How a career night by 5 Red Rocks lifted Utah gymnastics past Arizona State and why Utah still has significant room for growth
Alexia Burch, Hunter Dula, Cristal Isa, Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe all had career-best performances in the Utes’ 197.050-194.300 win over the Sun Devils
SALT LAKE CITY — Three vaults into Friday night’s Pac-12 opener against Arizona State, the usually stalwart Utah gymnastics team — ranked No. 5 in the nation — looked like significantly less than the sum of its parts. Back-to-back-to-back scores 9.75 or lower had the announced crowd of 15,558 that filled the Huntsman Center on the campus of the University of Utah in almost a stunned silence.
By the conclusion of the meet, the Ute faithful were stunned for an altogether different reason.
Five different Red Rocks set new career-highs Friday night — and another tied hers — as Utah overcame its slow start to handily defeat ASU 197.050-194.200 and improve to 5-0 on the season.
Alexia Burch, Hunter Dula, Cristal Isa, Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe all had career-best performances on one event or another, and all were individual winners as a result.
Burch won vault with a 9.95 that shook the Huntsman Center out of its dazed stupor. Dula and Isa shared the uneven bars title with scores of 9.925. Isa and Paulson then shared the floor exercise title, with scores of 9.9, while O’Keefe took the all-around competition, in part due to a 9.875 on floor.
Junior Emilie LeBlanc, meanwhile, took the balance beam title, thanks to a 9.90 that tied her previous career-high, which she set at Maryland last season.
Team scores — No. 5 Utah, 197.050; ASU, 194.200
All-around — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 39.225
Vault — Alexia Burch (Utah); 9.95
Uneven bars — Cristal Isa (Utah), Hunter Dula (Utah); 9.925
Balance beam — Emilie LeBlanc (Utah); 9.90
Floor exercise — Cristal Isa (Utah), Abby Paulson (Utah); 9.90
“I really feel like this is an extremely talented team,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “They have a lot of potential. If we can compete with confidence and sustain scoring; go boom, boom, boom and build of each other, this is a dangerous team.”
That “boom, boom, boom,” was lacking most of the night, though, despite the career-best efforts of many Red Rocks. While some gymnasts were at the top of their game — Burch and LeBlanc, especially — others struggled. Even those who set career-highs, like Paulson and O’Keefe, underperformed on one event only to bounce back on another.
“That shows you that they have gymnastics amnesia, which you have to have,” said Farden. “Especially if you are a multiple event athlete. You can have a bad event, but you have to go to that next event and turn it off. We are getting there. We are young and I don’t want to give them any excuses, but we are working through some growing pains right now.”
The struggles, mixed with highs, led to some good, if not great event scores, such as a 49.150 on vault, a 49.275 and bars, a 49.300 on beam and a 49.325 on floor. Vault would have been significantly worse, if not for Burch.
The junior debuted a new and much more difficult vault — a Yurchenko 1½ as opposed to her previous Yurchenko full. The new vault included a blind landing, and Burch stuck it like she’d been competing it all her life, even though she’d only trained the vault starting this summer.
“It is a pretty difficult vault,” Burch said. “I’ve done a (Yurchenko) full most of my life. It was a little shocking.”
And desperately needed.
“That vault really turned things around for us,” said Farden. “We got some momentum.”
Momentum that led to a 9.925 on vault for Kim Tessen and then continued onto uneven bars, where LeBlanc kicked off the best performance of her short Utah career. The junior scored a 9.825 in her leadoff role — a season high — and then continued her strong gymnastics into the leadoff role on beam.
“I just decided I was going to do what I do in practice,” she said. “Not try to be better. Not try to do more than I usually do. Just be myself.”
On the whole, the Red Rocks are still searching for exactly who they are, but they believe steadfastly that they are more than what they’ve shown thus far this season.
“I think we had a pretty decent meet, but we left a lot out on the floor tonight,” said Burch. “We aren’t close to our potential, but this was a step in the right direction for sure.”