With a berth at nationals up for grabs, Utah made history again and again and again
The Red Rocks recorded a postseason-best 198.200 and defeated Alabama, Michigan State and Stanford to advance to nationals for the 46th straight time
There is something about the 2022 Red Rocks.
It remains to be seen whether they will end Utah’s long national title drought — the Utes haven’t won a national championship in gymnastics since 1995 — but along the way this team has etched its place in program history.
They did it on Senior Night against Minnesota, and Saturday night in Seattle, Washington, in the Seattle Regional final — with a berth at nationals on the line — they did it again.
In a meet Utah head coach Tom Farden described as “a barnburner,” No. 4 Utah defeated No. 5 Alabama, No. 12 Michigan State and Stanford, behind the single-best postseason score in program history — 198.200.
- Team scores — Utah, 198.200; Alabama, 198.175; Michigan State, 197.650; Stanford, 197.250.
- All-around — Skyla Schulte (Michigan State); 39.600.
- Balance beam — Kara Eaker (Utah), Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 10.0.
- Floor exercise — Kyla Bryant (Stanford); Emily Gaskins (Alabama), Lexi Graber (Alabama), Grace McCallum (Utah), Skyla Schulte (Michigan State), Sydney Soloski (Utah); 9.950.
- Uneven bars — Makarri Doggette (Alabama), Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.950.
- Vault — Lilly Hudson (Alabama), Kaylee Quinn (Alabama); 9.950.
It came down to the final routine, a beam set by Maile O’Keefe. A perfect 10 later and Utah was headed back to nationals as regional champions.
“This was the culmination of a good weekend in terms of what we did on Thursday and then stepping it up and doing what we did tonight,” Farden said. “Super pleased and proud.”
The Red Rocks have now advanced to the national championships 46 consecutive times (excluding the 2020 season, which didn’t have a postseason), a NCAA record that will likely never be broken by any team other than Utah.
- O’Keefe and Kara Eaker both recorded perfect 10s, back-to-back on balance beam to close out the meet. On the season, five Utah gymnasts have received perfect scores — O’Keefe, Eaker, Grace McCallum, Cristal Isa and Sage Thompson — the highest total in program history.
- With her third perfect 10 on beam this season — fourth total — O’Keefe is now the Utah record holder for perfect 10s on beam (in a single season).
- With their fourth score of 198 or better, the 2022 Red Rocks are now responsible for 33% of the 198’s Utah has ever scored.
All of it, the perfect 10s and the postseason record score, were needed in a meet that determined two of the eight teams that will compete for the national championship in Fort Worth, Texas (as the second place finisher, Alabama will join Utah, along with Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Auburn, Oklahoma and Minnesota).
The Crimson Tide, Spartans and Cardinal gave Utah everything it could handle, to the very last moment.
“Michigan State was ranked No. 12, but that is a really good gymnastics team,” Farden said. “Stanford competed three meets in four days and put up that kind of performance? It speaks volumes for where our sport is at.
“The margins are so tight now. ... There is just so much parity. You have to be dang close to flawless to get into that last day (at nationals). Alabama is incredible as well. This was another barnburner. We had one just to get to here and another one to get to nationals.”
And now, historic as the performance was, the Red Rocks have to put it all behind them and be even better going forward.
“The whole point of regionals is to make it to nationals,” O’Keefe said. “We did that. This is not when you want to peak. We want to peak in two weeks.”
At this point in the season, when it is essentially win or go home, every routine, on every event, has the potential to make or break a meet.
Midway through the final rotation, however, Utah needed back-to-back-to-back nearly flawless beam routines to not only pass Michigan State and earn a spot at nationals, but to defeat Alabama.
The Red Rocks got them.
Following a fall on beam by Alexia Burch, Cristal Isa, O’Keefe and Eaker recorded a 9.975, a perfect 10 and a perfect 10 in succession, enabling Utah to leap from third place into first.
It was a run of near perfection unlike anything that had happened for Utah this season.
O’Keefe arguably had the most pressure on her as the anchor in the lineup, and admitted that she felt it.
