Utah is the Pac-12 gymnastics champion. Again.
For the third consecutive year, the Red Rocks defeated all comers at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, claiming the conference crown (and symbolically breaking the regular season tie between Utah, UCLA, Cal and Oregon State).
With back-to-back-to-back conference titles, Utah has now done what no Pac-12 team could do before it — three-peat.
“This team doesn’t surprise me, with what they can do,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.
Added senior Maile O’Keefe, who finished second in the all-around competition and has been at Utah for all three conference championships: “I think this one was really special. We were the No. 2 seed, but we got to end on a really good event for us. It was a really good for us. This told us that we are a good team. And we need to be confident.”
Team scores — Utah, 197.925; UCLA, 197.850; Cal, 197.825; Oregon State, 197.200; Arizona State, 196.700; Arizona, 196.375; Washington, 196.375; Stanford, 195.875.
All-around — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 39.750
Balance beam — Jade Carey (Oregon State); 9.975
Floor exercise — Jade Carey (Oregon State), Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 9.975
Uneven bars — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 9.975
Vault — Abby Brenner (Utah); 9.925
Utah finished with a 197.925 — with it, the Utes will be the No. 5 seed entering the postseason and will compete at the Los Angeles Regional — while UCLA finished second with a 197.850, Cal third with a 197.825 and Oregon State fourth with a 197.200.
Senior Abby Brenner was the Pac-12 champion on vault, while Oregon State’s Jade Carey won the all-around, beam and floor titles. UCLA’s Jordan Chiles earned a share of the floor title and was also the uneven bars champion.
The victory was arguably Utah’s most impressive this season, even if the score wasn’t the team’s highest.
The Red Rocks made notable mistakes on three events — bars, beam and floor — and still managed to edge out two of the hottest teams in the country in UCLA and Cal.
Utah rallied from an early deficit and won the meet on its two weakest events this season — floor and vault.
“This is the guttiest win (for Utah) in a long time,” Farden said. “In awhile. I’ve been here for a long time and this was pretty gutsy.”
He credited it to the team’s chemistry. In the least cliche way possible.
“This is one of the hardest championships that we’ve won. And everybody can notice the uncharacteristic things and there were a lot of those tonight,” Farden said. “But what I really want people to realize is the actual character of the team. This is where locker room matters. When you come to a meet like this and there are mistakes, early in lineups, late in lineups and nobody quits.
“What separated us, what let us win this championships was our team chemistry, our locker room and nothing else.”
In a meet filled with ups and downs, highs and lows and much much more, it can be hard to pinpoint a single moment that propelled Utah to victory.
Of course, there were specific routines on certain events without which Utah would have lost.
Look no further than Kara Eaker on beam and Jaylene Gilstrap on floor.
A little bit of context: Utah started the meet on bars and did fine. The Red Rocks didn’t have their best rotation (49.375) — senior Cristal Isa had a very uncharacteristically poor performance — and were in third place after the first rotation because of it.
Utah then went to beam, where it is the top-ranked team in the country and underperformed.
After a strong lead off routine by Amelie Morgan, both Makenna Smith and Abby Paulson struggled and earned scores in the 9.7 range, which in a conference championship meet is nearly the equivalent of a fall.
Utah had little to no momentum at that point, while Oregon State and UCLA in particular were cruising.
That was when Eaker delivered the most important routine of her Utah career. Returning from concussion protocol — she missed back-to-back meets before the Pac-12 championships — Eaker competed a nearly flawless routine, for which she scored a 9.950.
With that one routine, Utah had a chance to salvage its beam rotation, which it did thanks to subsequent 9.950’s from Cristal Isa and O’Keefe.
(Isa’s routine was especially notable. Somehow she was able to complete her acro series and not fall off the beam. After the meet, Farden expressed his own disbelief: “I don’t know how she completed that series.”)
The following rotation, on floor, Brenner led off for Utah but stepped out of bounds, immediately putting the Utes behind.
