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With win over Oklahoma, Utah showed it is ‘a force to be reckoned with’

The No. 4-ranked Red Rocks defeated the No. 3-ranked Sooners, handing Oklahoma its first regular season loss since 2018.

SHARE With win over Oklahoma, Utah showed it is ‘a force to be reckoned with’
Utah’s Grace McCallum is congratulated by teammates during a gymnastics meet with Oklahoma in Salt Lake City in January.

Utah’s Grace McCallum is congratulated by teammates during the gymnastics meet with Oklahoma at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah gymnastics is coming for Michigan. And Florida. And LSU. And whomever else around the country hopes to compete for and win a national championship this season.

Utah-Oklahoma gymnastics


Team scores — Utah 197.775; Oklahoma 196.650

Event winners

All-around — Grace McCallum (Utah); 39.675

Balance Beam — Ragan Smith (Oklahoma); 9.975

Floor Exercise — Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.975

Uneven Bars — Audrey Davis (Oklahoma), Sage Thompson (Utah); 9.925

Vault — Jordan Bowers (Oklahoma); 9.975

The No. 4-ranked Red Rocks showed themselves to be legitimate national title contenders (if there was any doubt) Friday night in the Huntsman Center, with a 197.775 to 196.650 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma.

Pitted against the most dominant gymnastics program of the last half decade , a team that defeated Utah multiple times just last year, the Red Rocks had a historic performance.

The 197.775 was the best team score Utah has ever recorded in January and it was the best score the Red Rocks have ever had in a home opener.

Grace McCallum had a breakout performance, recording the best all-around score by any gymnast this season (admittedly, the season is still young).

Utah’s beam lineup, one of the best in the country a year ago, looked more than capable of being the best there is when it is all said and done, and Utah’s floor lineup wasn’t far behind.

Ten different Red Rocks earned a score of 9.90 or better, scattered across the four events, and McCallum and fellow freshman Sage Thompson — the pair are roommates — earned event victories on floor and bars, respectively.

It was simply a statement victory for Utah.

“We were ranked No. 4 in the preseason, so obviously people thought we were pretty good at gymnastics, but this was us showing them that we are not going to stay No. 4,” senior Sydney Soloski said.

“That is not what we are after. We have talent and are a very determined and confident team. Tonight showed that we are a force to be reckoned with, and we are only going to get better.”

Defining moment

On a night in which nearly every Red Rock had a standout performance and every lineup operated like the postseason was right around the corner, it was Utah’s beam team that decided the meet.

Per Utah head coach Tom Farden, balance beam is the true separator in gymnastics, and that is where the Red Rocks separated themselves from the Sooners.

Through the first two rotations, Utah and Oklahoma were neck and neck. As Farden described it, the meet “was a barnburner. Oklahoma is an incredible team, you could see the talent the first couple of events.”

But with Oklahoma on floor, traditionally a strong event for almost every team, Utah managed to create needed distance despite a less than excellent leadoff routine by freshman Amelie Morgan (9.750) and the injury-induced absence of Kara Eaker.

McCallum, Abby Paulson, Cristal Isa and Maile O’Keefe all responded and earned scores of 9.90 or better, and Utah finished the event with a 49.475.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, scored a 49.200 on floor, falling behind by multiple tenths of a point.

“The way they handled a little bit of adversity, with Amelie having a little bit of wobbles, everyone else went up and had nice clean sets,” Farden said. “We are not quite perfect on everything, but we don’t want to be in January.”

Utah’s beam lineup was elite last season, but with the additions of Morgan, McCallum and Eaker — when healthy — the Red Rocks have enviable talent and depth on the event, and it showed.

“It is pretty crazy, because we had our whole lineup come back and then we added four amazing freshmen,” O’Keefe said. “It is really nice to have people go up that you know will hit and do well. I think it will be an amazing year for us again.”

Needs improvement

Whether it be Farden, Soloski, O’Keefe or McCallum, Utah insisted after the meet that there is room for improvement, across the board.

“For us, this is another step in the process, and hopefully we have another 15 steps that takes us where we want to go,” Farden said.

The most glaring area for improvement Friday night came on the uneven bars. It was Utah’s lowest scoring event (49.350), and the Red Rocks only counted one score above a 9.90.

Landings were problematic at times, as were handstands, and there was certain of lack of fluidity — essential to a great bar routine — in certain routines.

There were highlights, too, such as Thompson’s event winning routine, but when compared to the other three events, bars just weren’t as great.

That was to be expected, though. It was only Week 2.

“We have so much room to improve,” McCallum said. “This team has so much potential.”

McCallum took a step forward on the event after falling on bars during Utah’s season opener at the Best of Utah.

“We have talent and are a very determined and confident team. Tonight showed that we are a force to be reckoned with and we are only going to get better.” — Utah gymnast Sydney Soloski

Overall, the Olympic silver medalist had a breakout performance in what has been a quick transition from elite gymnastics to the college level.

“Grace came to play,” Farden said. “You saw last week that she was a little disappointed in how she did. We are still making some adjustments. We made some on bars, balance beam and floor, and she did them. What a quick study.”

Be excited

No event was more encouraging for Utah than vault. It was the event that prevented the Red Rocks from winning the 2021 national title, but Utah already appears to be much improved on it.

The Red Rocks scored a 49.450, three gymnasts scored above a 9.90 and no gymnast scored lower than a 9.80.

The Red Rocks exploded off the vault, a rarity in Salt Lake City the last few seasons. Sticks were common as well, and when Utah didn’t stick a vault, they weren’t far off.

None of it was unexpected. The Red Rocks know they have taken a step forward on the event under the tutelage of assistant coach Jimmy Pratt.

“I think on vault it is the mindset,” Soloski said. “This team, this 2022 vault team, seems really determined and aggressive. Last year we got a little tight on vault and that never helps because it is such an aggressive event. Our vaults have more amplitude than I’ve seen here.” 

Utah’s performance on vault and really throughout the meet only justified the team’s belief that it is capable of winning a national title.

“To be a national champion you have to have four strong events,” O’Keefe said. “I definitely see that as an option for us this year.”