With a spot at nationals on the line, Utah had its best meet of the year
The Red Rocks defeated LSU, Kentucky and Arizona State in the Salt Lake City regional final, thanks to a season-best score of 197.925, and secured a 45th consecutive berth at nationals
Utah gymnastics has made history. Again.
The Red Rocks are headed to nationals for a record 45th time, after winning the Salt Lake City regional Saturday night in West Valley City.
Utah didn’t just win the regional final, though. The Red Rocks put on a show inside the Maverik Center. Utah scored a season-high 197.925, saving their best performance of the year for their final competition in Utah.
Team scores — Utah, 197.925; LSU, 197.750; Arizona State, 197.600; Kentucky, 197.600
All-around — Raena Worley (Kentucky); 39.750
Balance beam — Josie Angeny (Kentucky), Sami Durante (LSU), Cristal Isa (Utah), Abby Paulson (Utah), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Raena Worley (Kentucky); 9.950
Floor exercise — Kiya Johnson (LSU), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Sydney Soloski (Utah), Raena Worley (Kentucky); 9.950
Uneven bars — Cairo Leonard-Baker (ASU), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Raena Worley (Kentucky); 9.950
Vault — Haleigh Bryant (LSU); 10.0
The Red Rocks scored a season-high on bars — a 49.475 — and were once again elite on beam and floor. And even with some struggles on vault, Utah came through when needed most.
“Pretty pleased with the night,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “I thought the athletes came here to compete, and Red Rock nation showed up. What a difference. That was a big tail wind for the program, competing in front of a live crowd. Our athletes really relished and appreciated it. They missed it. And from the first athlete who went on bars, we knew they came here to compete and they did a heck of a job.”
They needed to, as LSU, Arizona State and Kentucky all had standout performances (ASU and Kentucky had arguably their best showings in years). From the start of the meet the competition was fierce, which was exactly what Utah expected.
“I know the respective staffs pretty well and knew this was going to be arguably the hardest regional meet in the country,” Farden said. “That was the hardest regional meet I’ve been in. We planned for this, trained for this and as coaches we are glad that it worked out.”
It more than worked out. Utah showed the national title contending potential that they’d teased all year, toppling the No. 3-ranked Tigers in what was their most balanced showing this season.
“I think this means more than you can see on paper,” senior Sydney Soloski said. “We went against Oklahoma earlier this year and that was our chance to hang with the best in the country. Coming in here with LSU, every team showed up and they showed up incredibly strong. This is a confidence booster for our team. Knowing our dreams are in our hands and we just have to put it all together.”
Can the Red Rocks put it all together? After Saturday night, there is little doubt.
“We still weren’t perfect, but you don’t need to peak until April 17th,” Soloski said. “I think that a 198 is extremely reasonable and possible for this team. We’ve trained for this.”
There were two defining moments in the meet, without which Utah might not have survived and advanced.
The first was the very first routine of the competition. Utah started on bars, and all season long bars had consistently been the Red Rocks’ great weakness, a self-professed one at that.
When Abby Paulson stepped up to perform the first routine, it could have gone one of three ways.
- Either she’d fall, like she did at the Pac-12 championships.
- Or she’d have an average routine, fine but nothing special.
- She also could do what she did in Friday’s semifinal, i.e. hit her leadoff routine and give Utah the boost it needed for a strong rotation.
Paulson chose the last option. She scored a 9.85 from her leadoff position, sticking her landing. That routine was what Utah needed to start the meet.
“That set the pace,” sophomore Maile O’Keefe said. “(Abby) had a nice routine and stuck the dismount. Honestly after that we kind of felt that we had it (the meet) in the bag. We were in a comfort zone and everyone went out and competed the rest of the meet like that.”
Almost the rest of the meet that is.
After cruising along on bars, beam and floor, Utah struggled early on in its vault rotation. There was a moment where the meet could have gotten away from the Red Rocks, with the Tigers, Sun Devils and Wildcats in hot pursuit.
That was when Jaedyn Rucker delivered. The sophomore stuck her Yurchenko 1.5 and scored a career-high 9.950, nearly bringing herself to tears in the process. That vault changed the meet, and after Alexia Burch hit her vault, it was official. Utah had won.
“We had a little bobble on vault at the beginning there,” Soloski said. “But then our last two (gymnasts) brought it home.”
Area of improvement
Like Soloski said, Utah wasn’t perfect. There were minute mistakes on even the strongest of events, but the glaring shortcomings came on vault.
Cristal Isa, normally as consistent a performer as Utah as, struggled in the leadoff, scoring a 9.575. Cammy Hall, who has flashed 9.9-plus potential, then took a large step on her landing and scored a 9.825, after which Lucy Stanhope took an even bigger step and earned a 9.725.
On a night like Saturday, those mistakes were overcome, but with Utah now standing as one of the best eight teams in the country, a berth in the national championship meet could come down to those routines.
That is why Farden couldn’t have been happier that his team was tested to the extent it was, even while they had a season-best night.
“I don’t think it can hurt,” he said. “If you can make it out of this meet and win, it is not going to hurt us.”
Area of excitement
Nothing was more encouraging for Utah than the performance on bars.
All season long, bars had been the Red Rocks’ weakest event. Even before the season started, Farden told anyone who would listen that Utah had work to do on bars. That work paid off in a big way as Utah stuck landings throughout the lineup and didn’t count a score lower than a 9.850. The three scores 9.90 or better — Emilie LeBlanc and Cristal Isa both scored 9.9s, which O’Keefe had a 9.950 — was also the most for Utah in a single meet this season.
“Starting on bars with a score like that fired everybody up,” Farden said.
Some of the success was a result of Utah being more comfortable on the apparatus. Farden didn’t want to get into too technical of a discussion, but pointed out that “the athletes generally do better on Day 2, because Day 1 they had to feel the bar. The bounce of the bar was a little different. It is hyper technical, but we did that.”
Farden also credited the robust Utah crowd for some of his team’s success. The energy they provided was palpable and led to what Soloski believes was the best bars performance she has ever seen from this particular team.
“The atmosphere was so much fun,” she said. “Starting on bars, we started with a bang and I think that was the best bars rotation I’ve seen us have, in an inner squad or a meet.”