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Is this the team that can end Utah gymnastics’ national title drought?

It has been nearly 26 years since the Red Rocks last won a national championship. Will the 2020-21 team be the ones to finally break through?

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Alexia Burch smiles after competing on the vault during the annual Red Rocks Preview at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It has been nearly 26 years since the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics team could lay claim to being the best collegiate team in America.

From 1981 through 1995, it was a regular occurrence. The Red Rocks were simply dominant, winning an absurd 10 national championships in 15 years.

Since then, they’ve often been elite, with a few dips below that level at times, but never the very best. That despite boasting some of the best individual gymnasts the NCAA has seen, including Ashley Postell, Georgia Dabritz and MyKayla Skinner.

The 2020-21 Red Rocks, ranked No. 4 in the country to start the season, might not boast one of those elite top level gymnasts — the key word there is might — but is the roster good enough to end the program’s title drought?

“On paper we look to be another force,” said Utah coach Tom Farden.

Seniors

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Sydney Soloski performs on the floor during the annual Red Rocks Preview at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Alexia Burch

Burch has quietly improved each and every year she has been at Utah, and as a junior last season had a bit of a breakout campaign, the highlight of which was her addition of a Yurchenko 1.5 on vault.

“She upped her game in every facet,” Farden said.

That has happened again as Burch is expected to hold a spot in the uneven bars rotation, a first in her Utah career.

“I think our fans are going to be in for a treat,” said Farden. “Lexi is a lock right now. It is early, but she is a lock on bars. That is something unique. She has not been in the bar lineup so this will be her debut, if it all works out.”

Career highs

  • Beam — 9.95 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Floor — 9.85 vs. Cal (Feb. 25, 2018).
  • Vault — 9.95 vs. ASU (Jan. 24, 2020).

Emilie LeBlanc

LeBlanc arrived at Utah last season as a transfer from Maryland and quickly got up to speed at what it means to be a gymnast at the U., becoming a key piece in the Red Rocks’ bars and beam lineups.

“For her to come into our program and embrace the level of intensity our environment provides for the athletes is just incredible,” said Farden. “She was interchangeable on bars. That was really valuable for us. I thought we could pop her in anywhere in the lineup, from 1 to 6. I really, honest to God, felt that.”

That belief was shown during the Red Rocks Preview, when she competed as the fifth gymnast on bars. A team captain, LeBlanc will be expected to maintain her success on beam — she was a part of Utah’s record-breaking beam team in 2019 — while taking on more responsibility on bars.

Career highs

  • Bars — 9.90 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Beam — 9.90 vs. ASU (Jan. 24, 2020).

Sydney Soloski

Arguably the most well-known current Red Rock, Soloski is a two-time All-American on floor, a two-time team captain — Farden believes her leadership to be her defining trait — and a fan favorite.

A dynamic performer on floor — she anchored Utah’s lineup in 2019 — Soloski is an option on beam and vault (she competed on beam as a sophomore and on vault as a junior), should the need arise.

“I want to become more of a contributor on vault and beam, if they need me,” she said.

Floor exercise is where Soloski truly shines, though, and it is on that event where she hopes to be a consistent 9.90-plus performer this season.

“I want to be an All-American on floor again, so that means 9.90-plus on floor every time,” she said. “That is my goal.”

Career highs

  • Beam — 9.875 in Regional Final (April 6, 2019).
  • Floor — 9.95 at Washington (March 1, 2020).
  • Vault — 9.875 at Arizona (Feb. 1, 2020).

Juniors

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Cammy Hall performs on the vault during the annual Red Rocks Preview at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Cammy Hall (redshirt sophomore)

After sitting out her entire freshman season recovering from a torn Achilles, Hall made her Utah debut in 2019, competing on vault. By the end of the season, Hall had proven herself capable of some of the Red Rocks’ biggest scores on the event.

More important, according to Farden, Hall “got a taste of competition that will ignite the fire for the rest of her career here.”

Hall competed on vault and floor at the Red Rocks Preview — she and Burch are the only gymnasts on the team who compete a Yurchenko 1.5 — and the next step for the Gainesville, Virginia native is to earn a position in the floor lineup.

Career highs

  • Vault — 9.95 vs. Stanford (March 6, 2020).

