The Red Rocks are back.
Utah gymnastics put on its annual Red Rocks Preview Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, an exhibition showcase in preparation for the 2022 season, which officially kicks off Jan. 7 with the Best of Utah meet.
No scores were kept, the atmosphere was regular season-lite, but it was college gymnastics returned to the limelight.
Here are some impressions from the the preview.
Maile O’Keefe is practically ready for the postseason
Utah only has one NCAA national champion on its roster, and she is in rare form already. Maile O’Keefe won two individual national titles last season — on floor and bars — and she appears to have picked up exactly where she left off.
In fact, she may have even improved.
O’Keefe was a standout on the three events she performed (uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise), and as the reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, she will be face of the Utah program.
“She looked dang close to postseason form tonight and it is December,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “That performance quality, they are competitors and they see what she can do, and she can be the mark. They can look to her to see how we do it.”
Jaedyn Rucker has the makings of a star
Rucker was a breakout performer for Utah last year, particularly in the postseason, after she made her way back from an injury that kept her out of her entire freshman season.
Now, she has the makings of a star. Rucker competed on vault and floor and showcased athleticism that was striking, even on a team filled with electric athletes.
Her vault has the potential to be the best Utah has, and her floor routine will be a fan favorite (the fan favorite floor routine will probably belong to Adrienne Randall, if only because of her music selection). If there is a candidate for breakout star, Rucker is it.
“Jaedyn has something special in her,” O’Keefe said.
The return of Jillian Hoffman
Fans would be excused if they didn’t recognize Jillian Hoffman. The junior didn’t compete during the entire 2021 season, and as a freshman in 2020, she was in and out of the lineup — Hoffman competed almost exclusively on floor exercise — and was injured for multiple meets.
The Utes have been waiting for a healthy Hoffman since she arrived on campus, and it looks like she has finally arrived.
Hoffman only competed on vault, but she actually competed.
“Jill has had a really tough battle the last two years, and she has been nothing but an incredible teammate to everyone every way she could. Getting to watch her go out tonight and be able to do something, have her body be healthy, and see her smile after her vault, that was so impactful,” senior Sydney Soloski said.
“She is incredible on all the events, so that is just the start of it for Jill.”
Sage Thompson is as good as advertised
The least heralded gymnast in the Red Rocks’ high profile freshman class is Utah native Sage Thompson, but after Friday, she should be held in the same regard as Grace McCallum, Kara Eaker and Amelie Morgan.
Thompson had arguably the strongest bar routine of any Utah gymnast and, per Farden, is about as sure a bet as any Red Rock on the event.
“Sage is a lock right now,” he said. “She’s got that fluidness, that rare quality on bars that stands out. You watch and and you notice.”
Kara Eaker will make a significant impact
Eaker is another one of those touted freshmen, and she probably had the best showing of any of them.
Eaker competed on beam and floor and looked completely at home, showcasing an elegance that will surely be her calling card this season.
Utah’s beam lineup was one of the best in the country last season, second to only Florida, but Eaker has every chance to break into that lineup.
“I thought Kara did excellent,” Farden said. “I think she was in the same ranks on her two events as Maile was on her three. Championship form already.”
What about Grace McCallum?
An Olympic silver medalist, McCallum has arguably the best pedigree of any Utah gymnast ever. There is little doubt that she will be a star for the Red Rocks. When asked which gymnast can simply do things the others can’t, both Soloski and O’Keefe were quick to nominate McCallum, despite her protests.
On Friday, though, she wasn’t at her best. And that is OK. She is too talented and too dedicated to not make a positive impact at Utah, preseason exhibition aside.
“It’s December,” Farden said. “We still have three weeks until our first meet.”
Is vault improved?
If there was an event that let Utah down last season, it was vault. The Red Rocks were elite on beam, floor and bars at the national championships, but vault proved not on par with the other elite programs in the country.
There wasn’t much to be gleaned from the vaults Utah performed — the Red Rocks took it easy on the event — but Farden confirmed afterward that the Utes will have seven vaults with a start value of 10.0 this season, up from just four a year ago.
“We were a little conservative and didn’t throw the 10.0 vaults,” Farden said. “That is why Kara didn’t go. Hers is ready. The eight that went did a good job. We have three (Yurchenko) Full options and we have seven (vaults with a 10.0 start value) in the arsenal, so we’ll see.”
For most of last season, bars was a work in progress for Utah. Everything came together at the last moment during the postseason, but bars remain behind beam and floor when it comes to the Red Rocks’ strongest events.
That is still the case, but Utah has potential to be great on bars, and Farden was nothing if not pleased by his gymnasts’ performance.
“We missed some handstands, but in general we were pretty good,” he said. “We haven’t worked too hard on sticking dismounts yet. It is a little too early for that stuff, but handstands are something you can never be too good at. There were no huge breaks and no falls.”
Jaylene Gilstrap is OK
Only one Red Rock did not compete in the preview: sophomore Jaylene Gilstrap. She wore a boot and was a spectator, but she is not seriously injured.
Per Farden, she sprained her foot during training, and the boot was simply a precautionary measure.
Much of the preview was precautionary, in fact.
“We dipped our toes in the water. Just wanted to see how the athletes would respond,” Farden said. “They did great. It is December.”
Thoughts on being ranked No. 4 in the WCGA preseason poll
Utah finished No. 3 in the country last season, the team’s best finish since the 2015 campaign. The Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association released the 2022 preseason poll early on Friday and Utah came in at No. 4, behind defending national champion Michigan, Florida and Oklahoma.
“I get it,” Farden said. “I watched Michigan, and they looked incredible. Really, really good. Florida had an incredible incoming class, but I get their nod. Oklahoma has been the stalwart over the last decade.
“LSU is right behind us, and then there is Alabama. The top is pretty stout.”
The Red Rocks themselves weren’t exactly thrilled with their placement, though.
“Our approach will be to prove them wrong,” O’Keefe said. “That is Utah gymnastics.”
“The rankings are the rankings,” Soloski added. “They wrote it out and it is on a piece of paper. We have been ranked higher and ranked lower and the end result has been different.
“We know what we want and we are going to keep working towards that, regardless of what everyone else thinks of us.”