Jessica Hutchinson, Denver Pioneers primed for postseason

Jessica Hutchinson, Denver Pioneers primed for postseason

By Christy Sandmaier

In 2023 we watched as the Denver Pioneers advanced to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2019 after winning the regional team title on their home floor in a thriller over LSU, Michigan and Oregon State. It was a record-setting season and one that now senior Jessica Hutchinson says was instrumental when it came time to set the team’s 2024 goals. 

With the Pioneers into the top 10, and currently ranked no. 8 overall and no. 2 in the Big 12 heading into Saturday’s Conference Championships, they’re focused on process and sticking to the plan: no more, no less.

We’re focusing on process-related goals,” Hutchinson said. “Honestly, the conversation [this week] has just been to keep doing what we’re doing. Nothing more, nothing less. We just want to keep the momentum that we have within the team right now. We’re just going to keep rolling with it.”

The Pioneers recently put up their second-highest road score in program history (197.750) with the W over the Michigan Wolverines in week 11. In addition to setting the program record for highest overall NQS (197.700), they also matched their all-time record for bars NQS (49.500).

For Hutchinson – who looks up to Denver legacy Lynnzee Brown – without question, this year has been her most successful season ever. Known for her beautiful and picture-perfect artistic gymnastics, Hutchinson’s consistency in competition, and her leadership on and off the floor is unquestionably helping take Denver to the next level again. While 2023 was built on hope, 2024 is focused on expectation, she said, noting the team works with a “when” mindset instead of “if” when it comes to their day-to-day, their mentality during competition, and where they’d like to finish postseason.

The two-time reigning Big 12 Gymnast of the Year, Hutchinson ended the regular season this year ranked No. 4 nationally in the All-Around with the second-highest NQS in Denver history (39.740). She’s nationally-ranked on all four events as well, including in the top eight vault, beam and floor. This year she’s also scored two perfect 10.0s on floor – the third and fourth of her career – and added five more near-perfect 9.975s, becoming the first DU gymnast to record career highs of 9.975+ on all four events.

In addition, Hutchinson is only the second Denver gymnast to earn at least four All-Big 12 Conference honors in a single season, joining Maddie Karr who did it in 2018 (all five events) and 2020 (All-Around, vault, bars, floor). 

Hutchinson is simply captivating to watch – perfect form, musicality, amazing technique and a standout performance quality that in most ways cannot be taught. When she’s performing, she unquestionably owns the floor. And she’s not done yet. In fact, this weekend at Conference Championships she’ll have yet another opportunity to enter the history books and continue to strive for the top with her team when they face the No.1 Oklahoma Sooners, BYU, Iowa State and West Virginia at at 6:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m. MT at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman.

Hutchinson knows they’re ready. She said she’s never seen a team work as hard as this one and because of it, she knows no matter the outcome –  and the uncontrollables such as the judging and scoring – the Pioneers will be proud when the chalk settles in 2024.

It’s all about her gymnastics family, which she’s felt from the moment she signed prior to her freshman year and that hasn’t changed. And at the end of the day, it’s what means the most to Hutchinson as she begins to put her time as a student athlete into perspective.

“The team was always reaching out to me before I even showed up at Denver for my freshman year,” she said. “I really felt like I was a part of it from the beginning. And then also the class that I have, we were going on all of our recruiting trips together, actually, so we saw each other at different schools all the time, and we created that bond from the beginning. It was really about the people from the beginning.”

She’s creating her own legacy for sure and so passionate about her team and what they’ve accomplished so far. Her favorite moments are too many too count and go far beyond the competition floor.

“Honestly, I know a lot of people might say making it to Nationals, winning Big 12s, all of that, and those were great memories. But honestly, it’s really just the day-to-day things with my team. Never again in my life am I going to say I get to live with my best friends and spend every minute of every day with my best friends going through the good and bad times.”

There will be more time to reflect, and many days to look back on her career and be proud of her own accomplishments and what being a Pioneer has meant to her. But, for now, as the postseason hits primetime, it’s business as usual. 

Here’s more with Jessica as we head into Conference Championship weekend!

As a team, Denver has had a steady rise throughout the season – breaking into the top 10, now ranked No. 8. Tell me about pacing this season and how you feel about where you and your team are sitting right now.

I think overall, our team this year has been really trusting of the process. Looking back at last year, and seeing how everything kind of came together the way it had to for us, this year we went in and we were like, ‘okay, we trust it.’ We all talk about trusting our training. But also, even if we didn’t see it in the scores at the beginning of the season, just knowing how everything builds up – from the beginning of the season, even when scores may not have been exactly where we wanted to at that time – there wasn’t really a concern among the team. Everybody knew we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and keep going. So it was really nice not having a panic or anything like that! It was just more of, ‘okay, let’s just do what we do every day.’

And as a senior and as a leader on the team, do you feel like you’ve helped the freshmen trust the process and to be patient?

I think what you see a lot in freshmen is just not believing in themselves yet. So really the biggest thing that I did was keep encouraging them and reminding them of how well they’re doing, and telling them little stories of my freshman year to help them really put things into perspective. [They’re] not expected to be perfect, any of that. And the roles that all four of them are playing, whether it’s competing or on the side, what they do for the team has been so important. Reminding them of that has been the biggest thing. I also think just by leading by example – if I’m calm and confident and ready, then they’re going to be like, ‘okay, she is. So why should we be freaking out? If our captain says everything’s good, then everything’s good.’ Making sure I maintain that has been really important, and I can really see that within the freshmen, just resonating with them.