Cristal Isa

With the departure of Kim Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler, Isa, a two-time All-American, becomes arguably the most important gymnast at Utah, if she wasn’t already. As a sophomore in 2019, she was arguably the team’s most consistent gymnast, rarely missing on a routine while competing in the all-around multiple times.

By the end of the year, most of her scores were in the 9.90 or 9.925 range, with the occasional 9.950.

“Everyone got a taste of what Cristal is capable of,” said Farden. “Big scores everywhere and her personality with her gymnastics. ... She brings a lightness to our team. A love for gymnastics that is infectious.”

Isa competed in the all-around at the Red Rocks Preview and it won’t be a surprise to see that on a regular basis during the season. Needless to say, expectations are high for the junior from Henderson, Nevada.

Career highs

  • All-around — 39.600 at UCLA (Feb. 23,2020).
  • Bars — 9.925 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Beam — 9.95 at Washington (March 1, 2020).
  • Floor — 9.925 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Vault — 9.875 vs. Oregon State (Feb. 15, 2020).

Adrienne Randall

From the moment Randall stepped onto the competition floor as a freshman in 2019, she has been an impact gymnast for Utah. She has always been a key piece in the beam rotation and at times an excellent competitor on floor.

This year, she might very well become a part of the Red Rocks’ vault lineup too.

“Adrienne is really fighting hard for a spot on vault, which is unique, that hasn’t happened before,” said Farden.

Described by many in the program as “fierce,” Randall has a chance this year to become one of the team’s most complete gymnasts — she competed in the all-around in the Red Rocks Preview — if she secures a spot in the vault lineup.

Career highs

  • Beam — 9.975 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Floor — 9.95 vs. Arizona (Feb. 1, 2019).

Sophomores

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Jaedyn Rucker performs on the bars during the annual Red Rocks Preview at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Jillian Hoffman

Hoffman has struggled with injuries throughout her brief Utah career — as a freshman it was lingering foot issues and now she is dealing with an ailing shoulder — but when on the floor she has shown flashes.

She did not compete at the recent Red Rocks Preview due to the aforementioned shoulder issues, but there is a belief that when healthy she can and will be a key contributor for the Red Rocks.

“When Jillian is 100% healthy, she is arguably as talented as anyone in that class,” said Farden. “When that will happen we are not sure, but we want to get that kid back on line.”

Career highs

  • Floor — 9.850 vs. Oregon State (Feb. 15, 2020).

Maile O’Keefe

O’Keefe had considerable expectations placed upon her shoulders as a freshman last season, and after a slow start to the year, she lived up to many of them.

A returning All-American on beam, O’Keefe did “an incredible job” said Farden.

“We were tickled pink to see her progress and think the transition is only going to continue to get better as she matures and gets seasoned through our program,” he said.

The Red Rocks could use some improvement from O’Keefe on events like floor and bars as she was the leadoff gymnast on bars and held down the fifth spot in the floor lineup at the Red Rocks Preview. O’Keefe has all the makings of being a breakout performer for Utah this season, but questions remain as to when that will happen and on what events.

Career highs

  • All-around — 39.400 at Cal (Feb. 8, 2020).
  • Bars — 9.925 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Beam – 9.975 vs. Stanford (March 6, 2020).
  • Floor — 9.90 at Washington (March 1, 2020).
  • Vault — 9.80 vs. Arizona (Feb. 1, 2020).

Abby Paulson

Paulson was about as good as they come as a freshman in 2019 and earned All-America honors on beam as a result. The perfect 10 she scored against UCLA won’t soon be forgotten and she proved herself a capable competitor on bars and floor as well.

“The thing I really enjoy about Abby is what you see in the gym is what you see in competition,” said Farden. “It is almost mirrored. Her consistency is uncanny. We are super glad we got this first year under her belt.”

Next for Paulson is to become more than just capable on floor and bars (she competed on beam and floor at the Red Rocks Preview). Utah needs her to take a step forward on either or both of the aforementioned events, something Farden believes is possible.

“She can bring more,” he said. “She is eager and motivated.”

Career highs

  • Bars — 9.85 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Beams — 10.0 at UCLA (Feb. 23, 2020).
  • Floor — 9.90 vs. ASU (Jan. 27, 2020).

