The regular season came to an end for Utah gymnastics Saturday evening and not exactly in the way the No. 4-ranked Red Rocks would have preferred.
On the road in Corvallis, Oregon, taking on the No. 13 Oregon State Beavers, Utah lost only its second conference meet this season, 197.950 to 197.700.
The setback meant that Utah didn’t win the Pac-12 regular season title outright this year, the Red Rocks instead sharing the title with Oregon State, No. 7 Cal and No. 5 UCLA.
Team scores — Oregon State, 197.950; Utah, 197.700
All-around — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 39.825
Balance beam — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975
Floor exercise — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975
Uneven bars — Jade Carey (Oregon State), Jennifer McMillan (Oregon State), Cristal Isa (Utah), Sage Thompson (Utah); 9.950
Vault — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.925
Utah’s score also wasn’t enough to hold off rival UCLA in the national rankings. Come Monday, the Bruins will rank ahead of Utah and will hold the top seed at the Pac-12 gymnastics championships next weekend.
The Red Rocks had their moments, though, including a standout opening bars rotation (49.550).
“I thought the meet started out really well on bars,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “A lot of good landings tonight.”
There were impressive individual outings too, including event-winning performances on bars by Sage Thompson and Cristal Isa, a trio of scores of 9.9 or better on floor by Jaylene Gilstrap, Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe, plus a notable meet-ending beam routine by Gilstrap.
Utah also improved its NQS, despite the loss.
It was that kind of night. One filled with positives and negatives.
“The kids didn’t stop fighting,” Farden said. “We don’t have a lot of time to turn this thing around, so we have to get back in the gym, work hard and head off to Pac-12s and see what happens.”
Two things decided the meet, one a rotation, the other an individual routine.
After the first rotation in the meet, Utah led and appeared to be en route to a big score. Vault proved the Red Rocks’ undoing, though.
Other than Abby Brenner and Jaedyn Rucker, both of whom scored a 9.9 and stuck their landings, Utah struggled on vault. Not as much as it did in previous road meets, such as the Metroplex Challenge or at ASU, but still vault proved a major challenge.
Second 9.90 for Abby Brenner on her second event today 🔥🔥— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) March 11, 2023
📲 https://t.co/3rvumlZx2G pic.twitter.com/Xwf1Gg77Nt
The highest score after the aforementioned 9.9s was a 9.825, courtesy of Makenna Smith and Gilstrap. O’Keefe struggled with her landing and scored a 9.775 and Lucy Stanhope returned to the lineup for the first time in over a month and sat her vault.
Landings proved problematic, an ongoing theme on the event for much of this year, and any and all momentum that Utah had disappeared, at least for a time.
Utah managed to bounce back in a big way, though, with a solid floor rotation (49.475) and then went to beam to close out the meet.
The No. 1-ranked beam team in the country this season, Utah appeared to be in excellent shape — with a genuine shot at the win — but an inexplicable fall by O’Keefe ended any hope of a Red Rocks rally.
O’Keefe fell when you’d least expect, right after she mounted the beam. It was, in a word, shocking.
“I actually think there is an expectation for a 10 every time she (Maile) touches that beam and that can weigh heavily,” Farden said. “But she is still an athlete and I’m still her coach.
“At the time, I thought the best thing was to put my arm around her and say, ‘You’re human.’ Nothing but her pride was hurt. I told her we are going to charge forward and not take things for granted from here on out.”
There was room for improvement on three events — beam, floor and vault — though vault has proven the Red Rocks’ greatest weakness this season, particularly in the weeks following Grace McCallum’s injury.
Landings specifically have been a struggle and the two stuck landings that were managed Saturday weren’t exactly easy to get.
Rucker fought hard for her stick, harder than you usually see, and Brenner’s was held for but a brief moment.
Fight for that stick 😉 Jaedyn Rucker scores another 9.90 for the vault team!— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) March 11, 2023
📲 https://t.co/3rvumlYZd8 pic.twitter.com/lBaN8xGwMi
Stanhope sitting her vault wasn’t ideal either, but she hadn’t competed in over a month and Farden felt the need to get her back on the competition floor before the postseason (she has missed significant time this season with a bruised heel).
“We had to get Lucy back out there,” Farden said.
Utah knows vault landings are an issue. It is a point of emphasis right now.
“They need to settle in a little more with their landings,” Farden said. “They are definitely addressing that. We need to let them be a little more patient when they come to the landing portion of it. ... We are zeroing in on vault and we need to.”
Again, it was a meet with plenty of positives and negatives. And on the positive side was Gilstrap.
The junior has come into her own this season and competed arguably her best floor routine of the year (the same could also be argued of O’Keefe, who scored a 9.925 in the anchor spot on floor).
Farden was more than pleased with Gilstrap’s showing on vault, but it was her meet-closing beam routine that drew rave reviews.
Following O’Keefe’s fall on beam, Gilstrap delivered the best beam routine of her career, in the most pressure-packed moment of her Utah career. At least for her as an individual.
Absolutely beautiful work from Jaylene Gilstrap on beam! She scores a career high 9.90 👏 pic.twitter.com/bOV07KMrGv— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) March 11, 2023
“One of the highlights was the last routine of the night, with Jaylene hitting that beautiful 9.9,” Farden said. “She has shown incredible growth. She is really enjoying her gymnastics. You can see the athlete we recruited, in terms of elite quality of movement, her artistry, the way she commands.
“You are drawn in because of how clean her gymnastics is. Really proud of Jaylene. She is a quiet competitor but plugs away and works extremely hard.”
Gilstrap wasn’t the only standout. Brenner continues to be ever the solid veteran, with multiple 9.9s. Abby Paulson was right there with her as well, with a 9.925 on beam and a 9.9 on floor.
Beam queen 💅— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) March 11, 2023
Abby Paulson adds a 9.925!
📲 https://t.co/3rvumlYZd8 pic.twitter.com/7FfSrexwEE
Isa had one of her best meets of the season as well, with a 9.950 on bars and a 9.925 on beam.
Perhaps the biggest talking point during and after the meet was the scoring. The subjectivity of a judged sport like gymnastics can infuriate fans at times and that was the case for many Utah supporters Saturday, who felt Oregon State benefited from generous home scores.
(OSU fans no doubt would argue their scores were fair and the Beavers deserved to win the meet.)
Farden regularly talks about the subjectivity of gymnastics and did so again following the meet with Oregon State.
“What I expect from the judges is that when we walk in here, regardless of the leotard we are wearing, if it is a performance that deems a high score, we should be rewarded a high score,” Farden said. “It is a subjective sport. There are liabilities to it, but I think I should leave it at that.”
Whether overscored or underscored on Saturday, Farden and Utah are optimistic for the future, first with the Pac-12 championships and then the NCAA postseason.
“There is a lot of hope. A lot of hope,” Farden said. “We improved our NQS today. This (meet) was a complete sellout and that speaks to the popularity of women’s gymnastics and where it is going. It was completely electric in here.
“And then the other thing is our team continues to find its identity without two of our Olympians (McCallum and Kara Eaker). They are not quitting. They are still fighting. You can see this is a team of fighters, so that is encouraging.”