, with the Red Rocks sliding in to fill the void OU will leave, along with Arizona and Arizona State.

What will the new Big 12 look like?

Starting next season, it will consist of seven women’s gymnastics teams:

  • The Utah Utes.

  • The BYU Cougars.

  • The Denver Pioneers.

  • The Arizona State Sun Devils.

  • The Arizona Wildcats.

  • Iowa State Cyclones.

  • West Virginia Mountaineers.

Based on recent success, Utah should be considered the far and away favorite in the conference, year after year too.

The Red Rocks will be the only program in the conference with a national championship (in the Pac-12, UCLA could also boast that) and Utah is the only team in the country to have qualified for the national championships every possible year.

Denver has proven a good to great program at times, though, advancing to the national championships in 2019 and again last season. In 2019 the Pioneers even advanced to the championship final itself — Utah did not — before finishing fourth overall.

Can Denver challenge Utah for conference supremacy? Absolutely, but history suggests it won’t be an every year kind of thing.

After Denver, Arizona State lines up as the third best program in the league. The Sun Devils have had their moments, nearly advancing to nationals a few years ago, but ASU hasn’t been able to consistently challenge the top teams in the Pac-12.

BYU’s Eliza Millar-Crossman, performs her floor routine as BYU, Utah, SUU and Utah State meet in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah Gymnastics competition at the Maverick Center in West Valley City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BYU’s Eliza Millar-Crossman, performs her floor routine as BYU, Utah, SUU and Utah State meet in the Rio Tinto Best of Utah Gymnastics competition at the Maverick Center in West Valley City on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU, Arizona, Iowa State and West Virginia, meanwhile, all occupy a similar sort of sphere. All have been solid programs at various times in their histories, as well as regular(ish) qualifiers to NCAA Regionals, but rarely if ever much more than that.

On a team by team comparison, the Pac-12 is — soon to be was — a better gymnastics conference than the Big 12, and the new-look Big 12 will be considered the third best Power conference going forward, behind the SEC and Big Ten but ahead of the newly formed ACC.

Oklahoma has proven time and again that national championships can be won out of a weaker conference, so being in a somewhat less competitive conference shouldn’t hurt Utah.

Especially if the Red Rocks continue to schedule the kind of regular season meets already displayed this year with the Sprouts Farmers Market Challenge, a showdown with Oklahoma, LSU and UCLA.

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That meet is slated to happen again next season, in Norman, Oklahoma.

There will be a sense of loss, though, as the rivalry with UCLA loses some of its luster, and yearly matchups with periodically great programs like Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington decrease or disappear altogether.

Pac-12 gymnastics was excellent, year in and year out almost. And in a few months time it will disappear into history.

But Utah gymnastics has been elite wherever it has been. And all signs point to that continuing when the Red Rocks are in the Big 12.

Utah reacts after winning the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
Utah reacts after winning the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at Maverik Center in West Valley City on March 18, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News