Jaedyn Rucker (redshirt freshman)

Rucker has yet to compete competitively for Utah, as she sat out the entire 2019 season after tearing her ACL. That injury happened after she signed with the Red Rocks, but prior to her arrival in Utah, and ultimately necessitated a second surgery.

By all accounts, she has fully recovered and is training on all four events. Rucker is expected to make her collegiate debut on floor and vault.

“She is definitely a big asset to our team, especially on floor and vault,” said Soloski. “I’m really excited for her to get out there.”

Career highs

  • N/A

Before coming to Utah, Rucker was the 2018 Junior Olympic (J.O.) national vault champion (Senior B) and also placed second in the all-around, second on floor, fourth on bars and seventh on beam at 2018 J.O. nationals. She was a three-time regional champion and 12-time state champion in Arizona.


Freshmen

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Jaylene Gilstrap performs on the floor during the annual Red Rocks Preview at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. 

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Jaylene Gilstrap

Elegance and artistry. Those are the descriptors chosen when it comes to Gilstrap, echoes of the adjectives used to describe Reinstadtler in previous seasons.

“Jaylene brings elegance and artistry to our team,” said Soloski. “She is a very beautiful gymnast to watch on every event that she does.”

Gilstrap isn’t currently slated to compete in a lineup — she competed on floor at the Red Rocks Preview — but she is pushing to earn a spot on the floor.

“Jaylene is pushing hard,” Farden said.

Career highs

  • N/A

Gilstrap competed in the U.S. Classic and American Classic in 2015-16 and 2018-19 and qualified for the U.S. Championships in 2016 and 2018. She finished third on floor, fifth on beam and seventh on vault at the 2019 American Classic.


Alani Sabado

Sabado’s strength as a gymnast is no secret. She excels on bars and if she earns a spot in a lineup it will be as part of that rotation. Expect that to happen at some point this season.

“She is going to see some time,” said Farden.

Sabado could also earn a spot in either the floor or vault lineups, although she is currently recovering from a foot injury that is slowing her progress on those events.

“Alani is a beautiful bar swinger,” said Soloski. “She has very nice lines and she will be an asset in our bars lineup. Hopefully we’ll see her on vault and floor at some point.”

Career highs

  • N/A

Sabado was a three-time J.O. qualifier in 2017, ’18 and ’19 and finished third in the all-around, third on bars, fifth on vault, sixth on beam and eighth on floor at the 2019 J.O. national championship.


Lucy Stanhope

Like Sabado, Stanhope is expected to see some time in a lineup or two this season. Which lineups remain to be seen — she competed in the all-around at the Red Rocks Preview — but helping Stanhope’s cause is her unique skillset. Stanhope is about as unique a gymnast as can be found in the entire NCAA.

“Lucy just brings uniqueness,” Soloski explained. “She is really clean, but she has skills that I don’t think anyone in the NCAA is doing currently. She has some really unique gymnastics that I think the fans are going to love.”

Career highs

  • N/A

Stanhope is a member of the Great Britain national team and won silver medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2016 Junior European Championship. She was an alternate for Great Britain at the 2018 World Championships and finished fourth in the all-around at the 2018 British Championships, and fifth in the all-around at the 2018 English Championships.


Great expectations

Are the 13 athletes who comprise this year’s Utah gymnastics team capable of winning a national championship?

That obviously won’t be answered until mid-April — it could be answered earlier than that — but the team has lofty goals for the season, goals that in their minds are nothing if not realistic.

Well, mostly realistic.

“The first one is to stay COVID free,” said Farden. “Is that realistic? We are going to try like heck to do that. The key to having a season is to keep everyone clean and not falling victim to the virus.”

If Utah pulls that off — they need their competition to do the same — the goals start to sound familiar:

  • Win a Pac-12 championship.
  • Win a NCAA regional title.
  • Make it to the final day of the NCAA gymnastics championships, aka the Final Four.

That last one is the big one. Utah hasn’t finished the season as a top 4 team since 2015. Things appeared to be trending in that direction last season, before COVID-19 forced athletic competition to come to a complete and utter stop.

Now that gymnastics is back, “we want to fight for one of those final four spots,” said Farden. “I think, we think that that is a very appropriate and realistic goal for this program.”

And once you make it to the final day of competition, anything can happen. Right? Maybe, possibly even that oh so elusive national championship.