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‘We saw where we stack up and we have work to do’: Utah falls short in measuring stick meet against Oklahoma

The No. 3 Red Rocks lost to the defending national champion Sooners 197.025 to 196.550

SHARE ‘We saw where we stack up and we have work to do’: Utah falls short in measuring stick meet against Oklahoma

In this Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 file photo, Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes in the beam during the Rio Tinto Best of Utah NCAA gymnastics meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. Despite a standout performance by O’Keefe on Sunday, No. 3 Utah lost to No. 2 Oklahoma.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There is a reason Utah coach Tom Farden wanted his team to face off against the 2nd-ranked Oklahoma Sooners, a powerhouse now for nearly a decade and likely for many years to come.



Team scores — Oklahoma, 197.025; Utah, 196.550

Event winners

All-around — Maile OKeefe (Utah); 39.550

Balance Beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.95

Floor Exercise — Emma LaPinta (Oklahoma), Sydney Soloski (Utah); 9.90

Uneven Bars — Audrey Davis (Oklahoma); 9.90

Vault — Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma); 9.925

Farden and the 3rd-ranked Red Rocks have designs on greatness, namely Pac-12 Conference championships and NCAA national titles, and the only way Farden can see those lofty goals coming true is to make his gymnasts “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

“At some point, if we talk about staying at the top of the conference and making (national) finals, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said.

Utah hasn’t been able to do that in recent years, specifically in the postseason, so Sunday’s showdown with the Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma, provided the perfect opportunity to see if this Utah team could be different.

Could the Red Rocks go into a hostile environment, against an elite team and withstand the pressure? Could Farden’s team be at its best against the best?

For one afternoon at least, it was not.

Utah lost to Oklahoma 197.025 to 196.550 Sunday, falling to 1-1 on the season. The Sooners were the better team on all four events and finished with individual event winners on bars (Audrey Davis), floor (Emma LaPinta) and vault (Anastasia Webb).

“Hats off to Oklahoma,” Farden said. “They won today and had an incredible day. The right team won.”

As for his own team, Farden was less effusive with his praise.

“I don’t think they were aggressive or determined enough as a group,” he said. “Individuals were and we had some brilliant individual performances, but I don’t feel that they collectively came together as a team and came to play. I know when this team is coming to play and they did not. We are disappointed. We saw where we stack up and we have work to do.”

That was the purpose of the meet, though, for Utah to find out just how far away it is from achieving its goals and to learn what needs to change to make them happen.

“There were some instances today where we weren’t very comfortable,” Farden said. “We had to give that opportunity to our athletes so that the next time we go out there, we’ve learned from this and we are better.”

Defining moment

Unlike at the Best of Utah last week, there wasn’t a single individual routine that altered the course of the meet. Instead, it was entire events that lost the competition for Utah.

The first of those events was vault.

The Red Rocks had momentum in the meet prior to vault after a season-best showing on bars, but all that momentum was quickly lost once they moved over the power event. No gymnast earned better than a 9.850, and that routine belonged to Maile O’Keefe in the leadoff position.

“We were a little lackluster on vault,” Farden said. “We felt that we started strong on bars and after vault it was a little bit, we felt that the team was there for half the meet.”

That is because after rallying on floor — Utah was within a tenth of a point of Oklahoma after three events — the Red Rocks fell apart on beam.

“Bars and floor were really nice, and then vault and balance beam left more on the table than we wanted to,” Farden said.

Scores were tight all night long, but Farden was quick to point out that the deductions were there and the judges took them.

“We didn’t give ourselves — in terms of opportunity, the deductions were truly there,” he said. “I only filled out one inquiry this evening. From my eyes, there were deductions for our gymnastics tonight, and you have to move on from that.”

Area for improvement

For any other team, beam would be the topic of discussion here, but this Utah team has a proven track record on the apparatus after finishing as the No. 2 team in the country there a season ago.

With every gymnast back who was a part of that elite beam lineup, there just isn’t real reason for concern, even though four Red Rocks performed well below their capabilities on Sunday.

No, vault remains the key area for improvement for Utah. Outside of O’Keefe’s leadoff, only Jaedyn Rucker improved from Week 1 to Week 2.

“From my eyes, there were deductions for our gymnastics tonight, and you have to move on from that.” — Utah head coach Tom Farden

Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the fact that Utah only has two gymnasts who have competed a vault with a start value of 10.0 this season. Or rather that would be worrisome if that wasn’t likely to change in the near future. Both Rucker and Lucy Stanhope have been training Yurchenko 1.5s, and when they debut those vaults, Utah’s lineup should improve.

Stanhope was supposed to debut her 1.5 Sunday, but a fall by Alexia Burch forced Farden’s hand.

“We pulled back,” he said. “Lucy landed a couple 1.5’s in warmups, but it is still a new vault for her, so when Lexi went we down, we didn’t let her do it. She is there (in the lineup) strategically. Jaedyn is also training a 1.5 and is hoping to bring that back at some point in the future.”

Area for excitement

This could focus on the Red Rocks’ much-improved showing on bars, as well as their continued strong showings on floor, but instead will focus on a couple of individual competitors.

None was more impressive than O’Keefe, who won the all-around and beam titles in what was arguably her best meet as a Red Rock.

“Maile was in her zone tonight,” Farden said. “She came out on bars, and as soon as I saw that and the vault, we knew that Maile was here. She was one of the individuals that came to play. Brilliant performance by Maile. I think that was the best beam routine of her career. She gave us a good shot in the arm, and I wish we had taken advantage of it.”

By the end of last season, O’Keefe had become one of Utah’s best gymnasts, but she has taken another step to start the year, evidence of her growing comfort with NCAA competition.

“I think she is more comfortable and more seasoned,” Farden said. “Understanding the ins and outs of the NCAA, it is challenging when you come from the elite ranks and your skills are changed. We couldn’t be more proud of her today.”

Another gymnast who had a strong outing was freshman Jaylene Gilstrap, who made her Utah debut on floor. Her 9.850 set the tone for the Red Rocks’ best event of the night.

Interestingly, Gilstrap wasn’t expected to compete, but Farden made a change in the lineup after warm-ups that paid off.

“That wasn’t the floor rotation we had,” he said. “Lucy was in the that rotation, but during warm-ups I made the change and put Jaylene in there. That is what she does in practice. It was really refreshing for her to go out there and do it in the meet. Really refreshing.”