Utah just survived its most significant test of the season to date
Trailing after two events, the Red Rocks rallied and then held off upset bids by Stanford, Oregon State and Illinois in the NCAA regional semifinals
Utah’s gymnastics team is no stranger to history, and over the years things have usually gone in the Red Rocks’ favor. Nine NCAA national titles and 45 consecutive trips to the national championships stand as evidence to that.
Midway through Thursday night’s regional semifinal in Seattle, Washington, however, Utah was staring at the very real possibility that it was about to make the kind of history teams would prefer to forget.
Unexpectedly, given its standing in the sport, No. 4 Utah trailed both No. 19 Illinois and Stanford after two rotations. Anything less than a top two finish Thursday night would have meant that the Utes’ season was over and it would have ended earlier than any other team in program history.
With the weight of arguably the most storied program in women’s college gymnastics on its shoulders, Utah did what every Ute team before it had done come NCAA regionals. The Red Rocks survived and advanced.
Powered by an elite balance beam rotation, Utah staved off upset bids by both the Fighting Illini and Cardinal, as well as No. 13 Oregon State.
- Team scores — Utah, 197.800; Stanford, 197.450; Oregon State, 197.425; Illinois, 197.375.
- All-around — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 39.850.
- Balance beam — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975.
- Floor exercise — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975.
- Uneven bars — Alexia Burch (Utah), Mia Takekawa (Illinois); 9.950.
- Vault — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975.
Until the final rotation, when Utah counted only scores of 9.90 or better — the Red Rocks dropped a 9.90 en route to a 49.700 event score — the four teams were separated by no more than three tenths of point. There was little to no separation and the threat of a third place finish or worse was constant.
“They don’t call it March Madness for nothing,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.
With the season on the line, and despite a slow start, an uncharacteristic showing on floor exercise especially, Utah created separation when it needed it most.
“On the intricate events, (uneven bars and beam) the athletes settled in and we got a really nice bars score and obviously an incredible balance beam score took it home for us,” Farden said. “Super proud of everybody.
“In those moments and the meet is on the line, we really try to coach the athletes to let their gymnastics happen. Couldn’t be more proud of the work that was done over there.”
Through two rotations, Utah underperformed. Not significantly, but enough that the Red Rocks weren’t in the lead and momentum was completely in favor of Illinois and Stanford.
That appeared to change almost the moment the bars rotation began, though. Amelie Morgan led off Utah’s rotation with a 9.90, the kind of score that in any other meet would have set the stage for many elite scores to come.
Immediately following Morgan’s routine, however, superstar freshman Grace McCallum fell, and all momentum was lost as quickly as it was found.
That was when Alexia Burch stepped in and changed everything. The fifth year senior had already come through for Utah on vault, with a team-best 9.950. With the Red Rocks reeling after McCallum’s fall, she delivered another routine worthy of a 9.950.
Making it all the more impressive was the fact that Burch was filling in for the injured Abby Paulson. Paulson tweaked her back during the running portion of warm-ups and was held out of the meet.
After Burch’s bar routine, Utah didn’t record a single score lower than a 9.850 the rest of the competition, after having recorded three scores in the 9.7 range and a 9.40 prior.
“Probably a standout, the turning point was after Grace (fell), with Alexia Burch coming in with a 9.95, a career-best on the bars,” Farden said. “As a bar coach, where she was a freshman to where she is now, you can’t help but smile as big as you can.”
“She said it from the start of the year, rewinding back to August. She just wanted to enjoy this year. Alexia is a blue collar athlete. She has really outdone herself. She was in a good space tonight. She had good rhythm and patience and chose confidence. Her overall presence was fantastic and I really think the team fed off of it.”
It is rarely the case, but on Thursday night floor was Utah’s weakest event.
From the get-go, the Red Rocks were off, lacking their normal energy and power on an event where they are ranked No. 4 in the country.
It wasn’t just a single gymnast here or there either.
The first two routines — leadoff by Jaylene Gilstrap, followed by Adrienne Randall — weren’t up to Utah’s standards, but even those that followed weren’t what the Red Rocks are used to, especially the anchor performance by Sydney Soloski.
Utah counted two scores of 9.80, something almost unheard of during the season.
“We would have liked to have seen a little bit of a stronger start in terms of their legs,” Farden said. “Seen a little bit stronger pop. We were a little surprised with floor exercise, uncharacteristic things that we will tighten up for Saturday.
“The vibe (surrounding the team) was good. It was positive. It was just a little tentative on the first couple events.”
The second of those events was vault, and that event has been Utah’s weakest throughout the season.
Overall the Red Rocks were improved on vault in Seattle, but the team still left points on the board and counted a 9.775 and a 9.80.
In seasons past, Utah found much of its success on the power events — floor and vault.
Over the last three years a shift has occurred and the Red Rocks have become a much more balanced team, if now slightly skewed towards the intricate events like bars and beam.
Beam was the obvious bright spot Thursday, with every gymnast in the lineup scoring at least a 9.90. Kara Eaker, Burch and Randall’s performances were especially noticeable, with both Randall and Eaker making a return to the lineup.
“We obviously know we have a lot of weapons, but to test our depth and use two athletes who aren’t normally in the rotation and have both of them score above 9.90 speaks volumes for their readiness,” Farden said.
Bars, outside of McCallum’s fall, was also a bright spot.
Morgan has become almost automatic in the leadoff position, regularly scoring in the 9.90 range. Burch and Maile O’Keefe both came through when Utah needed them, while Cristal Isa and Sage Thompson continue to be as consistent as ever.
Utah will compete Saturday night at 6 p.m. MDT (the meet will be streamed on ESPN+) with a berth in the NCAA gymnastics championships on the line.
The Red Rocks will face No. 5 Alabama, No. 12 Michigan State and Stanford in the Seattle regional final. The teams that finish first and second in the competition will earn spots at the national championships.
See you next year
Utah wasn’t the only program based in the Beehive State to compete.
No. 21 BYU, Southern Utah and No. 25 Utah State competed in different regional semifinals and all came up short in their bids to advance.
The Aggies had the best showing, finishing third in the first session of the Norman regional. Utah State recorded a program-best regionals score of 196.825, finishing behind No. 8 Minnesota and No. 9 Cal.
“We could not have gone out and done any better than what we did today,” Utah State head coach Amy Smith said. “I am so proud of the integrity and the character they held throughout the meet, and the gymnastics was just a lovely extra component of that. It was just awesome.”
The Cougars, meanwhile, finished in fourth place in the first session of the Seattle regional, behind Alabama, Michigan State and No. 25 Washington, with a score of 196.625.
As for the Thunderbirds, they finished third in the first session of the Auburn regional with a 196.350, ahead of No. 23 Georgia and behind No. 10 Kentucky and No. 7 Auburn.