With UCLA and Cal bearing down on Utah, Gilstrap tied her career-high with a 9.925 routine that can only be described as beautiful.
After her, every Red Rocks scored at least a 9.9 on floor, with O’Keefe finishing the rotation with a team-high 9.950.
“Those (routines) were turning points,” Farden said. “They were turning points when we needed them to be turning points. A lot of clutch performances tonight, but you could see what those two routines did to our momentum on those two events. They sparked it.”
Utah made plenty of mistakes Saturday night. There were clear and obvious ones, as Farden explained, namely Isa on bars, Paulson and Smith on beam and Brenner on floor.
Beyond that though, Utah still has improvements that can be made, almost across the board.
On bars, Utah was slightly off, barely missing stuck landings on some routines, with short handstands or leg separation on others.
That specific rotation wasn’t the cleanest by any means, or close to Utah’s best.
On beam, outside of the obvious, the Red Rocks struggled with balance checks, little and large.
Isa may have scored a 9.950, but her routine was not close to her best, one reason why she left Farden and other speechless as to how she remained on the apparatus on her acro series.
On floor, feet slid on the landings of multiple tumbling passes, even on the best routines.
And on vault, stuck landings evaded almost everyone, save for Brenner.
There is room for Utah to be better — the team will need to be now that the NCAA postseason has arrived — but there is also optimism and excitement, specifically on floor, where Utah finished with a 49.6.
“Floor is our improved event period. End of story,” Farden said. “What they have done on there. That is an event I creep along (over the course of the season) anyway. I don’t want them scoring 49.6’s in January. What are your legs going to do in April?
“So you want to inch them along. I’m very careful with what we prescribe and I have a method. Even with what we did yesterday. It was very intentional toward what I wanted to see from them today and they did great.”
No event was more important to Utah’s Pac-12 championship victory than vault.
The Red Rocks needed to be great on vault — it was their final event — and they hadn’t really excelled on the vault in the weeks leading up to Saturday night.
In fact, after the loss of Grace McCallum over a month ago, Utah had had one great vault performance, at home against Cal. The rest of the time the Red Rocks were bad or middling on vault.
Not Saturday night.
With all the pressure on them to be elite, Utah scored a 49.425, more than enough to propel the team to the championship.
Three gymnasts — Brenner, Jaedyn Rucker and Smith – scored at least a 9.9, while Maile O’Keefe and Lucy Stanhope each had a 9.85.
Utah only competed four vaults that started with a value of 10.0 — the goal is to have six —and still managed one of its better scores this season.
It was a vault performance that suggests Utah can compete for a national title this season, if it can mimic its showing at regionals and nationals.
Perhaps even more important than the score itself, the Red Rocks believe they are great at vault. They believed they could do what they needed to.
“We don’t focus on the scores,” Rucker said, “so half of us had no clue going into vault. We just gave everything we had, our all.
“A lot of people doubt our vault sometimes, but in our hearts we know that we are really good on that event. It was really exciting to go out there and finally show what we are made of.
Added O’Keefe: “We’ve worked a lot on trust this year and I think our trust is there. Now we are working on confidence and we deserve to be confident. We deserve to go into every meet with the confidence that we had today. Hopefully we can carry that forward into the rest of the postseason.”
Is momentum a thing?
Much is said in gymnastics about peaking at the right time. The value of momentum.
After Saturday, with the postseason beckoning, Utah believes in it. Wholeheartedly.
“It is absolutely a thing,” Farden said. “They can build off this.”
Added O’Keefe: I think momentum is a thing, but if there is a little dip, we are working to keep momentum no matter what happens.
“(Gymnastics) is a roller coaster. Sometimes you go up and then you come down, but you always go back up. We are working on that. Just really taking momentum and carrying that with us no matter what happens.”
What will happen next for Utah is a berth in the Los Angeles Regional, where the Red Rocks will face off against UCLA, Auburn and Missouri, plus additional teams that will be announced on Monday,
Finish in the top two in both their regional meets and Utah will once again advance to the NCAA gymnastics championships with a chance to win the national title.