Southern Utah University’s Flippin’ Birds have one of the most impressive legacies in Southern Utah athletics, the program dating back to 1985. Despite having started as a relatively unknown National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program, the gymnastics team had early success competing in the NAIA nationals in 1985, 1986 and 1988. Their best finish was at the 1988 NAIA nationals with a seventh place effort. After the 1988 season, though, the Flippin’ Birds fell from the national scene — until Scotty Bauman changed the program forever.
Bauman was hired as the new head coach of the Flippin’ Birds before the 1992 season. He brought the skills he learned from being an undergraduate and graduate coaching assistant at Utah State University as well as his ambition for the rapid growth and success of SUU gymnastics.
“We can build the program and win a lot, schedule teams we knew we could beat at the time,” said Bauman. “Or we can really try to build the program and push it in the right direction and compete against some of the best teams in the country.”
Bauman chose the second option, which meant that the team would play harder competition from the start, including Brigham Young University, Utah State University, University of Utah and other top programs around the country.
“Within one to two years, we started to beat a lot of teams that we thought were going to take four to five years to beat,” said Bauman. “It got our administration excited and the coaching staff excited.”
Building the team
With any collegiate program, recruiting is one of the biggest responsibilities. Bauman has built the Flippin’ Birds into one of the nation’s most recognized gymnastics programs because he and his staff recruit incredibly talented athletes who are also the top of their class academically.
The Flippin’ Birds definitely have pushed themselves in the classroom, winning 13 Academic National Championships, the last one in 2017. The team finished with a 3.88 GPA, and every member of the team claimed scholastic All-American honors. Additionally, the Flippin’ Birds were listed fourth in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association top 25 for the 2023 season.
Coach Bauman knows the importance of his athletes receiving national scholastic honors and continues to encourage hard work and dedication. The team has 25 Academic All-Americans from last year’s team that have returned to compete this year.
“I constantly emphasize it: we have won 13 times but have taken second nine times,” Bauman said. “We’ve been in the top ten every year except for a few years in my time here.”
Spotlight on the national stage
The Flippin’ Birds qualified for their first NCAA regional appearance in the 2000 season. Since that first appearance, Southern Utah has qualified on 15 different occasions and are looking for their 10th trip to NCAA regionals in a row this season.
Southern Utah gymnastics has made appearances at the NCAA championships in the individual category. In 2005, sophomore Leah Sakhitab from Rochester, Minnesota, qualified as an individual for the Flippin’ Birds and tied for 23rd overall. Elise Wheeler made the last individual appearance for the Flippin’ Birds in 2009 and brought home NCAA hardware with a sixth place finish.
The Flippin’ Birds have shocked prestigious national programs. Southern Utah kept it going last season with wins over the University of Arizona and the University of Georgia. Other wins that have gained national attention include the University of Denver on Feb. 18, 2018, the University of Iowa on Feb. 23, 2018, and the University of Michigan on Feb. 19, 2016. A victory versus Stanford University in 2017 sent the Flippin’ Birds soaring to ninth in the national standings.
Since 1998, SUU has finished in the top 50 nationally for 25 consecutive years. In 2010, Bauman and the Flippin’ Birds even won the Western Athletic Conference Championship.
Home sweet home
Building a legacy includes being dominant on the home floor. Since Bauman took over, the Flippin’ Birds have had an outstanding 105-59 record in their home America First Event Center.
“The atmosphere we had versus Utah State was insane. The excitement in the facility is second to none in the entire country,” said Bauman. “These athletes want to reward the fans that help us get wins versus great teams.”
Winning at home and on the road requires leadership from the gymnasts on the roster. Seniors Rachel Smith, Mayson Bentley and Ruby Hernandez have kept the team motivated while competing this season.
The successful gymnastics program attracts siblings to choose Southern Utah. Caitlin Kho was a MRGC vault First Team All-Conference and a four-time MRGC All-Academic selection. Kaylee Kho, her sister, is a three-time MRGC All-Academic selection and is an all-around gymnast for the team.
Karley McClain is a two-time MRGC all-around First Team All-Conference and Second team floor, beam, and all-around selection. In addition, Karley McClain is also a MRGC All-Academic selection. Her younger sister, Kennedi McClain, is a freshman at SUU and was a four-time Region One qualifier and the 2019 Utah state beam champion.
“These sisters make each other better,” Bauman said. “Kennedi being able to watch her older sister compete; Kaylee being one of the most inspirational kids on our team and one of the best leaders; and her older sister, Caitlin, is one of the strongest, most powerful and consistent athletes we have had.”
In the past 38 years, the Southern Utah gymnastics program has risen from a relatively unknown program in a small college town to a prominent powerhouse in collegiate gymnastics. As they approach their 40th anniversary, the SUU gymnastics team is looking forward to more wins and more achievements. With Bauman leading the team of dedicated powerhouse athletes, the Flippin’ Birds legacy is in good hands.
Story by Anthony Calasuono
Photos courtesy of Anden Garfield
This article was originally published in March 2023 edition of the University Journal.