Utah gymnastics’ meet against Arizona was a success Friday night.
A packed Huntsman Center watched the Red Rocks claim their 12th victory of the season, earn at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season title for the fourth straight year and nearly record the team’s third score of 198 or better this season.
There was also a historic perfect 10 from Cristal Isa, a standout floor rotation and a few new career highs too (Makenna Smith had two of those herself).
Maile O’Keefe won the all-around competition for the second week in a row, plus Isa, Smith, O’Keefe and Jaedyn Rucker all picked up event victories.
“The overall score was very strong,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “Overall it was a strong meet.”
By the end of the night, though, the meet itself didn’t seem to matter all that much.
Utah’s 197.925 was not high enough to count as part of the team’s national qualifying score (NQS). Utah needed to score at least a 198 to replace its home score of 197.975 recorded against Washington from earlier in the season.
Where NQS is concerned, Utah vs. Arizona didn’t happen.
Team scores — Utah, 197.925; Arizona 196.675
All-around — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 39.525
Balance beam — Cristal Isa (Utah); 10.0
Floor exercise — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 9.95
Uneven bars — Alysen Fears (Arizona); 9.925
Vault — Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Makenna Smith (Utah); 9.90
It was more than just NQS though.
The meet and the gymnastics were ultimately overshadowed by everything else that went along with Senior Night.
Utah and its fanbase said goodbye to three gymnasts Friday night, emotionally if not in actuality just yet... fifth year senior Cristal Isa, graduate transfer Abby Brenner and senior Jillian Hoffman.
Emotions were heightened from the outset because of it.
Hoffman fought back tears when she was announced to the crowd, which roared louder for her than it had all season.
The California native has fought back from multiple season-ending injuries in her Utah career and closed out her career at home on floor, the very event where she suffered a torn Achilles a season ago.
“She is such a fighter,” Farden said.
Brenner, who will spend just one year competing for the Utes — after four years at Michigan — teared up following the meet when she talked about her time in Salt Lake City and her adopted fanbase.
“This last year has truly been the best year,” she said, choking up. “I’ve fallen in love with gymnastics again. It feels so good to be appreciated for who I am and what I bring, nothing more and nothing less. It is honestly the best fanbase in the world. For real.”
As for Isa, she brought the Huntsman Center to its feet when she earned the second perfect 10 of her career, simultaneously bringing each one of her teammates to tears.
“It is kind of weird,” Isa said. “It is my fifth year so I was more prepared. It was more like a victory lap. I am just glad it ended perfectly I guess.”
Isa won’t soon be forgotten. By Farden especially.
“I am going to miss that kid,” he said.
Things didn’t end there, though.
Three other Utah seniors — O’Keefe, Rucker and Abby Paulson — announced together that they will be returning to Utah next season, taking advantage of a fifth year of eligibility awarded by the NCAA because of COVID’s impact on the 2020 season.
The trio, along with Hoffman, make up one of the most impactful classes in Utah gymnastics history, at least recently.
They were key in helping the Red Rocks weather the loss of gymnasts like MyKayla Skinner and MaKenna Merrell-Giles following the 2019 season and have since propelled the Red Rocks to third place finishes at nationals in consecutive years.
“I knew when we got them, and I recruited all these kids a long time ago, that it was close to a triple. I knew that. The talent was really good and I was super excited about them,” Farden said.
“We lost something like 15 routines (after 2019), but (this group of seniors) came to play. Who does a walk-off 10.0 at UCLA and go undefeated in arguably the toughest stretch of road meets?
“I will never forget that season (2020) and then it was shortened,” he added. “I get all that. But for those freshmen to come in and take lineup spots and do the work they did was incredible. And you’ve seen the maturation over the years. They came to compete.”
Things unrelated to gymnastics itself continued all night long.
Most notably, Utah honored Donna Lowe, the mother of deceased Utah football player Aaron Lowe, bringing her out onto the floor, alongside defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and offensive lineman Tyler Knaak.
𝐌𝐨𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐧 𝐆𝐲𝐦𝐧𝐚𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐬.#22Forever | #trUSt pic.twitter.com/fLIABeQUIh— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) March 4, 2023
Tears streamed again — particularly down the faces of O’Keefe, Rucker, Paulson and Hoffman — and later it was revealed that Rucker herself paid for Donna Lowe’s flight from Texas, using money she received as a result of NIL.
“That class was close with that situation,” Farden said. “If I can be honest, transparent, Jaedyn used her own NIL money to fly (Donna) here. I got a little choked up when I found out. Told her I was proud of her. It meant so much to Jaedyn and I was so proud of her.
“You see this, and I know everyone thinks NIL is the monster, but it isn’t when it is used positively. You see stuff like this, it is infectious. Those kids want to give back and do purposeful, meaningful things for our program. That is going to resonate for years. The memory of having A-Lowe’s mom being here is going to last for a long time.”
A meet did happen and Farden acknowledged that he wants to see continued improvement from his team as the regular season draws to a close.
(Utah has one final regular season meet remaining, at Oregon State next Saturday.)
“We are at a point now where I know there are some details that we need to keep going after,” he said. “There is some crispness to our gymnastics, some exactness that we have to keep training in the gym and piling on and hope it translates into competition.
“There were some moments tonight where we were a little tight. Maile on bars, Brenner on bars. I could see it here and there. But overall it was a very strong meet.”
More than that, it was a night many will remember, even if they don’t remember the gymnastics.