Facing their toughest test yet, Southern Utah University gymnastics will fight for a chance to advance to the next round of regionals in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 30. Their stacked competition includes the University of Utah Utes, the Auburn University Tigers and the University of Washington GymDawgs, some of the most talented teams in the nation. The Flippin’ Birds must outperform two of their three opponents in the quad meet to advance to the regional final.
Utes, Tigers, and GymDawgs, oh my!
Utah: SUU will be pitted against the most skilled teams they’ve seen all year. The No. 5-seeded Utes are a clear favorite to lead the scoring with a National Qualifying Score of 197.910. They lead the nation in team performance on the beam, sitting at fourth in vault and sixth on the beams and floor. Utah’s Maile O’Keefe wields an event NQS of 9.980, making her the highest-ranked beam gymnast, closely followed by No. 4-ranked teammate Kara Eaker.
The Utes are riding the momentum of their March 18 conference championship win, which sealed them as Pac-12 victors for the third year in a row. Southern Utah faced the Utes in the Best of Utah quad meet earlier this season, suffering a 197.750-196.175 loss.
Beating the Utes will be an extremely uphill battle for the Flippin’ Birds. However, by beating Auburn, SUU could pave a path to the regional final even if they lose to their foes from Salt Lake City.
Auburn: Topping the No. 12-ranked Tigers will be no easy task for the Flippin’ Birds, either. Standing at an NQS of 197.480, Auburn stole fifth in the 2023 Southeastern Conference championship on March 18.
With two gymnasts in the top 20 in the all-around, Auburn displays well-rounded skill across every event. Sophomore Sunisa Lee, ranked ninth in the all-around, holds the fourth-highest NQS on the bars. Cassie Stevens, the team’s talented senior all-around, slots in at No. 8 for the vault.
Washington: While SUU must compete fiercely to edge out the Tigers, they must still be on the lookout for the No. 27 GymDawgs. Washington has the lowest NQS in the quad meet, but a 196.585 doesn’t keep them off of the Flippin’ Birds’ radar.
The team slid into sixth place in the Pac-12 championship with a powerful performance by junior all-around Skylar Killough-Wilhelm, the team’s highest scorer for the season. SUU’s showdown with Washington at the Super 16 yielded a 195.800-195.475 win for the Flippin’ Birds.
SUU’s road to the regional final
Standing at No. 21 with an NQS of 196.820, SUU has been preparing for this moment all year. They crushed the competition on March 18, winning the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference championship and securing the conference title. However, there are certain areas the Flippin’ Birds must excel in to advance to the next round.
Bring the A-game on the floor: Southern Utah’s ceiling is incredibly high when it comes to the floor. However, they must get back to midseason form to use their biggest superpower. The Flippin’ Birds managed back-to-back 49.500 performances on the floor earlier this season, and if they can manage to throw down another great score on Thursday, their chances of stealing a spot will be much higher. Although they haven’t had much time to change performances drastically ahead of the meet, their first round bye provided a bit of extra time to rest and prepare to take the floor.
Focus on the family: The Flippin’ Birds have advocated for a family mentality year-round, and it will play an important factor in their upcoming meet. The score of every member of the team will matter, so the pressure is on. SUU will need to band together and share their support for each other to succeed. Even though performances are executed individually, gymnastics is a team sport, and it’ll take serious team spirit to keep all members of the team united in such an intense situation.
Keep the trend going: After a tough set of losses, SUU seems completely back on track, but if they want to advance, they’ll have to do as they did midseason and ramp up the score. The Flippin’ Birds started the season off on the slower side with a few low-scoring meets, then rolled into a couple strong performances just under 197.000. In a show of striking success, they leaped to scores of 197.125 twice in a row. However, the next couple meets proved to be a struggle before they managed to get back on track with some solid performances. If they manage to repeat the cycle, this would be the perfect time for SUU to drop another 197.000+ outing.
University of California, Los Angeles will host the NCAA regional championship on Thursday, March 30, at 3 p.m. MDT. The meet can be viewed on ESPN+.
Story by: Kale Nelson
Photo courtesy of Anden Garfield