Everything was falling apart.
After two solid rotations to open Friday night’s meet at the Huntsman Center against the Arizona State Sun Devils, Utah’s gymnastics team had collapsed on balance beam.
It was inexplicable. For two seasons, ever since gymnasts like Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson arrived on campus, Utah had been a beam team, one of the best in all of college gymnastics.
The Red Rocks beat No. 3 UCLA in 2020 because of their beam rotation. Just last week, they handled No. 4 Oklahoma because of their beam rotation. They’d won back-to-back Pac-12 championships because no conference opponent could touch them on beam.
And yet Friday night, Utah was in a complete free fall on the beam.
Out of the Red Rocks’ first four routines on the event, none scored better than a 9.775. Two significant balance checks led to scores of 9.650 and 9.675. Throw in a fall and a 9.200, and Utah was staring at its worst beam rotation in years.
That is until Cristal Isa mounted the beam. Two beam routines and a floor rotation later, and Utah was victorious over Arizona State, beating the Sun Devils 197.400 to 196.100.
Team scores — Utah 197.400; Arizona State 196.100
All-around — Hannah Scharf (ASU); 39.500
Balance Beam — Cristal Isa (Utah); 9.975
Floor Exercise — Jillian Hoffman (Utah); 9.975
Uneven Bars — Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.925
Vault — Alexia Burch (Utah), Lucy Stanhope (Utah); 9.90
It was a strange, wild and altogether unpredictable competition. A gymnast fainted from celebrating too excessively. Utah scored a season-high on two events (bars and floor) and a season-low on the two others (vault and beam). There was a comeback routine that was truly storybook and some real and significant struggles for one of the world’s best gymnasts.
Five Utah gymnasts won an event title. Alexia Burch and Lucy Stanhope shared the vault title, while Isa, Jillian Hoffman and Grace McCallum won beam, floor and bars titles, respectively, and yet it was Arizona State’s star Hannah Scharf that took the all-around.
All anyone could do when it was all said and done was laugh. And the Red Rocks did.
“We all chuckled because we agree (it was a wild meet),” O’Keefe said.
One that the Red Rocks still had to feel good about, even with all that went on.
“We have so much potential,” O’Keefe said. “We have so much in us this year. You don’t normally score a 197.400 and do what we did (tonight). There is a lesson. Always a lesson. We have to focus on what we are doing and know we are competing against everyone in the NCAA every weekend.”
Utah doesn’t walk out of the Huntsman Center with a victory (or more importantly a score in the mid 197s) if not for Isa.
The senior from Henderson, Nev. saved the meet for the Red Rocks with her beam routine.
Utah was in the midst of its worst beam rotation since its collapse at the national championships in 2019, and the Red Rocks were in danger of handing the meet over to Arizona State.
With the meet on the line and her having just struggled on bars in the previous rotation, Isa performed the best beam routine of her collegiate career, scoring a 9.975. Flight series, dance elements and a stuck landing, Isa did everything almost to perfection and changed the course of the competition.
After Isa’s routine, O’Keefe went on to score a 9:95 on beam and then Utah’s floor lineup, led by Hoffman, scored a season-best 49.675, the second-best score recorded on floor by any NCAA team this year.
And it all started with Isa.
“For her to bounce back (from bars) and do beam like she did, that was the best beam routine I’ve seen her do,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “I was really pleased to see her do that.”
O’Keefe didn’t actually see Isa’s routine, as she was preparing to compete herself, but she heard it and that gave her the confidence she needed.
“I gathered Cristal did very well, because of the crowd,” she said. “You can either be mad destructive or mad decisive. You can break yourself down or flip a switch and do what you know how to do. We were really able to start over in a way (because of Cristal) and set a new tone.”
There was a clear and obvious weakness for Utah. The Red Rocks collapsed on beam, scoring a 49.025.
It was a performance unlike anything anyone expected.
“That was not what we train,” O’Keefe said. “We have such high expectations on beam and personally I think we need to focus in better.”
“Disappointed with what we saw on one (beam),” added Farden. “We know that we are better over there. It almost felt that they weren’t very aggressive. They were very timid. We don’t see that in practice.”
Normally the program’s strength, the Red Rocks — until Isa — could not maintain their composure on the beam when things started falling apart.
“This sport is a matter of millimeters,” Farden said. “For them to have that preciseness, to train those routines and do them automatically every time, there is a formula to relax the athletes. You have to let the routines arrive. Tonight, they just never got into a rhythm on balance beam.”
It wasn’t just beam, though.
Utah also recorded its worst team score of the year on vault (49.275) and outside of strong routines by Burch and Stanhope, the Red Rocks were mediocre — by their standards — lacking the explosion and precision of previous meets.
There was good reason for that, though. After landing her vault, Cammy Hall fainted on the runway, as she went to celebrate with her teammates. She fell to the floor mid-high five.
It wasn’t anything serious. Farden said afterward that Hall is healthy. She over-celebrated to a point that she fainted, and it wasn’t the first time.
Watching a teammate collapse on the floor affected the team, even though they were able to move forward afterward.
“It becomes difficult to bring a team together like that,” Burch said, “but we are pretty good at bringing the energy back for whoever is going.”
“There have been other times where (Cammy) works herself up and almost passes out,” O’Keefe added. “Today was just a little over the top.”
If not for everything that went on at the meet, the story out of Salt Lake City would have been Jillian Hoffman.
The junior out of Murietta, Calif. has had an extremely difficult Utah career. She struggled with injuries as as freshman, competing at times, but never regularly. Then she missed her entire sophomore season due to injury.
“We have so much potential. We have so much in us this year.” — Utah gymnast Maile O’Keefe
Healthy at long last, Hoffman had competed solely on vault this season, but Farden inserted her into the leadoff position on floor and she made him look brilliant.
Hoffman had a career performance, earning a 9.975 on floor. She probably was over-scored a little. She herself said of the score, “I was very shocked. I was not expecting it.” Nevertheless, it was a comeback routine straight out a Disney movie, one that had teammates in tears and Farden himself incapable of containing his excitement.
“I am elated for Jill,” Farden said. “What a trooper, to work through the last couple of years. As one of her floor coaches, you have to play with how you are training her and I think we are on to something. There is the emotional side (of her story) where you are over the moon, and then there is the tactical side where you might be onto something.”
Adding about his decision to include Hoffman in the floor lineup, Farden said, “It is better to be lucky than good.”
The floor rotation in general was excellent for Utah, with four gymnasts scoring a 9.950 or better.
And yet it was the bars rotation that was the most encouraging. Utah continues to show improvement on bars and scored a season-high 49.425. The Red Rocks showed better patience on the event, holding handstands to greater effect.
“We worked a lot this week on handstands,” Burch said. “That was a big focus. You got off the bar if you didn’t hit a handstand. And we were a lot more determined on landings tonight. We stuck quite a few more. Those were our main focuses. That was a big step.”
“They showed a little bit better patience,” Farden added. “They didn’t get ahead of their skills. I liked what I saw and think we can build on that. They can be more patient and steady. We worked on handstands last week and will work on some more this week. Chipping away at it.”
Ultimately, the meet showcased once again how good Utah can be. It is just a matter of consistency.
“We have got to put together four events,” Farden said. “We did it last weekend.”
“We are a top tier team and we can’t take that for granted,” Burch added. “This was a learning lesson.”