Can Utah take a step forward next season? A way too early look at the 2023 Red Rocks
The Red Rocks finished in third place for the second consecutive year. Are they built to improve on that next year?
With its third place finish at the 2022 NCAA women’s gymnastics championship last weekend, Utah is now in the middle of its most successful stretch in over a decade.
Having finished third for the second consecutive season, the Utes have demonstrated staying power that the program lacked from 2010 through 2019, when Utah’s average finish was sixth and they finished as low as ninth multiple times.
The last two years — three if you include the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which saw the national championship get canceled — have seen a resurgence in the Red Rocks’ fortunes, though.
Now a regular in the Final Four, Utah is no longer a paper tiger, but once again a genuine gymnastics power.
The question now is how long can that continue, and more importantly, can Utah build on the success it has had the last couple of seasons?
The Red Rocks are nothing if not optimistic on both fronts.
“There are a lot of incredible girls on the team and they will emerge,” departing senior Sydney Soloski said. “Their skills, especially leadership skills, will grow with them.
“They have to replace a few routines, but I don’t think that is anything they can’t do. The culture of this program is excellence, and that will continue.”
And improve, or so rising sophomore Grace McCallum believes after Utah’s performance at nationals.
“Seeing all the little improvements we can make, if everyone can find those little tenths, there is no reason we can’t win a national championship,” she said. “The amount of potential this team still has, with the little things we can fix, is really encouraging going forward.”
McCallum isn’t wrong to believe that.
Utah will return 21 of the 24 routines that were competed either day at the NCAA championships, losing only Soloski’s floor routine and Alexia Burch and Cammy Hall’s vaults.
Soloski and Burch’s leadership will be greatly missed, as will Hall’s jovial personality — an understated boon to Utah’s chemistry. There are also the reserve routines provided by Burch and Adrienne Randall, without which the Red Rocks wouldn’t have made it to nationals for the 46th consecutive season.
But Utah returns seven All-Americans (regular season or postseason) in McCallum, Kara Eaker, Cristal Isa, Maile O’Keefe, Abby Paulson, Jaedyn Rucker and Sage Thompson, who combined for nearly three quarters (71%) of Utah’s routines.
Every one of those gymnasts, save Rucker, have at least one perfect 10 in their career, and Rucker is an individual NCAA champion.
O’Keefe just finished off a historic campaign in which she regularly broke program records, particularly those related to perfect beam routines.
McCallum started slow, but by the end was one of the best all-around competitors in the country, finishing No. 6 overall.
Paulson overcame early injuries issues to become a near irreplaceable contributor on three events, and Thompson proved more than worthy of the hype on uneven bars.
Isa was as solid as ever and is returning for a fifth season. If the performances of Soloski and Burch in their fifth years are any indication, Isa’s final year should be her best yet.
Eaker missed the majority of the season with injury, but returned in time to become Utah’s best beam worker at nationals, which is saying something considering Utah was the best beam team in the country without her.
Before her injury, Eaker was expected to be at least a three-event athlete (beam, floor and vault), and that will be the expectation going forward.
As for Rucker, her standout performances on vault at nationals only engender excitement for her future.
There are more reasons for optimism, beyond all that, though.
Not mentioned in that group is Amelie Morgan, arguably the best leadoff gymnast in the country this past season as a freshman.
Morgan was nothing less than a star for Utah and finished the year with a regular season NQS of 9.89 on uneven bars and 9.91 on balance beam.
Oh, and she hit every routine she competed, never once falling.
Jillian Hoffman is expected to be back and hopefully fully recovered from an Achilles injury suffered midseason. Prior to that injury, Hoffman was nearly Morgan’s peer as a leadoff gymnast, only on floor and vault.
Utah also returns regular contributors in Jaylene Gilstrap and Lucy Stanhope. Gilstrap was in Utah’s floor lineup at nationals, and Stanhope was in the vault lineup.
Stanhope also competed on floor multiple times during the year, debuting a remade floor routine that warranted mention on multiple occasions by Utah head coach Tom Farden.
Then there is Alani Sabado, a key reserve on bars and vault this past season who really made her mark the year prior.
Sabado was a regular in Utah’s bars lineup in 2021, and her vault at the 2021 Pac-12 championships sealed the conference title for Utah.
“We have so much talent,” Rucker said. “And so much heart.”
And that is without considering the incoming freshmen.
Five-star signee Makenna Smith is one of the top gymnasts in the 2022 class — College Gym News rates Smith the No. 8 overall prospect — with college-ready routines on multiple events, particularly floor and vault.
“She brings all-around potential,” Farden said. “Makenna has gone 9.95 or higher three times on vault in the last two years, including a perfect 10, which is rare at the club level.
“It was very important to our program to continue to bring in vaults that not only start from a 10.0 in NCAA, but vaulters who demonstrate a high level of success with this event.”
On Wednesday, Utah added its final member of the 2022 class, three-star preferred walk-on Sarah Krump, who at the outset can provide needed depth on beam given the departures of Burch and Randall.
“Sarah has extremely nice lines and an artistry to her gymnastics that our fans will love,” Farden said.
Utah isn’t without its shortcomings, of course.
Vault was hit or miss most of the season, and the Red Rocks’ final showing at the national championships was nowhere close to their best.
It is Farden’s stated desire to have six or more vaults with a 10.0 start value, and Utah loses two of its six 10.0 vaults from this past season.
Eaker, Thompson and O’Keefe were all training 10.0 vaults this year, though, until injuries necessitated a change up, and Smith will bring a ready-made 10.0 vault to Salt Lake City.
And if there is any sort of internal improvement from McCallum, Rucker and Stanhope, Utah should be improved on the event.
The loss of Soloski on floor is significant — she was one of the best performers in the NCAA and Utah’s anchor on the event for three seasons — but Eaker has a new and improved routine and Stanhope has already proven more than capable.
As for bars and beam, Utah is expected to return those lineups fully intact, depth being the only real area of concern.
“I’ll spend some time making sure we are doing everything we can with the details and personnel to do what we need to do,” Farden said.
“There are always things to get better on.”
After consecutive third place finishes, what Farden hopes to see the most next year is Utah’s experience pay off.
“The last three years we were fourth, third and third. We are hanging around, and if we stay close enough to the goal line, maybe we will get kicked in accidentally,” Farden said with a laugh.
“That is the one thing,” he continued, growing more somber. “We are bringing back a lot of people who have been in two Final Fours. When does that experience pay off?”
Only time will tell, but there is no shortage of belief in Utah.
“I think this program is amazing and has so much potential,” McCallum said. “In the next three years here I hope we can win a national championship.”