A stellar flippin’ season for SUU gymnastics

Southern Utah University gymnastics racked up the accolades in a successful 2023 season. The Flippin’ Birds powered through the victorious regular season, securing a 14-5 record and the No. 21 spot nationally. They dominated the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference, locking down a 7-1 conference record before stamping their name in as the winners of the 2023 MRGC Championship.

Their phenomenal performances earned them a spot at the Los Angeles Regional, where they nearly squeezed through to the final. By the end of nationals, SUU had landed in the 22nd spot on the national scale, finalizing their remarkable National Qualifying Score at 196.820.

2023 highlights

Furious on the floor: While the Flippin’ Birds had some impressive event performances throughout the season, one of their most shocking accomplishments was their floor execution. Excluding the first two meets of the season, SUU consistently scored above 49.000 every time they were given the opportunity. 

To top it off, the team tied the program’s all-time No. 3 floor mark of 49.500 twice in a row. In the first of these outings at home against conference opponent Brigham Young University on Feb. 3, graduate student Karley McClain pitched in a 9.950, the highest score for any Southern Utah performance all season.

The well-rounded floor routines defined a constant identity for the Flippin’ Birds and yielded an average score of 49.233, greatly contributing to their race to regionals.

Fierce on the road: The 2023 team left another mark in the program’s history books, setting the all-time record for highest score in an away meet. In a showdown with the Cougars on Feb. 10, SUU drilled in a season-high score of 197.125 thanks to 9.925 performances from McClain, junior Aubrey Schwartze and graduate student Shylen Murakami.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, they proved that the feat was no fluke by repeating their accomplishment in the next meet on Feb. 17. On the road against the Utah State University Aggies, the Flippin’ Birds threw up a new program high score of 49.450 on the beam, propelling them to their second score of 197.125 in a row.

Head coach Scott Bauman wants this strength away from home to become a vital piece of SUU’s legacy in the future but hopes his team will perform to their highest potential regardless of the crowd.

“Our last three scores of 197 or better have all been on the road, so now we need to start focusing on doing a little better at home,” Bauman said.

Fearless in the spotlight: SUU gymnastics faced some daunting tasks this year, but their most important meets came in the postseason. They solidified a dominant grasp over the MRGC in the conference championship on March 18. Incredible beam and vault performances of 49.300 contributed to the 196.875 victory against the Cougars, Aggies and Boise State University Broncos.

The Flippin’ Birds also made a statement on the national level at regionals on March 30, battling against the University of Washington in an attempt to steal a spot from No. 12-ranked Auburn University. Although both underdog teams snuck past the Tigers, Washington managed to pull ahead in their very last routine for a 196.775-196.600 win over SUU.

These performances pile onto the program’s already impressive history, but a season like this is particularly key at this point in time for the Flippin’ Birds. With BYU leaving the MRGC for the Big 12, conference realignment is likely in the foreseeable future. Ahead of any changes, SUU marked themselves as the team to beat no matter what happens with the conference.

Top performers

Team MVP – Karley McClain: McClain’s floor performances have always stunned judges, but she truly stole the show in the all-around this year. She competed in every event for all of SUU’s 2023 meets and tied her career high of 39.525 in the MRGC Championship. The talented superstar raked in awards, winning 2023 MRGC Gymnast of the Year, Floor Specialist of the Year and spots on the First-Team All-MRGC for floor and all-around. McClain will be tough for the program to move on from, especially after an astonishing final season to finish her college career.

Biggest breakout – Ellie Cacciola: After competing very little in her 2022 debut, sophomore Ellie Cacciola shined this season as one of the bright stars of the Flippin’ Birds’ future. Last year, Cacciola’s highest event score was a 9.850. This year, she scored 9.850 and above 20 times between the three different events she competed in. Named to First-Team All-MRGC on the beam, she will look to continue improving in 2024 and become a crucial scorer for Southern Utah.

Most impressive freshman – Kayla Pardue: Freshman Kayla Pardue showed promising flashes this season on the vault. She won SUU’s Vault Specialist of the Week three times and averaged 9.836 throughout the season. With a season-high 9.900 at Sacramento State University, Pardue consistently dropped strong performances above 9.825 for the last two months of the season. She’ll look to add to her resume of scores above 9.900 in 2024.

Greatest impact – coaching staff: The gymnasts weren’t the only hard workers taking in awards this season. SUU’s coaching staff walked away from the 2023 season with multiple great achievements. Completing his 32nd year as head coach of the team, Bauman won 2023 MRGC Coach of the Year and Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association Region 2 Head Coach of the Year. WCGA also named Jeff Richards and Jamie Wysong Region 2 Assistant Coaches of the Year. Wysong stole her own conference award as 2023 MRGC Assistant Coach of the Year. Bauman shared that earning these awards was a full-team effort, with the team managers, volunteer assistants and the gymnasts maintaining high standards of excellence. As long as the coaching staff sticks around, SUU gymnastics will be a powerful contender.

What’s next for SUU gymnastics?

The outstanding season for the Flippin’ Birds closed an era for the program. With many talented graduate students capping off their college career, the team will have huge holes to fill. However, Bauman is confident that the blend of experienced veterans and brand-new freshmen will rise to the occasion.

“We do graduate a lot [this year], but we have a lot of girls coming in. Right now, there are nine incoming freshmen, and they are very good. They’ll be able to help us out in so many aspects of what we’re doing. All the girls returning are very good,” Bauman said. “It’s just going to take some time to get the new kids some competition experience at this level and get used to the atmosphere of a Division I college gymnastics meet.”

Southern Utah has been just on the cusp of the top 20 since 2016 and will try to surprise the competition by surging into the top of the national rankings next January.


Story by: Kale Nelson


Photos courtesy of Anden Garfield