MAILE 👏 DID 👏 THAT 👏@maile_okeefe earns her 3rd 10 on beam this season!— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) April 3, 2022
📱 https://t.co/tR3ssRD0Oz@UtahGymnastics | #GoUtes | #Pac12Gym pic.twitter.com/d22AiDwvw8
“I was shaking in my boots,” she said.
But as she had done many times before in her Utah career, O’Keefe came through when needed.
“I kind of just had to do a normal routine,” O’Keefe said. “Obviously easier said than done under pressure, but I knew that if I trusted myself I’d be fine. ... I was obviously nervous, but that is OK because it means I care.”
Eaker’s perfect routine came with a nearly identical amount of pressure, and given she had missed the majority of the season due to injury, her performance was almost more impressive.
KARA EAKER IS PERFECT!! KARA SCORES A 10.0‼️— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) April 3, 2022
💻 https://t.co/8IkPWMCGvA pic.twitter.com/rbBcbv6rBb
“Kara came back from a severe sprain,” Farden said. “... She has a sheer determination to contribute to the team in any way that she can. When she dropped that 10, for me it was a proud moment to see. Just how far she has come with no internal part of the season at all because of her injury.”
Whether in jest or not, O’Keefe rated how Utah currently stands 1 to 100. In her estimation, the Red Rocks are a 92.5. In other words, they still have work to do.
“Obviously we still have room for improvement, which is a good thing,” O’Keefe said. “We can do better on every event. We hit a pretty good score set today, but there is definitely room for improvement on vault, bars and beam.”
To her point, Utah had fall on beam by Burch, O’Keefe scored a 9.725 on bars, and Utah had two 9.80s on vault, courtesy of Lucy Stanhope and Cammy Hall.
Vault has been Utah’s weakest event all season and landings remain a struggle at times, with only O’Keefe and Burch sticking on Saturday.
And while it can feel harsh to criticize routines that didn’t count in the final scoring, Utah knows it needs even the scores that don’t count to be great if the team is to accomplish what it hopes to this season.
“You can see across the country how tight things are,” Farden said. “We have to sharpen up some things and people can see it coming. The counting scores, we are the precipice of maybe keeping at this level, and we’d love to kick the can down a little further.”
Utah bounced back in a big way on floor, after a subpar performance in the regional semifinals (subpar in this case means subpar for Utah, a national title contender).
Abby Paulson returned from injury to lead off the rotation and having her back immediately energized the Red Rocks.
“She brings stability and familiarity,” Farden said. “We started the regional final with a 9.90 and were off and running.”
Utah didn’t count a score below a 9.90 on floor, and finished with a 49.600. Gymnasts like Sydney Soloski and Jaylene Gilstrap returned to their normal standards.
What a rotation for @Sydney_soloski 👏— ESPN+ (@ESPNPlus) April 3, 2022
She finishes with a 9.95 on floor 💪@UtahGymnastics pic.twitter.com/d7IbVhd1vf
“I don’t know if we were focused on improving (on floor), just more on just doing what we do in the gym,” O’Keefe said. “We had a few uncharacteristic mistakes on floor the first day.”
It wasn’t just floor, though.
On beam, aside from the fall, Utah was once again elite, finishing with a 49.725. Amelie Morgan remains constant in the leadoff position, while the back half of the lineup can compete with any team in the country, as evidenced by the performances of Isa, Eaker and O’Keefe.
Grace McCallum bounced back in a big way Saturday, after struggling Thursday night. The freshman scored a 9.925 or better on the three events she competed, helping Utah match Alabama event for event.
Here's a look at @grace_mccallum2's team-high 9.95 on bars!! 🌟— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) April 3, 2022
💻 https://t.co/8IkPWMCGvA pic.twitter.com/0LIa8643R7
“Really liked the athletes’ focus,” Farden said. “Total team effort.”
As for the history being made by his team, Farden tries not to care. At least not right now.
“I’m fully aware of the expectations (at Utah),” he said. “I know what the banners represent, but I try not to get too wrapped up in it. We take it one season at a time, one preseason at a time, one Christmas break at a time.
“I coach each team according to their needs and it is always an experiment. Just try to drum up the right formula for each team each year and see where it takes you.”
This year, like the previous 46, Utah is headed to the national championships.