FORT WORTH, Texas — It is a story that has been told before. Three consecutive years now.
Utah gymnastics enters the NCAA gymnastics championship at Dickies Arena in Forth Worth, Texas, with title aspirations — legitimate ones at that — but leaves as one of the vanquished, specifically as the third place finisher.
It happened in 2021, when Utah finished third overall behind Michigan and Oklahoma.
It happened in 2022, when the Red Rocks finished third overall behind Oklahoma and Florida.
And it happened again Saturday.
Utah finished third overall at the national championships for the third straight year, again finishing behind a champion in Oklahoma and a runner up in Florida.
The Sooners, now repeat champions, won with a 198.3875, while the Gators ended with a 198.2375, the Utes with a 197.9375, and in fourth place, LSU with a 197.5250.
Another year, the same story.
“I feel like we’ve done this,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “Maybe three times now.”
Once again it was the vault rotation that did the Red Rocks in.
While Utah was excellent on uneven bars (49.5500) and floor exercise (49.5000) and unreal on balance beam (49.7375), the vault rotation was less than stellar.
No gymnast was able to stick their vault landing, and the highest individual score came in at 9.9000, courtesy of Abby Brenner, while Utah had to count a score in the 9.7-range (9.7625).
The rotation scored only a 49.1500, the lowest event score by any of the four teams that competed in the national championship.
Another year, the same failure. Right?
Strictly speaking, yes.
Yes, Utah finished third overall, the program’s national title drought — which is agonizing to fans — stretching to 28 long years in the process.
The last time the Red Rocks were national champions, Bill Clinton was the President of the United States, Batman Forever wound up the highest grossing movie at the box office and no current Utah gymnast had been born yet.
And yes, the Red Rocks weren’t nearly good enough on vault in a meet that demands elite rotations on all four events. Again.
Even fourth place finishing LSU managed to avoid a rotation like Utah’s vault on Saturday.
But this year was different. If for no other reason than Utah went down fighting. On vault specifically.
“We were going for sticks and when you do that you risk the danger of stepping backwards,” Farden said. “And when you do that that is a bigger deduction than for a step forward.”
Nearly every one of Utah’s vaults saw a gymnast take a step back (or two) when competing in the most common 10.0 valued vault in the sport — the Yurchenko 1.5.
Utah went for the win on Saturday and came up short.
“It is another learning lesson,” Farden said.
While tears wound up streaming down the faces of multiple Red Rocks, there was little sorrow from them about the end result.
“Our goal for this weekend was to give it our all and leave nothing back,” senior Abby Brenner said. “We did that. We went 24 for 24 (on routines). You can’t really ask for more.”
Added sophomore Grace McCallum: “This team fought hard until the end. We did a killer beam rotation. I couldn’t be more proud of everybody. Hopefully next year is our year.”
The weekend, which includes Thursday’s semifinals, was — in the eyes of Farden — a success even, despite another third place finish.
“I actually feel like the program did make another progression this year,” he said. “I can look at things realistically.”
He laid three specific reasons.
“No. 1, most sports have a Final Four and it is really hard to get to the Final Four,” Farden said. “We’ve done it several times now. No. 2, we beat Oklahoma in postseason and that is extremely hard to do.
“My third point to this, I really felt like we are the precipice. We had really good scores on floor and bars and on balance beam they were unconscious. Those are amazing scores that put you in title contention.”
Of course, Farden knows that something needs to be different. Same behavior, same results, or something like that.
“We have to keep tinkering and figure some things out,” Farden said. “I am really proud of the kids. They fought all the way to the end. We were on cloud nine after Thursday night. And it is sports. It is not a perfect science. If it was...”
There were bright spots for Utah, though they may have faded away with the final result.
Senior Maile O’Keefe earned another perfect 10 on beam, her second in two days in Fort Worth and the tenth of her career.
“She is at the pinnacle,” Farden said.
The Red Rocks’ poor vault rotation happened in the middle of the competition, and rather than wither away, the team went on to their two best events of the day on bars and beam.
Utah’s beam rotation was nearly record-breaking — the team’s low score that counted was a 9.9125 — and established once and for all that the Red Rocks are the best beam team in the nation.
“We all said before the meet, win, lose or draw, there was no result that would disappoint,” senior Cristal Isa said. “We had an amazing year and nothing we did today was going to change that. It is a little disappointing because of how things were leading up, but we did our best. We finished it out really strong and I am really proud of us.”
For another year, Utah’s best was not good enough to warrant the title best in the nation.
Which means sooner rather than later, the Red Rocks will get back to work.
“I am going to be out on the road and recruit,” Farden said. “We will look at our training plan. I thought we had really good legs. We were right there in a lot of ways.
“... We have a nucleus of a lot of people who are exceptional and know how to handle big meets. And we are bringing in some really big talent (next year). So excited about the future. Always.”