Grace McCallum suffered a ‘devastating’ injury, but Utah didn’t falter. Far from it
The Red Rocks overcame a devastating injury to McCallum and cruised to a commanding victory — with a great road score — at the Metroplex Challenge
There was every reason for Utah to fall apart Saturday in the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas.
When sophomore Grace McCallum went down with a “devastating” injury while landing her vault during the first rotation, no one would have batted an eye had the Red Rocks struggled the rest of the way against Georgia, Illinois and Illinois State.
No one would have blamed them had they had their worst meet of the year.
As Maile O’Keefe said following the competition, “Grace is a vital part of this team. The heart of this team.”
Utah didn’t fall apart, though. The Red Rocks didn’t get overwhelmed or out of sorts.
Quite the opposite in fact.
Following McCallum’s injury, Utah competed at as high a level as it had at any point this season, recording near season highs on uneven bars (49.550) and floor exercise (49.475), to go along with an elite 49.600 on balance beam.
O’Keefe recorded yet another perfect 10, Cristal Isa nearly earned a perfect 10 herself and Makenna Smith won the first all-around title of her collegiate career.
All of it was enough to propel Utah to a team score of 197.600 — a road score the Red Rocks will be happy to have as part of their national qualifying score (NQS) — and an easy first-place finish in the Metroplex Challenge.
Team scores — Utah, 197.600; Illinois, 196.300; Georgia, 196.100; Illinois State, 195.850
All-around — Makenna Smith (Utah); 39.400
Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 10.0
Floor exercise — Haley de Jong (Georgia), Soraya Hawthorne (Georgia); 9.950
Uneven bars — Cristal Isa (Utah); 9.975
Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah), Naya Howard (Georgia), Arielle Ward (Illinois); 9.850
“Really proud of the team rebounding from (McCallum’s) injury and bouncing back as strong as they could on three events,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “An unfortunate part of sports are injuries and we are really proud of the way that the team rebounded.”
Rebound might be underselling it.
The Red Rocks started the meet on vault and struggled mightily, at least with scores.
No Utah gymnast scored higher than a 9.850 and that is with four Red Rocks (Abby Brenner, Jillian Hoffman, Jaedyn Rucker and Smith) competing vaults with a start value of 10.0.
The 48.975 tallied on vault was easily the worst rotation score on any event this season for Utah and then there was the devastation of McCallum’s injury.
“It was just not a good landing,” Farden said. “It is devastating.”
Farden believed his team did better on vault than the scoring reflected — “Tight vaulting judging tonight,” he said. “A lot of our vaults were done really well” — but there were no issues with tight scoring on bars, where the Red Rocks put on a clinic.
From the beginning of the rotation with Amelie Morgan (9.875) to the end with Isa (9.975), Utah was as good on bars as it had been been at any point this season.
That momentum carried onto beam, where outside of a difficult leadoff routine by Morgan, Utah excelled, the highlight being a historic perfect routine by O’Keefe.
With her latest 10 on beam, O’Keefe is now tied with Utah legend Theresa Kulikowski for the most perfect 10s on beam in a Utah gymnast’s career, with six. O’Keefe’s seven overall perfect routines now have her tied with Missy Marlowe for the fourth-most by a Utah gymnast.
“Honestly I think this 10 might have been more of a 10 than last weeks,” O’Keefe said. “It was super clean. Tying the record is amazing. She has held that record for a really long time. That is exactly what I came to Utah to do, though. I came here to break records and become legendary.”
Utah closed out the meet with a standout floor rotation, with Eaker recording a 9.90 in the anchor spot in relief of McCallum, performing a new routine to boot.
The Red Rocks didn’t just rebound from a slow start and McCallum’s injury, they fed off it.
“Little bit of a rough start,” O’Keefe said. “... I think as a team we do a really good job of bouncing back (from injuries to teammates) and not letting that affect our performance. We flip it and turn it into wanting to perform for them.
“We carried on for them. Since (McCallum) couldn’t be in lineups, we wanted to do everything we could with our gymnastics to keep that going.”
Added Farden: “They are fighters. They came together and did their gymnastics. Hats off to the coaches on their events because we are alway pushing those seventh, eighth and ninth spots (in lineups). Creating depth, developing depth and coaching depth.
“We didn’t really take that much of a step back (after losing McCallum). Everyone chipped in some change and I was really proud of everybody.”
Utah’s score of 197.600 was almost exactly what the team needed in a meet like the Metroplex Challenge, almost an incredible feat given McCallum’s absence — she had been Utah’s best overall gymnast this season, ranking 13th in the country in the all-around, 14th on floor, 16th on bars and 24th on beam — and the team’s struggles on vault.
Utah had competed on the road only twice this season prior to Saturday’s meet and road scores are an integral component of NQS.
(NQS, in simplest terms determines seeding for the postseason).
Saturday’s score might not hold up over the remainder of the year, but it is a significant improvement on Utah’s score at Oklahoma early this year and will surely boost the Red Rocks’ standing nationally when NQS goes into effect.
As for McCallum, there is no definitive answer as to her status going forward, but with or without her on the competition floor, she is expected to be vital for the team.
O’Keefe made no secret of that.
“Luckily she will still be with us. you know,” O’Keefe said. “Her heart will still be here and we will still have her support.”
If Saturday’s performance is any indication, Utah will remain elite as a result.