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Utah faced its first true road test of the year against Washington. Things couldn’t have gone much better

SHARE Utah faced its first true road test of the year against Washington. Things couldn’t have gone much better
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Utah’s Abby Paulson competes in the floor exercise during the semifinals of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez, AP

Through the first month (and a few days) of the season, Utah gymnastics lived a pretty charmed life.

Despite competing five times, starting on Jan. 5, the Red Rocks had only competed in the state of Utah, either in Salt Lake City or in West Valley City, under the watchful gaze of thousands of their supporters.

They had only slept in their own beds, trained almost exclusively on their own equipment and competed in friendly and familiar environs.

Red Rocks vs. UW

Results


Team scores — Utah, 197.775; Washington, 196.425

Event winners
  • All-around — Grace McCallum (Utah); 39.550.
  • Balance beam — Amelie Morgan (Utah), Abby Paulson (Utah); 9.95.
  • Floor exercise — Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.950.
  • Uneven bars — Grace McCallum (Utah), Amelie Morgan (Utah), Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.925.
  • Vault — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah), Ella Zirbes (Utah); 9.875.

That all changed Saturday afternoon when Utah competed in its first true road meet of the year in Seattle against the Washington Huskies.

With the importance of road meets looming since national qualifying scores prioritize away scores in attempt to limit home bias, Utah didn’t just do well away from the Beehive State.

No, the Red Rocks did better than they had all season.

Powered by a season-high event score on uneven bars (49.525), plus standout performances from Amelie Morgan, Abby Paulson and Ella Zirbes, Utah defeated Washington with a season-best score of 197.775.

Red Rocks won every single event title, with Grace McCallum leading the way with the all-around title plus the floor exercise title and a share of the bars title.

Utah scored a 9.90 or better on 10 of 24 routines, and with a 49.200 or better on every event, the Red Rocks had their most complete meet of the season.

“Really proud of the team,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “First road meet and for us to adapt to being here, I thought the team did an excellent job. We had some outstanding individual performances tonight.

“... Overall really proud of the team and the way they handled our first road meet. Some excellent individual performances and a step forward.”

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Utah’s Makenna Smith competes in the floor exercise during the semifinals of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez, AP

Defining moment

In a meet in which a lot went right for Utah against an opponent that probably needed lightning-in-a-bottle to challenge the No. 4-ranked Red Rocks, pinpointing one defining moment from the competition seems a little futile.

Or rather it would if the Red Rocks didn’t start the meet in near-postseason form.

Beginning with Makenna Smith on bars — the sophomore scored a 9.90 to lead off Utah — the Red Rocks performed standout routine after standout routine after standout routine to all but ensure the meet was theirs after the first rotation.

Smith got things going, but no Utah gymnast earned a score below a 9.825, and the Red Rocks only counted one score in the 9.8 range — a 9.850 from Zirbes.

McCallum, Morgan and Maile O’Keefe each earned a 9.925, and Utah made good on the potential it has flashed on bars since before the season started.

“I think starting on bars was really important,” Dockendorf said. “Doing an excellent job really set the tone for the rest of the meet. Our bar rotations have shown a lot of potential so it was great to see them put all their routine together.”

Standout routines

As referenced by Dockendorf, many gymnasts had notable performances Saturday.

Morgan and Paulson each competed on two events and neither scored below a 9.900. Morgan’s 9.950 to lead off the beam lineup spearheaded a rotation that, on a normal week, would have been Utah’s best.

“Amelie crushed her beam routine,” Dockendorf said.

Perhaps even more encouraging, though, were the outings by Zirbes and fellow freshman Elizabeth Gantner.

Zirbes competed on three events (bars, floor and vault) and a scored a 9.850 or better every time. She tied for the event title on vault, but it was her debut on floor that left something to be remembered.

Filling in for O’Keefe, who was resting, Zirbes earned a 9.925 in her first ever collegiate floor routine. It was the type of performance that could earn her a regular spot in the lineup going forward.

“It was great to see her rock her bar routine and then do a beautiful floor routine,” Dockendorf said.

She continued: “That was a gorgeous (floor) routine for her and really showed how confident she is and that that routine can score really well, so I think that is going to be something we will really need to evaluate to see where she fits into that lineup. She just has such a beautiful presence about her and the judges obviously like watching it.”

Gantner, meanwhile, competed for only the second time this season, and her beam routine earned her a 9.875, the type of score that could help Utah solidify its beam lineup and survive the month-long absence of Morgan (looming after the UCLA meet).

“Liz was exceptional so that was really cool to see,” Dockendorf said.

Adjustments to make

Overall Utah had its cleanest meet of the season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t mistakes, areas that need improvement.

Vault saw the Red Rocks struggle to stick landings, and no gymnast scored about a 9.875. Some of that was early twisting off the table, a mistake that saw multiple gymnasts fly crooked through the air and land in positions that required them take steps.

Moreover, with Camie Winger pulled out of the lineup late — Dockendorf said she was struggling to get around on her Yurchenko 1.5 — Utah competed only four vaults valued at 10.0, fine for a regular season meet but an issue if it continues later into the season and postseason.

“We definitely weren’t very clean on our landings. We rushed off the table on a few of our vaults so we kind of got direction landing deductions as well,” Dockendorf said. “... We went back to two Yurchenko Fulls in the lineup again and that is going to change our start value.”

It wasn’t just vault, though. Utah counted low scores of 9.800, 9.825 and 9.850 on events, leaving clear tenths of points on the board.

Overall, though, the Red Rocks looked better than they had yet this season.

“I think this was our cleanest meet overall and the mistakes that we are making are not the same mistakes,” Dockendorf said. “We are learning from the issues we are having and growing from them, making the adjustments.

“We obviously took Maile out of floor just to rest her and Camie was out of vault, so some of our key players were not in lineups today and still we were able to score out best score of the season.”

The takeaway

The Red Rocks looked completely at home in Seattle, which bodes well for future meets at UCLA, Cal and Arizona, plus the postseason.

And the performance against the Huskies should only continue to encourage them more.

“I think for us, obviously this was the first time we were out of the state of Utah and I think the whole team was ready to travel,” Morgan said. “We were ready for something different and I think that gave us some fire.

“We knew we were going to have to adapt to some new equipment. We’ve been at home a lot, and there definitely were some lessons learned today and it was nice to get the opportunity to adapt to a different environment. We are excited to go on the road again.”

Realistically, Utah competed the best it had all year, and continues to show steady, if at times slow, improvement week after week.

Keep it up and Utah should be in position to compete for another Pac-12 championship, plus make some real noise again come April.

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Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes in the floor exercise during the semifinals of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez, AP