Early in 2021, Utah gymnastics traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, to take on the then No. 2-ranked Oklahoma Sooners and it didn’t go especially well.

The Red Rocks struggled to compete with the Sooners then and lost in fairly convincing fashion. Utah head coach Tom Farden noted afterward: “We are disappointed. We saw where we stack up and we have work to do.”

Fast forward two years and the Red Rocks were once again inside Lloyd Noble Arena on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. This time Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 overall — Utah was ranked No. 5 — and once again Utah came up short.


Team scores — Oklahoma, 197.925; Utah, 197.275

Event winners

All-around — Faith Torrez (Oklahoma); 39.525

Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.975

Floor exercise — Faith Torrez (Oklahoma); 9.950

Uneven bars — Faith Torrez (Oklahoma), Jordan Bowers (Oklahoma); 9.90

Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah), Allie Stern (Oklahoma); 9.975

The Red Rocks lost to the Sooners 197.925 to 197.275 on Sunday night, Utah’s first loss of the 2023 season. It was a road score that the team will hope to not count as part of its NQS come the end of the year.

Oklahoma proved the better team from the outset and outscored Utah on floor exercise, uneven bars and vault.

Oklahoma freshman Faith Torrez won the all-around competition, plus the floor title, while sharing the bars title with teammate Jordan Bowers.

Utah did have event winners.

Maile O’Keefe won the balance beam title with a 9.975, while Jaedyn Rucker shared the vault title (with Oklahoma’s Allie Stern) with a 9.975 of her own, but uncharacteristic mistakes across events — especially on bars, floor and beam — did the Red Rocks in.

“We really felt like the athletes were prepared going into this meet,” Farden said Sunday, following the meet. “Nerves had a lot to play with some of the performance we saw. Extremely uncharacteristic by some athletes. We were trying to gain our footing in that first away meet.

“It was the first away meet for everyone, even if you are a fifth-year senior. And you have to reacquaint yourself. We could have done a better job adjusting to different equipment and the crowd, too. We didn’t. We are going to go back to work, tweak some things to get them a little sharper.”

Defining moment

Normally, the defining moment week to week is the routine or event that was the highlight of Utah’s performance (the Red Rocks win a lot).

Not this week.

The Red Rocks fell behind immediately in the opening rotation Sunday and never truly recovered.

Utah started on bars — Oklahoma was on vault — and struggled. There is no other way to put it. The team’s event score of 49.150 is the lowest event score of the season for Utah.

No Utah gymnast received a score better than a 9.875. The Red Rocks had two scores of 9.750 or lower. And whether it be not sticking landings, getting vertical enough on handstands, or other miscues (like kicking the bar), Utah was off.

“On bars we were a little jumpy,” fifth-year senior Abby Brenner said.

Farden took it a step further.

“We had a hard time right away. I’m the bars coach and we had a really hard time with the bounce and swing on that bar set,” he said. “And some other things. From there, we never really got going on that set.

Why did former Michigan All-American Abby Brenner transfer to Utah?

“That is my fault, in terms of not preparing them the way I need to. I wrote some notes down about what it feels like and we will make adjustments for the next time we come back to Oklahoma.”

Utah bounced back in a big way on vault, scoring a season-best 49.525, but the struggles on bars meant that the Utes needed to be excellent the rest of the way. And they weren’t.

Needs work

In addition to the struggles on bars, Utah was off on floor and beam.

Multiple Red Rocks made significant mistakes on tumbling passes on floor — like bars, multiple Utes scored in the 9.7 range or lower.

Utah did benefit from solid to great outings from Jaylene Gilstrap, Makenna Smith and Grace McCallum, but miscues on floor sapped any momentum Utah had after its strong vault rotation.

“Vault was incredible,” Farden said. “That is a very elite score early in the season. That was a good spark for us. Then after that, we’d have a couple of good routines and then take a step back and then have a couple of good routines and take a step back.

“We were starting and stopping and not building off each other and that has to do with confidence in building routines and feeding off each other. We weren’t quite there tonight.”

Beam, Utah’s signature event, suffered from the lack of momentum/confidence, too.

The rotation started with an excellent routine from Amelie Morgan, but after that the Red Rocks alternated between normal and uncharacteristic routines. McCallum and Abby Paulson weren’t close to themselves — McCallum was just slightly off throughout her routine with a balance check and a hop on her landing, while Paulson fell off the beam.

Kara Eaker, Cristal Isa and O’Keefe, meanwhile, were themselves though.

Brenner, a national champion at Michigan in 2021, noted that mistakes happen, especially this early in the season.

“We are not robots,” Brenner said. “We make mistakes and that is okay. Obviously we are a little disappointed with how the meet went, but it is Week 3. It is a long season and we have a lot of room to keep growing.”

And Farden was unconcerned, ultimately. Not with this Utah team.

“For us, it is (going to be about) small tweaks,” he said. “It is about getting in the rhythm of travel again. Being on the road and going up against the No. 1 team — the most dominant team in the country for the last decade — on ESPN, it can get a little heady.

“Our athletes got ahead of themselves. One of the captains said it well: ‘We went A to D and never A,B,C,D.’ I thought that was really well said.”

That’s encouraging

Even in a loss, there were plenty of bright spots for Utah.

The vault rotation was excellent, recording Utah’s second highest vault score in the last two years.

Rucker, Smith and McCallum all scored a 9.9 or better and Brenner wasn’t far off with a 9.875.

“We really got a groove in on vault,” Brenner said. “Vault was amazing. We are really trying to build confidence there, so that was amazing to get a 9.975 from Jaedyn and a 9.95 from Makenna.”

Smith once again was really good for Utah, in her first year as a collegiate gymnast, scoring the aforementioned 9.95 on vault and a 9.875 on floor.

“She really got a hold of that vault,” Farden said. “To us, it was stunning. Makenna continues to improve and show that she’s got the chops to be one of the better competitors that we have.”

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O’Keefe was elite on beam, where she continues to make an argument as one of the greatest Utah gymnasts in program history.

Morgan’s leadoff routine on beam was also noteworthy and she made her return to the bars lineup. Per Farden, she was Utah’s best on the event, scores notwithstanding.

“That is a new bar routine for (Amelie),” Farden said. “We felt like she was ready to debut it. She did it (in exhibition) at The Best of Utah.

“... She was the best at adjusting to the bar bounce tonight. The best out of that whole bar lineup. And then she went up and nearly drilled that (beam dismount). We are really proud of her.”

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