The 2023 Red Rocks wasted little time making a place for themselves in Utah gymnastics’ history books.
No. 3 Utah defeated No. 6 LSU Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, 197.275 to 196.775.
The Red Rocks improved to 62-6 in season openers all-time, not to mention 57-1 at home during the regular season over the last decade-plus.
Team scores — Utah, 197.275; LSU, 196.775
All-around — Haleigh Bryant (LSU), Aleah Finnegan (LSU); 39.450
Balance Beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.950
Floor Exercise — Aleah Finnegan (LSU); 9.950
Uneven Bars — Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.925
Vault — Haleigh Bryant (LSU), Makenna Smith (Utah); 9.90
Most impressively, though, Utah’s 197.275 was best season opening score for the program in 18 years, since 2005 when Utah recorded a 197.675 in a victory over UCLA.
The Red Rocks were in mid-season form from the outset, and scored a 49.225 or better on all four events (balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars and vault).
Grace McCallum, Maile O’Keefe and true freshman Makenna Smith all walked away event winners and outside of a few mistakes — the Utes had two falls, one by McCallum on vault, the other by Jaedyn Rucker on floor (both came on new skills) — Utah couldn’t have asked for a better season debut.
“It was so important for us to start like we did tonight. We were throwing a lot of new skills, had new athletes out there, so we felt that it was a great start for the program,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “We were really really pleased with this starting meet.”
As they did following the Red Rocks Preview in December, the Utes credited their success, their rare mid-season form in January, to the chemistry of the team.
It really is different this season.
“We just have a great vibe with the team,” Abby Paulson said. “We all mesh really well and that made (offseason) training a lot easier. When you build each other up, training goes a lot better. When you are all together as one, it is much easier to compete.”
“The team chemistry is totally different this year,” O’Keefe added. “Just a totally different vibe. You come into every practice and now every meet knowing everyone is behind you. It is a great feeling to have support no matter what.”
Realistically the meet wasn’t actually decided in the opening rotation, but the Red Rocks’ vault lineup set the tone for the rest of the competition, and because of that victory never really felt in doubt.
Over the last few years, vault had been Utah’s greatest weakness, arguably the reason the Red Rocks hadn’t won a national title, despite advancing to the Final Four the last two years.
It was just one meet, but the Red Rocks appear to be much improved on vault, with clear potential for greatness on the event.
Utah scored a 49.350 on vault Friday night, third highest event score of the competition behind only Utah’s score on beam (49.475) and LSU’s on floor (49.375). Utah competed five vaults valued at 10.0 and counted a low score of 9.825, and that only because of McCallum’s fall.
Abby Brenner, Lucy Stanhope and Rucker all scored a 9.875 — competing Yurchenko 1.5s — while Smith’s 9.90 tied for the best vault score of the entire meet (along with LSU’s Haleigh Bryant).
“We’ve got some athletes,” Farden said. “And it was the first meet.”
It was a vault performance somewhat reminiscent of those Utah was known for when MyKayla Skinner and MaKenna Merrell-Giles starred for the Red Rocks five or six years ago.
“We obviously have a couple new faces and a couple of new vaults. Makenna is a great new addition and so is Abby Brenner,” O’Keefe said. “But I just feel like we understood that vault was something we needed to work on to be a contender for a national title.
“I feel like (assistant coach Jimmy Pratt) works really well with our girls and the girls work really well with Jimmy so it has just been a great mixture of a lot of things.”
Utah wasn’t perfect against LSU (O’Keefe did note that that is a good thing, saying it is hard to be perfect all season long).
The Red Rocks missed out on a few tenths of a point on both bars and floor, the latter being the most easily remedied going forward.
It was the falls by McCallum and Rucker that were the most notable mistakes, though, but Farden was largely unconcerned.
“The two mistakes that we did have were new skills,” he said. “When you throw 11 new skills in a meet, something is bound to go awry. They just misjudged. Nothing they can’t fix, won’t fix or don’t want to fix.”
Specifically when it came to McCallum, who sat her vault down, Farden blamed her fall for her hunting a little bit too hard for a stuck landing.
“I did talk to Grace after the meet was done, because that is how Grace is and I said, ‘Hey, it looked like you got a little greedy on that vault,’ and she said, ‘I told myself I wasn’t going to try and go for the stick and then in the air thought, ‘Let’s stick this,’” Farden said.
“She brushed it off and the next three events she was incredible. Super proud of her. That is what I talked to her about between the vault and bars rotations. I told her to brush it off.”
The only other significant mistake came on bars, via Cristal Isa (she scored a 9.775), but Farden wasn’t concerned there either, as Isa was held out of the Red Rocks Preview with an ankle injury and was realistically competing for the first time since last April.
There were plenty of bright spots for Utah, but it was the freshman who stood out the most. Smith was one of the more highly touted recruits in the country when she signed with Utah and her talent was on full display during each of her three events.
She was an event winner on vault and tied for the third-highest score of the meet on bars (9.850) and floor (9.875).
Outside of maybe O’Keefe, who scored a 9.95 on beam and 9.85s on floor and bars, as well as all-around champs Haleigh Bryant and Aleah Finnegan, Smith was the best gymnast in the competition.
In her first collegiate competition no less.
“Not too bad for a freshman,” Farden said. “She has this nice spirit about her. She is also so even keeled. We asked her before the meet, ‘How are you feeling?’ and she said, ‘Great, let’s go get this done.’ You saw her response. She went out there and was impressive. Didn’t hold back. You saw some fantastic performances.”
True to form, Smith was somewhat unimpressed with her own performance, choosing instead to reflect on the atmosphere inside the Huntsman Center and the newness of college gymnastics.
“It was so amazing. It was so cool to see the energy. I thought it was hyped for the Red Rocks Preview, but this was no comparison. It was amazing,” Smith said. “... I didn’t really know what to expect coming into college gymnastics. Having all of these people around you to support you, it brings such a different feel in the gym. There is always someone to cheer you up.”
Correction: The article originally stated that Utah’s score was the best in a season opener since 2004, when the Red Rocks scored a 197.375 against UCLA.