Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships: Utah looks to feed off home crowd
SALT LAKE CITY – The Huntsman Center is filled with laughter, gymnasts, and lots of dancing, and the competition hasn't even truly begun.
On Saturday, it’ll be filled with thousands of fans, most of whom have come to see if their Utah Utes can repeat as Pac-12 gymnastics champions.
“Hosting an event like this – there were 16,000 people at their last home meet,” says Utah season ticket holder Jeff Dart. “The atmosphere is incredible. We take a lot of pride in being a member of the Pac-12 now, there’s a lot of excitement in that, and another chance to win a championship of some sort…I think people are really excited about this team.”
There’s been plenty to be excited about. Heading into Saturday’s championship, Utah holds the No. 1 seed for the third year in a row, having closed out the regular season 11-1, including a perfect 6-0 in conference competition. They gave their fans plenty to cheer about, going undefeated in their home arena.
And the fans have responded, most recently setting an NCAA gymnastics record of 16,019 in attendance for the March 6 meet against Michigan.
“Our fans are very knowledgeable, very loyal, but they do appreciate good gymnastics," Utah head coach Greg Marsden said. "Whether it’s from our team – I mean, obviously they prefer to see our team win – but if it’s a good performance, they will applaud and be enthusiastic about that performance no matter whose team it is.”
If Utah were to repeat, they'd be the first Pac-12 team to capture back-to-back conference gymnastics titles since UCLA pulled it off in 2009 and 2010.
Winning it all in front of the home crowd would be something truly memorable – for both the athletes and the fans.
“Last year was fun, but we only had about 1,000 Utah fans there,” Dart said. “They presented the trophy in the first meet [this year] and the place went crazy, but I think the girls would love to win it in front of their own fans.
"Winning in this building with that atmosphere would be incredible, both for the fans and the girls.”
Does playing in front of a large, spirited home crowd add any pressure? Marsden is making sure his team stays cool.
“I told the team it’s a special experience to compete for a conference championship in front of your home fans," he said. "Of course we want to win, but no matter what happens, I encourage them to really enjoy the experience.”
With seven of the eight teams competing nationally ranked, the championship is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory. Knocking off Utah will be no easy feat, but Marsden knows how tough the highly-competitive Pac-12 will be.
“The team seems to be in a good place. I know the other teams around the conference are also peaking right now, so I think it’s going to be a great event.”