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Utah gymnastics offers glimpse into championship potential in comeback victory over Cal

The No. 3 Red Rocks recovered from a difficult vault rotation and defeated the No. 12 Golden Bears 197.550 to 197.325

FILE: Utah’s Kim Tessen competes on bars during the Best of Utah gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Since before the season began, even before the Red Rocks Preview, Utah’s gymnasts have told anyone and everyone who would listen that their goal this year is to win a national championship.

It’s been 25 years since Utah last won a national title in gymnastics, but that hasn’t mattered one bit.

Whether it be one of the team captains — Sydney Soloski, Missy Reinstadtler or Kim Tessen — or one of the newcomers like Emilie LeBlanc, Maile O’Keefe or Abby Paulson, the Red Rocks to a woman have fought back against any notion that they aren’t capable of being the best that college gymnastics has to offer.

“We want to win nationals. We want to get there,” LeBlanc said earlier this season, matter-of-factly at that.

There is some stiff competition out there, but the Red Rocks won themselves a few believers Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Powered by a season-best performance, a weekly rejoinder at this point, No. 3 Utah defeated No. 12 Cal 197.550 to 197.325.

Utah won three of the meets’ four events — uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam — powered by season-highs of 49.425 on both bars and floor and a jaw-dropping 49.625 on beam. The beam score was the third-highest score on the event in the country this season.

The Utes had an individual winner on every event too, including Soloski on floor with a 9.925, Alexia Burch on vault with a 9.90, Tessen on bars with a career-high 9.975 and a trio of gymnasts on beam.

O’Keefe, Adrienne Randall and Paulson made up that trio and each scored a career-high 9.95 as part of a meet-winning beam rotation.

“Just an incredible effort on beam to win the meet,” said head coach Tom Farden. “Our young team handled some last minute lineup changes on different events like a veteran team would. They showed tremendous resiliency on the road and it payed dividends in the end.”

As strong of an overall meet as it was, on the road no less, the Red Rock’s championship potential really only showed after the team’s collective struggles on vault.

After a strong bars rotation to start the competition, something of a norm through the first five meets of the year, Utah was anything but elite on vault and earned a season-low score of 49.075.

Only Burch scored a 9.90 or better, while two Red Rocks earned scores in the 9.7 range. As for the other three, they earned scores in the low 9.8’s.

Because of Utah’s struggles, coupled with some excellent gymnastics from Cal, the hosts took the lead after the second rotation of the meet.

Trailing heading onto the floor, Utah turned in some of its best gymnastics of the season. The Utes’ floor lineup, which included standout performances by Soloski, Paulson, Jillian Hoffman — who made her season debut — O’Keefe and Randall, managed to tie the meet, despite a fall from Tessen.

The Red Rocks beam lineup then proceeded to turn in career-high after career-high after career-high, with O’Keefe telling the Pac-12 Network afterward that Utah “owns beam.”

The comeback validated the team’s new leadership style, created by Reinstadtler, Tessen and Soloski. Soloski has been Utah’s vocal leader this year — Reinstadtler and Tessen are more the lead-by-example types — and her intensity has proven to be exactly what the Red Rocks needed.

“She is a little bit more intense, which personally I think this team needs,” sophomore Cammy Hall said. “I think we are benefitting from that. We want to be intense, we don’t want to be soft or anything. We want to be lions, not mice.”

After the comeback win over the Golden Bears, it is safe to say Utah is on its way to getting there.