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Utah gymnastics improves, teases potential in win that was ‘obviously not our best, but is a good step’

The Red Rocks scored their first 197-plus of the season in their Pac-12 opener against the Arizona GymCats

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes on the bars during a meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes on the bars during a meet against Arizona at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In what should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, Utah’s gymnastics team does not like to lose. At all. Not even a little bit.

Utah did lose to Oklahoma last weekend, though, and their win streak — the Red Rocks had defeated 14 consecutive opponents — ended in dispiriting fashion thanks to a performance that left them wanting.

“Our loss really made us hungry,” senior Alexia Burch said. “We wanted to come out and have a good meet.”

Saturday afternoon inside the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, the Red Rocks did just that. No. 6 Utah defeated Arizona 197.075 to 195.650. It was Utah’s first team score above a 197 this season, and it all but washed away the events of the previous week.

“When we talk about losing, it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth,” head coach Tom Farden said. “The fastest way to lose it is to give it to someone else.”

Utah had four individual event winners, led by sophomore Maile O’Keefe on balance beam and uneven bars. Burch and junior Cammy Hall tied for the title on vault, while senior Sydney Soloski won her second consecutive floor exercise title.

As a team, Utah was the most balanced it had been all season — granted that is only three meets thus far — and recorded a season-high score on vault (49.275) and tied a season-high on bars (49.275).

“It was a nice and steady meet from start to finish,” Farden said. “It was a complete meet. All four events were close to within a tenth of each other. Just a very even-keeled meet.

“We know that the 197-mark is where the bar has been set by other elite teams and we want to stay in that mix. We don’t want to dwell on the scores. We want to dwell on the process and see where that takes us, but it feels good to get one (197) underneath our belts.”

Defining moment

Utah’s victory in the meet was practically never in question. After all, the Red Rocks had defeated the GymCats 65 consecutive times before Saturday and Arizona is arguably the least proven team in the Pac-12 this year.

As such, the meet was less about wins and losses — really not at all — and more about scores, as in how high of a team score could Utah get.

With that in mind, there was no more important a moment in the meet than Lucy Stanhope’s vault.

Through the opening two weeks of the season, vault had been the Red Rocks’ weakest event. Yes, beam was the team’s worst event against Oklahoma and yes, bars was the team’s worst event at the Best of Utah, but the Red Rocks had also flashed potential on both events that they simply hadn’t on vault.

And after the first two vaults Saturday, that hadn’t changed. Then came the third vault, courtesy of Stanhope. She debuted a Yurchenko 1.5, and while she was not perfect — Stanhope scored a 9.825 — she set the tone for the back end of the rotation.

After Stanhope, Jaedyn Rucker debuted a Yurchenko 1.5 of her own and earned a career-high 9.875, while flashing much higher scoring potential. Rucker was followed by Burch and Hall, both of whom regularly perform the Yurchenko 1.5 and scored 9.900.

(As a reminder, the Yurchenko 1.5 has a start value of 10.0, while the Yurchenko Full, the favorite of many gymnasts, only has a start value of 9.950.)

Those four vaults propelled the Red Rocks to their best team score on vault this season, put the meet out of reach after the first rotation and, most importantly, set Utah up for the eventual 197-plus team score.

“The biggest takeaway from today was we were waiting for that moment when we could debut those vaults,” Farden said. “We have been talking about it. It was nice to see those four vaults. I think that is going to bode well for us down the road.”

Area for improvement

Now this is where things get interesting. The better the Red Rocks perform, the smaller the margins for improvement get.

After the Best of the Utah and Oklahoma meets, there were plenty of things for Utah to improve upon, as a team and for the individual gymnasts. And while the win over Arizona saw a much better Utah team, there are still steps to be taken.

“We are really happy because this was the highest team score of the season, though obviously not our best,” O’Keefe said. “It is a good step.”

And the next step is actually two.

Five gymnasts, after a variety of miscues, earned scores lower than a 9.8. Specifically, there were two sub-9.8 scores on vault, two on beam and one apiece on floor and bars. Eliminate those sub-9.8 scores, even just half of them, and all of a sudden Utah would be putting up some of the best team scores in the country this season.

Some of those lower scores were completely understandable. Jaylene Gilstrap made her Utah debut on beam, for instance, but others not as much.

“We know we left some tenths out there in terms of detail work,” Farden said. “That is stuff we are going to work on.”

That also applies to the top-end scores. On Saturday, the Red Rocks scored a 9.90 or better five times. Not discouraging at all, but there is room for improvement. Fortunately, if they are to be believed, those higher scores should come, given time.

“I don’t think we are feeling pressure to get the highest scores that we can right now, because if you are putting that pressure on you are not going to reach it,” O’Keefe explained. “You just have to keep doing your skills and routines and then it’ll happen.”

Area for excitement

Excitement was palpable after the meet and for good reason.

Utah has depth? Yeah, Utah has depth.

For what feels like the first time in forever (thank you for that one, Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel), the Red Rocks have the ability to rest gymnasts and not skip a beat. Neither O’Keefe nor Cristal Isa competed in the all-around, after having done so the first two weeks of the season, but Utah got better overall.

Gilstrap made her debut on beam, replacing senior and captain Emilie LeBlanc, who was part of Utah’s record-breaking beam lineup a season ago, and Utah earned its second-best beam score of the year.

On floor, both Gilstrap and Stanhope competed for only the second time in their Utah careers — Adrienne Randall also found her way back into the floor lineup for the first time this season — and Utah scored a 49.325.

“It is a luxury, the more depth you have,” Farden said. “We are not going to take it for granted.”

Utah’s improved depth afforded Farden the opportunity to rest both O’Keefe and Isa, a conscious decision made ahead of the meet.

“We really feel that Adrienne has always been a great floor worker for us,” Farden explained. “We plugged in Lucy and she did a nice job. We wanted to get Cristal and Maile off their legs. Floor is the most pounding (event) so that was intentional, to slide in some other athletes and have Maile and Cristal rest.

“It speaks volumes that on several events, with Jaylene on beam and several new athletes on floor, our depth allowed us to rest some athletes and be a little more strategic and prepare for the unknowns.”

Those unknowns, of course, are injury and COVID-19. Thus far, no staff member nor gymnast has contracted the virus, but the possibility is always there. And Utah’s newfound depth is much appreciated as a result.

“I think that definitely shows how many people we have that can go get high scores on this team,” Burch said. “That gives us a lot of confidence in case something were to happen, like COVID or an injury. It just goes to show how prepared we are still going to be as a team.”