Utah and LSU to Cross Conferences and Team Personnel at Friday Showdown

When the Utah gymnastics team sets foot in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Friday evening, it will represent more than a blockbuster matchup of two top teams and a premiere non-conference duel. It will be personal.

“Obviously there will be an emotional component to it,” LSU assistant coach Garrett Griffeth admitted. Griffeth and his wife, LSU volunteer assistant coach Courtney McCool Griffeth, would know; the two spent the past two seasons coaching at Utah.

“We’re invested in the kids on the Utah team,” Griffeth said. “Having coached them for the past few years, we want to see them succeed.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the arena, Myia Hambrick will be on the sidelines as volunteer assistant coach for the Utes. It will be her first time in the PMAC as a Utah staff member, but she’s been there many times before. Hambrick herself was a standout gymnast for LSU from 2015 until 2018.

Hambrick’s approach to returning to Baton Rouge is as methodical as her weekly all-around consistency was during her time in college. If anything, she said, it will be just like any other meet.

“The gymnastics community is relatively small, so almost any meet that you go to, there’s always at least an old teammate of one of the girls there. So it won’t be so different from any other time,” she said.

The small size of the gymnastics community is part of what brought both Hambrick to Utah and the Griffeths to LSU. Utah head coach Tom Farden recalled seeing Hambrick at Utah camps when she was a high school recruit. “I watched her for years at nationals later and would think, ‘Oh geez, what could have been,” he recalled.

Farden next encountered Hambrick when he traveled south for recruiting and found her coaching at Georgia Elite Gymnastics in Athens. Though she majored in journalism at LSU, Hambrick said she always had an interest in coaching, in large part because her mother served as her coach growing up. She quickly found success as a club coach after her collegiate career ended.

“[Georgia Elite coach Pete Arenas] had nothing but positive things to say about her,” Farden said. “I saw she had a good delivery with the athletes. I liked her determination and her focus on consistency.”

Thus, when the volunteer assistant coach position at Utah opened this past summer, Farden jumped at the chance to hire her. The departure of the Griffeths left two holes in the coaching staff, and Farden knew he had to get someone “very talented” to uphold Utah’s high standards and replicate the success of the previous hires he’s made over his past 12 seasons at Utah. He knew former Denver coach Jimmy Pratt would be a great assistant coach but acknowledged that they both had the shortcoming of “never having competed in NCAA women’s gymnastics.”

For Farden, Hambrick not only had that distinction (and at a program of similar caliber), but did so successfully and recently enough that gymnasts on the team would know her and be inspired by her. “They’d all watched her YouTube videos and knew she was great,” he said. “That’s definitely helped with the connections she’s made with our program.”

The enthusiasm was mutual. “I always appreciated Tom as a coach, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn and grow and become a better coach myself,” Hambrick said. “I thought that I could learn a lot from such decorated and experienced coaches at a program like Utah.”

As volunteer assistant coach, Hambrick works predominantly with Utah’s floor lineup. Her biggest focus is instilling confidence in her gymnasts as they perform assistant coach Carly Dockendorf’s choreography on the competition floor. “Judges, fans and everybody watching can feel when a performer is confident,” she said. I want them to feel like they can execute to the same standard that they do in practice; even though you’re wearing a long sleeve leotard, your quality shouldn’t go down for any reason.”

Even though they’ll meet on Friday as members of the opposing side, members of Hambrick’s old team having nothing but praise for her as a coach and person. “Myia is really thoughtful as a person but gritty and hardworking as well,” LSU assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat said. Gnat was Hambrick’s teammate, and the two remain best friends; they’re looking forward to spending quality time together in Baton Rouge. 

Hambrick at Utah’s Red Rocks Preview on Friday, December 17, 2021. (Photo by Nick Grace/University of Utah)

One of the summer’s splashiest coaching hires came with the announcement that journeyman coaches Garrett Griffeth and Courtney McCool Griffeth would be leaving Utah for LSU. The Griffeths “loved [their] experience” at Utah, where they were named the WGCA Region 2 Assistant Coaches of the Year in 2020. However, the LSU offer convinced them in large part because of the chance to be closer to home (Griffeth’s extended family is in Georgia, and McCool Griffeth’s is in Florida).

The Griffeths are no strangers to relocating, as they’ve previously coached at Texas Woman’s and Arkansas in addition to their most recent stops. They’ve gotten acquainted with the process of moving and settling in with a new team. “We say the same thing every time: It takes about a year for you to feel settled,” Griffeth said. “You’ve got to have time to get to know the athletes and athletes need time to build trust in you.”

However, as the season has progressed, the Griffeths have gotten into a rhythm with the team, coaching LSU to a current seventh-place ranking and a vault lineup that rounds out the top three in the country.

“Getting into competitions, you kind of learn how a team competes, and they learn more about the expectations of what you’re looking for,” Griffeth said. “It’s gone really well and smoothly at LSU.”

Though the Griffeths are a brand new addition to a coaching staff used to continuity (vault coach Bob Moore had been with the team for 20 seasons), the team has embraced the Griffeths and their “energy” with open arms. “It’s felt like a new perspective,” said LSU fifth-year gymnast Sami Durante. “They’ve brought so much experience from their other schools, and it feels like that’s helped us a lot.”

“They believe in connecting with our athletes and building trust from that perspective,” observed Gnat. “The transition has been seamless; from shortly after they joined us, I felt like I knew them forever. To watch them embrace the team and everything we do here and how we do it has been amazing.”

Photo by Beau Brune

Despite the history between the two programs’ coaching staffs, both teams attested to preparing for this meet as they would for any other.

“When we go out there, we’re not just competing against the team in the arena,” Durante said. “We’re competing against everyone in the country.”

That is especially true for the current moment. Utah just matched the highest team total in the country in 2022, but the Utes will enter Friday’s meet ranked fourth with LSU not far behind at No. 7. Utah is capable of rising up to second in the rankings, but that’s the highest it can go. This matchup will surely be an intense battle.

The inherent competitiveness of the meet, however, is offset by a sense of respect both programs have for the other, and a lack of bad blood or awkwardness for the ones who left have with their former team. Farden is proud of the Griffeths and sees their departure as a testament to Utah’s success in training coaches, and he wishes them nothing but the best at LSU.

Regarding Utah, Griffeth said he and McCool Griffeth “respect what they’re doing, and we know that they’re putting together a great program. We know they’re going to be great for a very long time, so we certainly expect to see them often here in the near future.” They haven’t seen the Utah team since they left Salt Lake City this summer, and they’re looking forward to it.

As someone familiar with the environment of the PMAC, Hambrick is also excited for the production element of the evening. “Obviously I’ve never done it as an away competitor, but it’s a pretty exciting environment where they get a ton of fans. Even if you are not for the home team, the environment there is really exciting, and it’s a lot easier to compete at your best whenever there’s a lot of excitement.”

READ THIS NEXT: It Takes a Village—and a Lot of Heart—to Put on a Meet in the PMAC

Article by Katherine Weaver

Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.