Utah gymnastics’ national championship drought will continue for at least another year.

The Red Rocks finished in third place at the NCAA gymnastics championships Saturday afternoon behind national champion Michigan and runner-up Oklahoma at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Wolverines scored a 198.2500, winning the meet on the final routine, edging out the Sooners (198.1625) and Red Rocks (197.9875). Florida finished a distant fourth with a 197.1375.

Results


Team scores — Michigan, 198.2500; Oklahoma, 198.1625; Utah, 197.9875; Florida, 197.1375


Event winners


All-around — Sierra Brooks (Michigan); 39.7750


Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Natalie Wojcik (Michigan); 9.9875


Floor exercise — Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma); 9.9625


Uneven bars — Jordan Draper (Oklahoma), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Megan Skaggs (Florida), Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma); 9.9375


Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 9.9875

But that wasn’t the story, at least not for Utah.

Yes, the Red Rocks desperately wanted to win another national title. Utah is one of the most storied programs in the NCAA, and adding an 11th national championship trophy was one of the team’s stated goals for the season. It has been the stated goal of every season since it last won it all in 1995.

But on a day when Michigan won its first championship in program history and Oklahoma continued what has been one of the most dominant runs in the history of the sport, Utah did something it hadn’t since 2015. It reminded the college gymnastics world that Utah can be elite.

The Red Rocks finished the year as one of the three best teams in the country. Not since the program’s final season under legendary head coach Greg Marsden had Utah done that well in a national championship meet.

Utah finished a close second behind Florida that season in 2015, but in the subsequent years, the Red Rocks stumbled to a ninth-place finish, two fifth-place finishes and a seventh-place finish, and didn’t even qualify for the national finals in 2019.

On Saturday, Utah regained its place at the top of the sport, or close to it. Not only that, the Red Rocks broke multiple program records. The team score was the highest any Utah team has ever scored at nationals, besting the 197.800 the 2015 team achieved. And the 49.700 the Red Rocks scored on balance beam was not only the best event score recorded by any team in the national championship, but also a new program postseason record.

“This is one of my best years coaching at the University of Utah, and we feel as a staff we maxed this program out.” — Utah coach Tom Farden

Throw in the pair of individual national titles sophomore Maile O’Keefe won Friday night, on floor exercise and uneven bars, as well as regular season and postseason Pac-12 championships, and the 2020-21 season was nothing if not a success for Utah, even as the title drought extends to 26 years.

“To be honest with you, we did what we wanted to do in terms of planning,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “We peaked at the right time and got our season high at the end. That is what you want to do. We hit 48 of 48 routines at nationals.

“This is one of my best years coaching at the University of Utah, and we feel as a staff we maxed this program out. The other years I really felt that were 2015, 2017 and now 2021. Last year’s team was also incredible but we didn’t get to see the finish. When you get to see the finish it is a little bit more rewarding. We did feel like last year’s trajectory was really similar though.”

Utah was in contention for the title from the get-go Saturday and remained in contention until the final three routines of the meet.

The Red Rocks started the competition on bars and excelled, scoring a 49.4250 thanks to standout routines by O’Keefe, Cristal Isa and Emilie LeBlanc. After that came beam, where Utah didn’t count a single score lower than a 9.900 thanks to career performances by Lucy Stanhope and Adrienne Randall, as well as the usual excellence of Isa, Abby Paulson and O’Keefe.

“Adrienne Randall’s beam stands out,” Farden said. “That is the best I’ve ever seen her do and she just happened to do it in the finals.”

Floor, the event on which Utah was ranked the highest, wasn’t too shabby either, as Utah scored a 49.4750, counting no score lower than a 9.8625.

Vault is where the Red Rocks came up just short. Utah’s run at a national championship ended on its weakest event despite a career-high vault by Jaedyn Rucker and yet another standout vault by Alexia Burch.

“Jaedyn Rucker’s was the best I’ve ever seen her do,” Farden said.

Utah’s best — the 197.9875 was a season-high — just wasn’t enough to top either Michigan or Oklahoma. And yet, the Red Rocks showed a competitive spirit that has been lacking at times up on the Hill, just not with this team. Not this season.

There is a reason for that.

“I think it starts with recruiting,” Farden explained. “You have to recruit the athletes that you believe can handle this type of atmosphere. I do feel that athletes’ personality is a big predictor of that. Then there is team chemistry and that is student-athlete-led and then there are the assignments we prescribe and how we coach them.

“There is a coaching component and I don’t take much credit and don’t want to because the credit belongs to the athlete, but you do have to pace the kids right. I have implemented a lot of things over the years as I’ve tried to get more refined. Just as the athletes try to get a tenth better, the coaches are trying to get better every year, too.”

And after a third-place finish, as positive as it was, Farden expects to keep working. That national title remains the ever-present goal after all.

“I obviously don’t know enough; we were third,” Farden said.

Defining moment

This one isn’t about the national championship itself, but rather the season as a whole. All year long, during the offseason, preseason and season itself, Utah avoided COVID-19 like the plague it is. And at the close of the year, no gymnast nor staff member has yet to contract the virus.

“It was a combination of so many sacrifices this year to get to this point,” Farden said. “The athletes took the brunt of them, but so did our staff. We didn’t let our kids play with neighbors. We kept things tight so we didn’t get COVID and didn’t get shut down and could train all the way through.

“We never had a case of COVID, athletes or staff. For everybody to make that self-sacrifice, to have that discipline, I don’t know if you can find a group of people who are willing to do that.”