Utah lost more than just its first meet of the season against Cal
The Red Rocks lost their first regular season conference meet since 2019, but the setback was overshadowed a season-ending injury
Entering Saturday night’s meet against No. 11 Cal, Utah’s gymnastics team was in the middle of one of the most dominant runs in recent Pac-12 history.
Going back to the 2019 season, No. 3 Utah had won 17 consecutive regular season conference meets, to say nothing of the wins at the 2021 Pac-12 championships.
The Red Rocks won back-to-back regular season conference titles because of it and had established themselves as the undisputed top program in the league.
Team scores — Cal 197.525; Utah 197.275
All-around — Andi Li (Cal); 39.650
Balance Beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.925
Floor Exercise — Sydney Soloski (Utah); 9.975
Uneven Bars — Andi Li (Cal); 9.95
Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 9.975
After Saturday night’s meet, the run is over.
Dominance over the Pac-12? That is yet to be decided.
Utah fell to Cal 197.525 to 197.275 in a competition marred by mistakes. The Red Rocks fell on two events — balance beam and uneven bars — and counted a 9.575 on beam and a 9.775 on vault.
Three Utes won events — Maile O’Keefe, Jaedyn Rucker and Sydney Soloski — and Utah still scored above a 197, but it wasn’t enough against a Cal team in the midst of one of its best stretches ever.
The beam lineup specifically, arguably Utah’s greatest strength the last couple of seasons, buckled, and scored a 49.075.
That enabled Cal’s 49.475 on floor exercise to win the meet.
“We started off a little uncharacteristic on bars, not the way we wanted to, not 6 for 6,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “I thought we finished well with the last couple of routines.
“On vault, we had some really wonderful performances. The ones that stick out were Jaedyn Rucker’s and Jillian Hoffman’s.
“On floor, obviously we were able to get the lead. We had a really good floor from several athletes, including Sydney. On balance beam, we are changing and mixing up lineups. It is a work in progress. We will put our heads down and keep working.”
Mistakes on bars, vault and particularly beam, coupled with a strong overall outing by Cal, cost Utah the victory (the Bears were excellent throughout the night and it resulted in a season high score), but the most impactful moment of the meet didn’t show up in the scores.
Hoffman, who scored a career-high 9.90 to lead off Utah’s vault rotation, suffered an injury during the competition, which was later revealed to be a torn Achilles.
Hoffman had previously suffered season-ending injuries in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, but she bounced back this year to become one of best stories in college gymnastics and a key contributor for Utah.
“Right now it appears to be an Achilles tear in her right leg,” Farden said. “I am beside myself if I am honest with you.
“This is an athlete who has battled back from season-ending injuries two years in a row. She did one of the prettiest vaults she has done in competition. We do everything we can, everything I can possibly think of to prevent this, with the latest science and latest equipment. We turn over every rock we can.
“Just gutted for the athlete. Especially this one. I’ve watched her perseverance for the last three years and admired It. I don’t think there are many people who have that perseverance.”
To say the injury affected Utah would be an understatement — Hoffman suffered it midway through the meet — even as gymnasts were loathe to blame the result on it.
“I am not here to make excuses,” Farden said. “We didn’t do our job on the last event. But there is a human element to sports, which is why you see so many bonds between teammates, coaches and the sports community.
“There were several teammates ... all of the team was really upset. We had to make adjustments on the fly and the kids handled them really well.
“Abby Paulson got bumped into the first position (on floor), then we bumped in Adrienne Randall and then had an exhibition routine from Jaylene Gilstrap that went 9.85, so the way the athletes handled it was probably as best as possible.”
There were clear and obvious weaknesses for Utah, such as falls suffered by Grace McCallum on bars and Cristal Isa on beam.
Additionally, Paulson incurred large deductions on her beam routine as well (she didn’t fall, but missed an element), and hers was the highest scoring routine of the three at 9.575.
A more enduring problem, however, is that all season long Utah has counted scores in the 9.7 range, and that was once again the case Saturday.
Alexia Burch, Cammy Hall and Lucy Stanhope all scored somewhere between 9.7 or 9.8, on bars and vault, respectively.
It has been a point of emphasis for Utah to eliminate those kinds of scores, but they appeared again against Cal.
“I wasn’t upset as a coach with Cammy’s, because it is a process and that was by far the most cleanliness she has had in the air, but she took a step out of it,” Farden said.
“Lucy’s was uncharacteristic. She got a little sideways on that vault. Lex, just watching her rhythm on that bar routine, it was just a fraction off, and we obviously had some lower scores than that.”
Additionally, despite fantastic leadoff routines by Amelie Morgan (on bars and beam), Hoffman (on vault) and Paulson (on floor), all of which earned at least a 9.90, Utah consistently squandered momentum, with scores dropping in the middle of every lineup.
“It is almost like the interior of the lineups aren’t sustaining like we want them to,” Farden said. “We will work on that.
“I will take some of the blame on that. When you play with lineups, switching people and interchanging them, it can be hard to build off each other. It isn’t exactly the same athlete each week, so we are going to try to iron that out and build on scores.”
There were standout performances despite the loss, the road score in the low 197-range and the devastation surrounding Hoffman’s injury.
Rucker bounced back in a big way — she had struggled in back-to-back meets previously — and scored a 9.975 on vault, by far her best vault of the year, and also earned a 9.90 on floor.
Morgan was once again a standout, scoring a 9.925 on bars and a 9.90 on beam.
Soloski performed arguably the best floor routine of her collegiate career and earned a career-high tying 9.975.
O’Keefe continued her excellence on beam — she is ranked No. 4 in the country — and scored a 9.925, even as the meet had slipped away from Utah.
All told, Utah scored a 9.90 or better on 10 routines, and the floor rotation counted a low score of 9.875.
Utah remains alive in the hunt for a third straight Pac-12 regular season championship, but Cal must lose two of its last three conference meets against Arizona, No. 20 ASU and No. 16 UCLA (the later two are on the road), while Utah must defeat No. 13 Oregon State, Washington and Arizona.