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New skills, talented freshmen power Utah gymnastics to season-opening victory over Penn State

SALT LAKE CITY — Two-time NCAA national champion MyKayla Skinner gets bored sometimes.

Known for big skills — “I like doing big skills,” she said. “That is my thing.” — Skinner can get bored when those particularly big, noteworthy skills aren’t a part of her routine.

That hasn’t been the case on either the floor or vault during her Ute tenure, events on which she was won national titles, but it was the case on uneven bars last season.

Manning the anchor spot in the bars rotation, Skinner actually removed a skill — a Tkachev release — from her routine last season, for the betterment of the team.

“Last year, I had this skill in my routine, but sometimes Tom (Farden) would tell me not to do it,” Skinner explained. “Things would happen (during the rotation) and we would need a solid routine (from me).”

That sacrifice of skills, which Skinner admitted was a bit of a bummer, is no more.

” It is so fun to be out there again. We’d been waiting for the season to start; now it is here. ”

Utah’s MaKenna Merrell-Giles

This season, the All-American has added a new, big skill to her bar routine, a Ray, and after Saturday night’s season-opening meet against Penn State, the addition can only be considered a resounding success.

Led by Skinner, who took home the all-around title with a 39.700, as well as senior MaKenna Merrell-Giles (39.575), the Red Rocks defeated the Nittany Lions 197.175-194.450, a runaway season-opening victory.

“As always, it is such a blast,” Merrell-Giles said. “It is so fun to be out there again. We’d been waiting for the season to start; now it is here.”

The Red Rocks opened the meet with a strong vault rotation, led by Merrell-Giles and Skinner. The duo recorded a 9.900 and a 9.950, respectively on the event, capping off a team effort that included a 9.875 (Kari Lee), 9.850 (Macey Roberts) and 9.825 (Cristal Isa).

Skinner’s 9.950 was noteworthy, as she stuck the landing of her double-twisting Yurchenko, the very vault that earned her an NCAA title last season.

“That vault is really exciting to see,” Farden, the team’s co-head coach said. “She basically picked up where she left off as the reigning NCAA champion.”

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Skinner added. “I have tried so hard to stick my vaults, and it was super cool to come out in the first meet and have a stick.”

From there, the Red Rocks took to the uneven bars, an event that has been hit or miss at times.

It was anything but a miss Saturday, as the Utes nailed routine after routine.

“I really thought (our bars scores) built on each other,” Farden said. “There was some good rhythm and momentum over there.”

Again, Skinner led the way with a 9.950, on a routine that included her newly added skill as well as some improved handstands.

“It went pretty good,” Skinner said. “I have been working on that new skill and I was a little nervous, but excited. I have been working hard on form too, hitting every handstand, and I think that is getting better.”

Junior Kim Tessen, healthy after an injury-plagued season a year ago, earned a 9.850 in the leadoff role, while Missy Reinstadtler and Merrell-Giles each added another 9.850.

It was Isa, however, who left the biggest impression.

The freshman earned on 9.925 for her routine, out of the fifth spot in the rotation.

“It was great,” Isa said. “It was surprising to me, a bit.”

“Oh no, it wasn’t surprising. It wasn’t surprising,” Merrell-Giles quickly added. “She does that every day in practice.”

“Cristal is a two-time (Junior Olympic) national champion on that event and it was evident tonight,” said Farden. “To place a freshman in the No. 5 spot shows that we trust her and know that she can deliver big scores.”

The final two events, balance beam and floor exercise, were less than excellent by Utah standards — the Red Rocks recorded a 49.400 on vault, a 49.425 on uneven bars, a 48.975 on beam and a 49.375 on floor — but the gymnasts still had their moments.

Freshman Adrienne Randall, in her first collegiate routine, earned a 9.850 on beam, setting the stage for a 9.900 by Merrell-Giles and a 9.850 by Skinner.

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On floor, Roberts (9.875), Merrell-Giles (9.925) and Skinner (9.950) each thrived, earning elite level scores in the process.

“We have been working on a lot of things in the gym, and a lot of it came to fruition tonight,” said Farden. “Really happy, really pleased. That appears to be a pretty solid start for the Red Rocks this year.”

“It was awesome,” Skinner added. “(Competing in front of) 15,000 fans, it is just the best thing ever. We had some mess-ups here and there, but it was the first meet and we can build from here.”

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