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Utah made it look easy in the Los Angeles Regional semifinals

The Red Rocks cruised to a first place finish in the four-team meet and advance to the regional final

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Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker smiles

Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker performs during an NCAA gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Utah gymnastics is now a meet away from making its 47th trip to nationals.

And if the Red Rocks keep competing like they did Thursday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California, there is no telling how far they can go this season.

Headlined by a couple of perfect 10s — courtesy of Maile O’Keefe and Jaedyn Rucker — Utah cruised to an easy victory in the regional semifinals, and easy might be underselling it.

The Red Rocks scored a 198.125, the team’s third best score this year and the second highest postseason score in program history, beating the next closest team — Washington — by 1.35 points.

That is a massive margin in gymnastics.

Regional semis results

Results


Team scores — Utah, 198.125; Washington, 196.775; Southern Utah, 196.600; Auburn, 195.900.

Event winners

All-around — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 39.550

Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 10.0

Floor exercise — Derrian Gobourne (Auburn), Karley McClain (Southern Utah), Abby Paulson (Utah); 9.925

Uneven bars — Cristal Isa (Utah), Sage Thompson (Utah); 9.95

Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 10.0

Utah recorded new season high scores on two events — bars (49.625) and vault (49.625) — and didn’t score lower than a 49.375 on any event.

The Red Rocks also counted only one score in the 9.7 range and showcased time and again an ability to overcome obstacles.

“One of the things we talk about in training is we don’t have to perfect. We just want to go out there and let the gymnastics happens and see where it take us,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “It was a strong score and a good day. We are pleased.”

Most pleased with the intestinal fortitude displayed by the Red Rocks, who overcame an early fall on beam by Kara Eaker and then serious mistakes on floor by both Abby Brenner and Makenna Smith.

Those are the kind of mistakes that can ruin teams — look no further than Auburn, which fell three times on bars and finished in fourth place in the competition — but they hardly affected Utah.

“The thing we are most pleased with is the rhythm of the meet,” Farden said. “How they gained confidence as the meet went on. That is what we are most pleased with. The last two events both went 49.6-plus.”

Added O’Keefe: “We did a really good job staying in our Utah bubble.”

Because of it Utah is moving on to the Los Angeles Regional final in convincing fashion.

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Utah’s Maile O’Keefe celebrates after competing on the beam as No. 4 Utah takes on No. 5 UCLA at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Defining moment(s)

There were plenty of moments in Thursday’s meet that deserve recognition. Perfect routines from O’Keefe and Rucker for certain, though.

With yet another perfect beam routine, O’Keefe’s claim to being the best beam worker in Utah gymnastics history only continues to grow and she is quietly positioning herself to make a run at the most perfect routines in career, after announcing that she will be returning to Utah next season.

Funnily enough, O’Keefe didn’t know she scored a perfect 10 on Thursday, as she excused herself immediately following her routine to go to the restroom.

She eventually found out, though at this point the perfect routines aren’t of as much import to her. As a two-time NCAA champion, former Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year and two-time Pac-12 Specialist of the Year she has plenty individual accolades. Now she wants some of the team variety.

“I wouldn’t say it gets old, but at this point in the season personal accolades don’t really mean much, unless they are going to the team,” O’Keefe said. “That is what makes me happier. It is a really good feeling knowing (that score) counted for our beam squad.”

As for Rucker, she now is one of the top 5 vaulters in Utah history, with two perfect 10s in her career, both of which have come this season.

As a new member of the perfect 10 club, it is still a unique feeling for her, but she too values the impact her vault had on the team score, more than what it meant for her as an individual.

“Maile said it perfectly,” Rucker said. “It is fresh for me, so I don’t think (scoring perfect 10s) will ever get old, but it doesn’t matter what I get unless it is helping the team get to where we want to be.”

Beyond the perfection, Cristal Isa’s beam routine, Jaylene Gilstrap’s floor routine, O’Keefe and Brenner’s vaults and Amelie Morgan’s bars routine either saved rotations or started them off in such a manner that Utah went on to season-best event performances.

Much like they did at the Pac-12 championships, Utah came through with clutch routines in key moments again and again.

Needs work

There were plenty of mistakes, though.

Obvious ones like Eaker falling on beam, Brenner struggling with her final tumbling pass on floor and Smith stepping out of bounds on floor.

Smaller ones too, especially on floor and beam, that limited Utah’s scores from reaching their full potential.

O’Keefe won the all-around, but two of her scores didn’t even count for team event scores, which is at once illustrative of the Red Rocks’ depth but also of the need for improvement.

Morgan was elite as the leadoff on bars, scoring a 9.925, but she struggled with nerves to start the meet on beam, earning a 9.850.

The Red Rocks have proven they can be better, and they will need to be as the level of competition improves this postseason.

“There were some jitters on balance beam, uncharacteristic, with Kara slipping her mount,” Farden said. “But they did a good job of handling things. ... On floor exercise there are little things that we can continue to tweak and improve, but otherwise we felt floor was a good solid performance.”

That’s encouraging

There was plenty to be excited about with the Red Rocks’ performance.

For the team itself, nothing mattered more than their ability to get better and better as the competition drew on, with the vault and bars rotations being the best Utah had done all year.

“It was almost as if they got the second leg event (floor) out of themselves and then vault was ripping,” Farden said. “Hats off to Maile and Brenner who set the foundation for that rotation. Both of them had exquisite vaults and then rest of them leaned in and did their thing. ... They got ahold of vault today.”

Farden also singled out Morgan’s leadoff routine on bars.

“Amelie has been so critical,” he said. “Her big meet experience really shows, her confidence and calmness. And you saw what they did after that.”

Other gymnasts who stood out for notable performances were:

  • Abby Paulson, who won the floor title and scored a 9.9 or better on both of her events.
  • Gilstrap, who recorded a career-high 9.9 on vault, added a key 9.9 on floor and stayed on the beam when she needed to to help Utah erase Eaker’s fall.
  • Sage Thompson, who has struggled at times this season but walked away the event winner on bars, recording a 9.950 with what was arguably her best routine this season.
  • Isa, whose beam routine rescued the rotation. She also tied Thompson on bars to earn an event win and was altogether exactly what a fifth year senior should be.
  • Jillian Hoffman, who returned from a two-meet absence to nail her vault and score a 9.9, a key part of Utah’s best vault rotation of the season.

Utah has a lot to be excited about after a nearly historic performance in the regional semifinals and the Red Rocks will hope to have continued success in future meets, starting with Saturday’s regional final.

“We are excited,” Farden said.

Understandably so.

Correction: The article initially stated that Abby Brenner stepped out of bounds during her floor routine. It has been updated to reflect that she did not step out of bounds and instead struggled with her final tumbling pass.