Utah gymnastics is headed back to the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships (aka nationals).

For the 47th consecutive time.

The Red Rocks are one of the more storied programs in all of college sports and the 2023 edition lived up to historical precedence Saturday night in Los Angeles, California.

Utah won the Los Angeles Regional final, defeating No. 4 UCLA, No. 14 Missouri and Washington.

It was a thrilling competition, down to the final moments, but Utah recorded a 198.050 — the team’s second consecutive score above a 198 — which was enough to beat the rival Bruins for a third time this season, plus hold off a surging Missouri squad.

(The top two finishing teams on Saturday clinched berths at nationals.)

Results


Team scores — Utah, 198.050; UCLA, 197.925; Missouri, 197.600; Washington, 195.650


Event winners


All-around — Selena Harris (UCLA); 39.750


Balance beam — Selena Harris (UCLA), Kara Eaker (Utah), Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.95


Floor exercise — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 10.0


Uneven bars — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 9.975


Vault — Selena Harris (UCLA), Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 10.0

“To have our team advance in this format, it is really challenging now since they changed it in 2019,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “To keep our streak going at the University of Utah, which is one of the more historic program’s in the NCAA, in any sport, just really happy to be a small part of it.”

The Red Rocks carved out their own place in that storied history Saturday, becoming the first Utah team ever to score a pair of 198s at a NCAA Regional.

Individually, senior Jaedyn Rucker became one of the more decorated vaulters in program history, after recording her third perfect 10 this season.

She is now tied with Ute legends Kristen Kenoyer, Annabeth Eberle and Tory Wilson for the most perfect 10s on vault in a career and she is the only Red Rock to earn a perfect 10 on vault in the NCAA postseason.

Utah is competing as well as it has all season, really, and is peaking at exactly the right time with room to grow if the Red Rocks are to be believed.

“We get better every day and every week and every competition,” senior Abby Brenner said.

Added senior Cristal Isa: “I think (our ceiling) is really up to your imagination, but it is pretty freaking good. I think we have been focused on peaking at the right time during postseason and I think we are actually catching our stride.

“Our regular season was amazing, but I don’t think it is really reflective of what we can do these next two weeks.”

Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker competes on the vault against Arizona in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Defining moment

For the second consecutive meet, Rucker stole the show with perfection.

Her second perfect 10 in Los Angeles was no less impressive than the first and once again helped propel Utah to yet another standout vault rotation (the Red Rocks scored a 49.575 on the event).

The reigning NCAA champion on vault, Rucker has been elite in the postseason before, finishing third on vault at the 2021 national championships before winning the individual title last season, but she has been better than ever as a senior, notably in Utah’s last two meets.

“This is the athlete we recruited several years ago, in terms of her confidence and leadership and maturity,” Farden said. “As a coach, there is no more joy in coaching than seeing someone develop like her.”

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Rucker is more than just an elite vaulter, though.

Her 9.925 on floor clinched Utah’s spot at nationals, but beyond than that she is a trusted voice among the Red Rocks.

Perhaps the most trusted.

“Jaedyn is one of the teammates that goes up to every girl and says the final word before routines,” Brenner said. “Not only is she such a confident and amazing athlete, she is the voice people want to hear right before they go.

“I’m one of (those people) and I know Cristal is one of them. On top of (everything), she is a great teammate.”

Needs work

Utah’s Cristal Isa scores a perfect 10.0 on the balance beam during a gymnastics meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It can feel like nitpicking to point out mistakes in a meet where Utah scored better than a 198, but the Red Rocks’ ever present goal is to compete for and win a national championship — the first for the program since 1995.

To do that, and to unseat the current dynasty that is Oklahoma, requires something near to perfection.

The Red Rocks weren’t perfect Saturday, as there were mistakes made on every event.

Landings were a struggle on vault, for at least half the rotation, hops cost Utah multiple tenths of a point.

On bars, the entire rotation underperformed — Utah recorded a 49.350 — with only Isa scoring in the 9.9 range.

Whether it be landings, handstands, leg separation, etc... Utah wasn’t at its best on bars.

The Red Rocks are the top-ranked beam team in the nation, but they left tenths of a point on that event as well, especially on routines that bookended things, balance checks or under rotated skills being the most significant issue.

The only event that probably doesn’t deserve nitpicking was floor, where Utah counted five scores of 9.9 or better and finished with a 49.600. Floor essentially won the meet for the Red Rocks.

That’s encouraging

Utah’s Jaylene Gilstrap does her beam routine during a gymnastics meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Speaking of floor, Utah rebounded in a major way from Thursday, when it had to count a score in the 9.7 range.

Across the board, the Red Rocks were in their element on floor, made all the more impressive by the status of the meet at that time.

Utah competed on floor in the final rotation, with both UCLA and Missouri bearing down. The Bruins had one of their best vault rotations of the year, while Missouri’s bar rotation was good enough that if Utah made a mistake the Tigers could capitalize.

All Utah did was proceed to score a 9.875 or better on every routine.

Vault, even with the lack of stuck landings, was also greatly improved for the third straight meet.

The Red Rocks’ struggles on vault seem well behind them, particularly with Maile O’Keefe excelling in the lead off position (she scored a career-high 9.925 on Saturday).

“Vault set the tone,” Farden said “We saw this team is building on vault with the landings. And the landings are a cause and effect of their take offs.

“They were in the zone (tonight). For them to set the tone and build that confidence and carry it through. That put some wind in the sails.”

Individually, the Red Rocks benefited from standout performances from O’Keefe, Abby Paulson, Rucker and Eaker.

O’Keefe was Utah’s lone all-arounder and scored a 9.9 or better on three of four events.

Paulson continues to be a 9.9 machine for Utah on both beam and floor.

Rucker, as previously mentioned, was elite on vault and excellent on floor.

As for Eaker, she rebounded from a fall on Thursday to tie for the event title on beam.

What’s next for Utah?

Utah’s Makenna Smith celebrates finishing her uneven bars routine during a gymnastics meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 3, 2023. Utah won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah is headed back to nationals, which will be held at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Red Rocks will compete against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 UCLA and No. 9 Kentucky in the semifinals on Thursday, April 12.

Finish in the top two in that meet and Utah will advance to the Final Four for the third consecutive season and have an opportunity to end the program’s national title drought.