Jay Santos had been preparing his Arizona State gymnastics team for the Utah meet, targeting that event as an opportunity for the Gym Devils to show they are better than their 2-3 record indicates.
And that’s exactly how things turned out over the weekend.
The No. 15-ranked Sun Devils scored their highest team score since 2006, running up a 197.150 score in a razor-thin loss to No. 3 Utah Saturday at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe. The Utes (6-1) needed a 197.450 score to avoid a huge upset.
“For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been mentally preparing them (team) to come out and show what they can do,” said Santos after the meet. “And I’m thrilled with the performance today.”
The fifth-year head coach explained what a 197.000 score means to the program: “It’s one of those milestones in gymnastics that means quite a bit. It shows that we can be with those top-tier teams in the country, if we are capable of doing this, and doing it repeatedly.”
Last year’s squad provided the momentum to achieve the scoring goal, posting a 196.00-plus five times, including the last four meets on the schedule before COVID precautions cut the season short prior to the last regular-season meet.
They finished 7-6-1 for fourth place in the Pac-12 and No. 21 in the national rankings. The Gym Devils were on a roll when the season ended abruptly, jumping 13 spots in the national polls during the final two weeks.
Santos figures the performance against Utah will be a confidence boost in a season that just hit the halfway mark. The Devils scored the highest marks of the season on three different events.
Senior Cairo Leonard-Baker scored a season-high on the vault (9.900), and the 49.350 team score was ASU’s best vault score since 2006, and the fourth-highest in the nation. The team scored a 49.375 on bars, led by sophomore Juliette Boyer who posted a career-high 9.925, and a 49.400 on floor that was fueled by a career-best of 9.925 from sophomore Hannah Scharf.
Santos and his wife, Jessica, who serves as associate head coach, took over the program in May of 2016, tasked with the challenge of rebuilding a program that had won a total of three dual meets in the previous two years. When the Devils beat rival University of Arizona at the close of his first season, it was the first regular-season Pac-12 victory in three years — and a sign that the turnaround was beginning.
The coaching couple were hired away from Eastern Michigan where they led that program to the 2016 Mid-American Conference Championship, the program’s first-ever NCAA regional appearance, and finished the season ranked 17th in the nation.
And now things appear to be headed in the right direction in Tempe. The Gym Devils had a 7-6-1 record when the season was cancelled last year, the second year in a row with a winning record. They beat four ranked opponents, including a big upset of No. 10 California.
This year’s team has shown now that it can score with the top teams in the country. They just need to figure out how to do it on a regular basis.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)