WEST VALLEY CITY — Things did not go as planned for Utah gymnastics Saturday afternoon at the Maverik Center.

The arena is the Red Rocks’ home away from home, located just over seven miles away from the Huntsman Center on the campus of the University of Utah, and over the years the Utes have dominated most “neutral” competitions held there, be it regular season four-team meets or the Pac-12 championships.

In an early season showdown against defending champion Oklahoma, rival UCLA and title contender LSU, the Maverik Center ceased to be a Utah stronghold, however.


Team scores — Oklahoma, 197.900; LSU, 197.150; UCLA, 197.100; Utah, 196.975.

Event winners

  • All-around — Selena Harris (UCLA); 39.650.
  • Balance beam — Jordan Bowers (Oklahoma); 9.950.
  • Floor exercise — Aleah Finnegan (LSU); 9.975.
  • Uneven bars — Konnor McClain (LSU); 10.0
  • Vault — Selena Harris (UCLA), Camie Winger (Utah); 9.950.

Undone by mistakes, especially on uneven bars and balance beam, the Red Rocks finished in last place Saturday with a 196.975, failing to break the 197 barrier for the first time in nearly two years.

Oklahoma won the meet with a commanding 197.900, followed by LSU with a 197.150 and UCLA with a 197.100.

The Red Rocks struggled from the outset, earning a season-low event score on bars (49.050) and followed that up with a disappointing —  by their standards — 49.175 on beam.

Utah was simply fallible. Nothing was more indicative of that than reigning NCAA all-around champion Maile O’Keefe falling on beam, her signature event.

“Obviously not the finish we were anticipating or wanting tonight,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “But the mistakes we made are ones we are going to need to learn from and adjust moving forward.

“I thought that vault was a huge step forward (for us), and an excellent way to finish the competition. (We) had some really great floor routines. Overall, just some individual great performances, but definitely not a collective team performance.”

Defining moment

The meet was decided early, at least when it came to which team was going to win the whole thing.

Part of that was dominance from Oklahoma, which started the meet with back-to-back 49.450s on vault and bars, and part of that was struggles from the Red Rocks.

Utah’s bars rotation left a great deal to be desired, with no gymnast scoring better than a 9.875. The Red Rocks were the only team to fail to get at least one 9.90 in a rotation.

A fall from freshman Ella Zirbes, plus a couple of less-than-ideal routines to start by Makenna Smith and Alani Sabado, left Utah reeling from the get-go.

Throw in confusion about when Grace McCallum was supposed to compete — per Dockendorf, there was a miscommunication regarding the new quad meet format debuted by the NCAA — and Utah started the day in third place ahead of only LSU, which had to count a 9.337 on beam.

What went wrong? Nerves.

Be it the caliber of the competition, the venue, the nationally televised nature of the meet, the Red Rocks got in their heads and did not compete with confidence early.

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“We dug ourselves into a pretty big hole after the first two rotations. Those were below average routines for us across the board,” Dockendorf said.

She added: “I think that they put a lot of extra pressure (on themselves) all of a sudden when the green flag went up, because warmups went excellent.

“They looked focused and were sharp, and then I think they just started doubting themselves a little bit and didn’t trust their gymnastics and all their preparation that they put in this week.”

Abby Paulson and Grace McCallum echoed Dockendorf’s sentiments, with McCallum noting, “We just weren’t really trusting our training, were doubting out abilities to go out there and hit beautiful routines.”

Standout routines

As noted by Dockendorf, there were some impressive individual performance by the Red Rocks, plus an encouraging team performance on a specific event.

That event was vault, on which Utah scored a 49.400, and that was even with NCAA champion Jaedyn Rucker not competing her best vault.

Freshman Camie Winger was the standout, with a career-high 9.95 to lead off the rotation. It was only the second vault of her collegiate career but it tied her with UCLA superstar Selena Harris for the event victory.

Beyond that, Smith had a standout effort and earned a 9.925, and McCallum made her return to that lineup for the first time since she was injured on the event last season.

“It was nice to be back out there,” McCallum said. “I honestly wasn’t expecting it. I was told a couple of days and ago and thought, ‘Really? A (Yurchenko) full? Me?’ So I was really excited to go back out there and compete on vault.”

The Red Rocks also had a few standout floor routines, with Smith again being at the forefront.

The sophomore led off the rotation with a 9.90, which was the best routine Utah put forward.

Paulson and McCallum both had solid performances as well and Utah’s 49.300 was made all the more significant given the team’s struggles on the two prior events.

Paulson was also great on beam, one of few Red Rocks to perform to their standard on the event.

Her 9.925 was nearly flawless, if not for an early balance check.

Adjustments to make

The Red Rocks made no secret of the fact that they have plenty to work on going forward, with another meet at the Maverik Center — the Best of Utah against BYU, Southern Utah and Utah State — coming on Monday.

“We had some uncharacteristic mistakes,” McCallum said. “We weren’t our most confident out there today, but it is a good starting point. You always learn from your mistakes. It is a good stepping stone moving forward and all we can do is learn from it and hopefully get better.”

There were myriad mistakes, be it leg separation on bars, steps and/or falls on dismounts, balance checks on beam, uncontrolled dismounts and landings on beam and floor, among others.

The balance checks, specifically, Dockendorf contributed to lack of confidence.

“They are a reflection of their confidence,” she said. “They had a little bit of doubt, wanted to prove themselves today so beam is the event you are going to see those little mistakes come out.”

The rest can be attributed to nerves and the fact that it is still early in the season.

Utah has a young team — 50% of the roster is freshmen or sophomores — and with that comes mistakes. Plus even elite gymnasts like O’Keefe are human. Mistakes happen.

“Obviously it wasn’t our best meet, but it is Week 2 of the season,” Paulson said.

The takeaway

Despite their fourth-place finish, Utah came away optimistic about its season.

For one, despite significant struggles on two events, the Red Rocks narrowly finished behind LSU and UCLA.

“To finish close to some of the other teams with two events not quite in our prime, it is encouraging but still not what we wanted,” Dockendorf said.

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More than that, though, Utah believes it has the talent to compete with the best teams in the country, that it is one of the best teams in women’s college gymnastics again.

Just not on Saturday.

“There was a lot of nerves today,” Paulson said. “Moving forward that is what we need to work on.

“Our gymnastics is there. Everyone here is a gorgeous gymnast. We’ve got so much talent and depth. I think we are very capable of showing that once we get into the groove of the season.”

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