Utah is no longer unbeaten in Pac-12 competition this season.
The No. 4-ranked Red Rocks had cruised through conference play to start the year, with relatively easy victories against Washington, rival UCLA and in a roundabout way Stanford.
(Losing Grace McCallum to injury at the Metroplex Challenge wasn’t easy, but the Red Rocks weren’t tested in the meet by Georgia, Illinois or Illinois State. Utah’s score at the Metroplex Challenge was counted against Stanford’s score in a later meet at the Metroplex Challenge).
That all came to a screeching halt on President’s Day in Tempe, Arizona, though.
Arizona State defeated Utah 197.550 to 197.500, breaking a 33-meet losing streak to the Red Rocks that went back to 2003.
ASU star Hannah Scharf had herself a day, winning the all-around, floor and bars titles. Abby Paulson and Kara Eaker were the only Red Rocks to pick up any hardware, sharing the title on beam.
Utah was the better team on only one event — beam — and thus it was a disappointing showing for the Red Rocks. Especially on vault where Utah recorded a season-worst score of 48.925.
Utah wasn’t happy.
“Second week in a row where we really did only three events well,” head coach Tom Farden said. “That caught up to us today. Not the outcome we were training for or anticipated.”
As Farden went on to explain, Utah has an expectation of winning every time it steps out on the competition floor. The Red Rocks don’t like losing.
“... Let’s be honest,” Farden said. “You play to win and you coach to win. Not to lose by half a tenth (of a point).”
And yet, Utah didn’t walk away with nothing Monday.
The 197.500 was more than good enough to replace Utah’s previous low road score of 197.275 — Utah recorded that in the loss at Oklahoma.
With national qualifying score (NQS) now in effect and determining rankings — which in turn determine seeding for NCAA regionals — Utah didn’t take a step back on the national stage, and actually improved.
The Red Rocks also showed a mettle and fight only previous displayed at the Metroplex Challenge, after McCallum went down with injury. Before that, Utah hadn’t been tested by an opponent this season — not really — save for Oklahoma. And the Red Rocks weren’t able to compete at the same level as the Sooners in that meet.
Despite falling behind significantly after the first two rotations against ASU — Utah trailed the Sun Devils 98.825 to 98.425, and yes, four tenths of a point is significant in gymnastics — the Red Rocks only lost the meet by half a tenth of a point.
Utah nearly rallied to win, and that despite still being three tenths of a point behind entering the final rotation.
“There is always a silver lining to everything we do,” Farden said. “When you are in a high pressure situation and you are down three tenths going into the last rotation, and you see your team crawl back with some unbelievable balance beam (routines), it does speak volumes that they aren’t quitters.
“They came to fight. We just shot ourselves in the foot in the second rotation. Hard to come back from that.”
There were two major meet changing moments for Utah.
The first came on vault, the later on beam.
Utah actually started the meet well, recording a 49.500 on uneven bars, thanks to standout routines by Abby Brenner, Sage Thompson, Cristal Isa and Maile O’Keefe.
Brenner and Thompson each scored a 9.925 — season high’s for both — and Utah had all the momentum, plus the lead.
It all evaporated almost immediately once vault began, though.
Utah recorded a rotation-best score of only 9.825 on vault — both Thompson and Jillian Hoffman hit that mark — and had to count a 9.75 from Makenna Smith, after reigning NCAA vault champion Jaedyn Rucker sat her vault.
Any and all momentum Utah had after bars disappeared with each consecutive vault in the rotation, and without the last two vaults from Hoffman and Thompson the Red Rocks were staring at a score in the low 48s.
Landings were the biggest issue, with every gymnast other than Rucker taking either a significant hop or step.
“As a coach, you want to run with no excuses,” Farden said. “I did feel like our warmup vaults were really good. Maybe they were trying too hard on their sticks today and that resulted in short landings where they were opening up early and got caught off guard on some things.”
The Red Rocks were as elite on beam as they were poor on vault, though. Beam nearly enabled Utah rally for the win.
Paulson and Eaker each scored a 9.975 — for Paulson it was a season-high — while O’Keefe and Isa finished with a 9.925 and 9.9, respectively.
The beam rotation changed with Smith, though. Filling in for the injured McCallum, Smith followed a 9.80 from Amelie Morgan with a career-high 9.925 in only her second beam routine of the season.
It was a nearly flawless routine, in a pressure-packed situation, and it gave Utah momentum and a chance to win the meet in the end.
That obviously did not happen, but Smith changed the meet in Utah’s favor.
Vault is the easy answer here given Utah has scored below a 49 in consecutive weeks on the event.
With the loss of McCallum, the Red Rocks only have five 10.0 valued vaults ready for competition and Lucy Stanhope is still recovering from a bruised heel — Farden said she is training so a return to the lineup is probable — so Utah was down to four 10.0 valued vaults against ASU.
Value of the vault didn’t matter all that much against the Sun Devils, though. Utah was not up to its own standards on the event, not with a single vault.
It wasn’t just vault, either.
Utah was good on floor — better than its current NQS on the event — with a 49.375, but the Red Rocks had proven capable of more than that over the last couple of weeks.
On Monday, three Red Rocks didn’t break the 9.9 barrier, leaving valuable tenths of a point on the floor.
Change two of the 9.85s to 9.9s and Utah wins the meet.
With the loss of McCallum, Utah also doesn’t have a consistent 9.925 or better scoring gymnast on floor right now, a departure from recent years when Red Rocks had MyKayla Skinner and then Sydney Soloski consistently providing those types of scores.
McCallum had become that gymnast but she is out indefinitely.
All of which is to say the Red Rocks have work to do. And they know it.
“In gymnastics, there is no defense,” Farden said. “We only play offense in gymnastics and that is to pile on the tenths. We are going to find those tenths. We have to.”
There were additional positives for Utah, besides improving its NQS and the continued excellence of the beam lineup.
Bars has become an absolute strength of the team, even with the loss of McCallum — bars may be her best event in college.
Brenner and Thompson continue to get better week-by-week, Morgan has proven the right gymnast in the leadoff position and Isa and O’Keefe are ever constant.
There is depth there too, with Paulson and Alani Sabado more than capable of stepping into the lineup.
Smith in particular continues to be a bright spot for Utah.
A true freshman, she has now competed in the all-around in consecutive weeks and has mostly settled into being a competitor who scores between 9.85 and 9.95 and every event.
Vault was an aberration for her against the Sun Devils and her performance on beam was significant given the loss of McCallum.
Paulson hasn’t been as good this season as she has wanted to be, but she was at her absolute best on beam on Monday.
Eaker continues to be elite on beam and by the end of the season may even surpass O’Keefe in the national rankings — right now O’Keefe is No. 1 in the country, while Eaker is tied at No. 5.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing of all, though, is the continued improvement of Brenner.
With a 9.925 on bars and a 9.90 on floor, Brenner recorded her first 9.9 or better scores of the season. And as Farden explained following Utah’s victory over UCLA a couple of weeks ago, Brenner is improving week-after-week, as a graduate transfer no less.
With career-highs of 9.975 on vault and 9.95 on both floor and bars, Brenner has the potential to become an elite gymnast for Utah this season.