Getting back to Fort Worth last year as a team to compete at NCAA Championships, having a phenomenal end to your season, and maybe you didn’t quite finish where you wanted to as a team in Texas… but for you personally, what did that mean to you and how do you think you’ve grown from last year to this year?

I think last year [the mentality was] more of ‘I hope we make Nationals. I hope we make it this far.’ And so, a lot of our goals focused on hoping that we would get there doing everything we could. But now, we’ve kind of made it an expectation – when we’re at Nationals, not if we make Nationals. Having that expectation has changed a lot for all of us this year, and it’s really grown our confidence, too. We’re putting ourselves in that position where we did everything that we could and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be there. Having that mindset in and out of practice has really helped us gain confidence.

I know a lot of times teams have themes or key words they carry with them during the season…

Actually, it’s kind of related to what I was just talking about, about expectations. A lot of times in the past, we talked about Denver as being underdogs, and we always talked about how we liked that underdog position, of knowing nobody’s expecting it and we’re just going to show up. But this year, we really wanted to grow on that. So we consider ourselves dark horses. And the main difference with that is that we know that we’re going to be there and while other people may not see it, we know it. It’s really about having that internal confidence with it.

How does it feel to see that work and that mentality paying off?

It feels so good. It’s so rewarding, especially with the long preseason where we just keep going and it’s like, ‘okay, we’re putting in all this work. We want to make sure we can see it.’ And so to actually be able to see all of that pay off is so rewarding. Honestly, this is one of the most hard-working teams that I’ve seen. Being a leader and watching everybody else, too, it makes me so happy just to see everybody’s work paying off.

It seems like you’ve really personally embraced that leadership role. Is that something maybe even picturing yourself three, four, five years ago, that you would have ever expected of yourself, that you would enjoy that position?

Absolutely not. Honestly, until I was put in that position, I didn’t think I would enjoy it because I always thought that a leader had to be super loud and all of that. But I’ve kind of learned how to work with my personality and what I bring to the table and use that. And so me, along with the other captain Rylie Mundell, both of us have a similar leading style with that and it’s worked really well with the team. It’s definitely less intimidating now than it used to be, but I did not think I was capable of it.

And you’re also doing your absolute best gymnastics ever! Week after week, you’ve grown as a team. So for you, having those individual wins and records mixed in, is that just icing on the cake at this point?

I think actually what has helped me to get these personal victories is that this year I really put my focus completely on the team. Going into this year, I knew I was content with what I’ve done, but I know that the team itself can do a lot more. And so just really putting myself in the position of focusing on the team has not only helped the team but helped me personally. It’s just really helped focusing on everybody else instead of myself. 

Obviously scores and judging is a big conversation all around every conference and has been for quite a few years now, but especially in the last three. Is that something that you all focus on or talk about at all as a team? Or, are you just focused on the training and what you guys can do because you don’t control, obviously, the judging?

We definitely talk a lot about focusing on the process rather than the outcome and focusing on controllables rather than uncontrollables and all of that. And I know that there is – it’s always when you go to a meet – you can see some unfair scoring here and there and all of that, but just really focusing on what we can control, but [it’s] also just really trying to give the judges no reason to deduct. If there’s nothing there to deduct, they can’t. So that’s what we talk about.

Who has really inspired you or been a role model in your career?

I would say it’s Denver alum Lynnzee Brown. Just, I feel like I’m kind of stepping into her footsteps a little bit. With all that she accomplished with coming back from her two Achilles injuries and everything, and also just getting to know her on a personal level and see how she led, I felt like I can take these things and use them myself, whether that’s leading the team or personally. She’s been somebody that I’ve had the honor of getting to do my first three years of college with.

Was it a tough adjustment once she finished her career at Denver? Not to have her presence in the gym?

It was a really tough adjustment because she was a senior my freshman year, and so she’s just been that leader on the team from the very beginning for me. We knew going into this year, these are going to be some big shoes to fill. And so it definitely took some adjustment. The gym did feel a little bit quieter at first just because she was such a vocal presence in the gym. But overall, we’ve seen everybody step up. We realize that it’s not just one person who replaces Lynnzee, but it’s us all together who do that. It’s a team effort. We have our vocal leaders. We have our leaders by example. And then also in the gym, it’s not one person filling in all the gaps for her. It’s like everybody came in and did that, and so it was a transition, but I feel like we transitioned very nicely with it. 

Heading into Conference Championships this weekend and then Regionals, what are your goals? What’s success going to look like for you overall?

We just want to keep doing what we’re doing, really keep that vibe, that energy really good within our team, and stay within our bubble at meets. It would be great just to see us continue to go through the postseason this way. And our major goal that we’ve been talking about is the final four.

What has being at Denver and being part of this program meant to you?

Looking back now, I’ve just realized how much growth I’ve had in all aspects, whether that’s gymnastics, academics, or just me personally. Freshman year, I was a completely different person. There’s those really tough days when it feels like we’re going 24/7 and all of that, and so it’s really hard to see in the moment. But looking back, just how much I’ve grown overall, it’s honestly really cool to see. And then also just the support that I’ve gotten throughout has really helped me get there – the coaches, all of our support staff and then our school is just like such a small, tight knit school. 

I’ve been able to get connections with people throughout the entire school, which is so awesome, getting letters of recommendation from people completely unrelated to gymnastics. It’s just really cool to have all of that support. It really does feel like a family, like, walking on campus and people are like, ‘oh, hey, congrats!’ Everybody kind of knows everybody, which is really awesome. And I feel like that’s just helped me grow connections, but also my mental health and everything. Just feeling so loved, so supported and so appreciated.

For the Conference Championship schedule, Click Here!

Photos by Tyler Schank/Clarkson Creative; and Brittany Evans

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