Another year, the same result.
On the surface, that was the takeaway from the latest Best of Utah gymnastics meet, held Saturday night at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.
No. 4 Utah ran away with the season-opening showcase for the second consecutive year, defeating No. 17 BYU, No. 23 Southern Utah and Utah State, and quite handily at that.
The Red Rocks earned a 196.900, more than a point better than what the second place Cougars mustered (195.7) to say nothing of the Aggies and (194.350) and Flippin’ Birds (194.325).
Junior Cristal Isa won the all-around competition with a 39.400, while sophomore Maile O’Keefe was an event winner on balance beam — where she tied with Abby Paulson — and floor exercise. Throw in Cammy Hall ‘s win on vault, and Utah started the 2020-21 campaign about as well as could be hoped, especially given an offseason and preseason unlike any other.
“In terms of a first meet, I thought our athletes had a really nice night,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “It was a really nice meet as a jumping off point.”
And it reaffirmed to him that Utah has the potential to do great things this season.
“There are some things we have to do to get better, more refinement and handling the details, but we think there is a big ceiling for this team,” he said.
The Red Rocks didn’t actually start the meet all that well, at least not as far as scores are concerned. Utah opened on uneven bars, and despite sticking almost every landing, no gymnast earned better than a 9.850.
Handstands were a struggle at times — “They were a little tight on a few handstands here and there,” Farden said — and the lineup had two new contributors in senior Alexia Burch and freshman Alani Sabado.
At the end of one rotation, Utah held a slim lead over Southern Utah, and early on in the second rotation that lead appeared shakier than ever, thanks to a pair of beam routines that were no where close to being Burch or Emilie LeBlanc’s best.
That was where Isa came in.
With the third routine in the rotation, Isa all but nailed her effort, to the tune of a 9.90.
After that, Utah looked like itself on beam, the team’s strongest event last year, with Adrienne Randall posting a 9.875, followed by a pair of 9.925’s by O’Keefe and Paulson.
“I definitely think Cristal’s routine sparked us,” O’Keefe said. “Bars was fairly good, a little bit here and there, and our first two beam routines were a little shaky, but we can always count on Cris to hit. From then on, we were calm and collected. We went out and did what we can do.”
An area for improvement
The easy answer here is bars, but vault left a little something to be desired as well.
A season ago, vault was at times Utah’s Achilles heel, which was strange given past teams’ performances.
Saturday night, Utah mustered only a 49.175 on the event, the best score by far of any of the four teams but not where the Red Rocks hope to be.
Hall was a bright spot — her 9.90 was the event winner — but she was the only Red Rock to earn better than a 9.850.
Landings were a problem — Hall was the only gymnast to stick hers — and Utah is still looking for depth on the event (Randall competed in exhibition).
An area for excitement
While vault still needs work, floor was dramatically improved over a season ago.
Floor was statistically Utah’s worst event in 2019-20 — the Red Rocks were ranked No. 8 in the country — but it was clear from Isa’s opening routine that Utah is different there this year. No Red Rock earned lower than a 9.850, save for senior Sydney Soloski, who nearly stepped out of bounds on her opening pass and suffered deductions as a result.
O’Keefe had an event-winning routine and Paulson and Jaedyn Rucker weren’t far behind.
“I think we are all more loose,” Isa said. “Last year we were caught up in our landings and the degrees of our leaps. This year we dance and have fun. There is a lot more energy. We didn’t have that last year and we needed it.”
- BYU finished second to Utah for the second straight year.
- Senior Abbey Alder lead the way with a 39.275 in the all-around and an event-winning 9.90 on floor.
- Floor (49.275) proved BYU’s strongest event by far, with four gymnasts earning a 9.850 or better, success head coach Guard Young credited to assistant coach Brogan Evanson. “To come over to the floor right after beam and bring that energy up, it was fantastic,” Young said. “I believe Brogan Evanson is one of the best floor choreographers in the country. We’re really lucky to have her talent in that field.”
- BYU opened on beam and struggled, but hit six routines. “Beam is a hard one to start on,” Young said. “It was good for a first meet in terms of going out there and staying on the beam. No. 1 rule for beam is stay on it. They did that. You could tell that out of the six routines, not a single one of them was relaxed. They all fought and they all stayed on. It didn’t sink us.”
- The Aggies improved upon their showing in the 2019-20 Best of Utah and finished in third place.
- USU was led by all-arounder Leighton Varnadore, who earned a 38.775, and Rebecca Wells, who was named USU’s MVP. “It was a really great experience to get out there,” Wells said. “It was good to get this first meet out of the way. I know there was a bunch of things to change, but we are ready to get back into the gym and get ready for our next meet.”
- Eve Jackson earned the team’s best single individual score with a 9.850 on bars. Mikaela Meyer earned the high score on vault (9.825), Taylor Dittmar on beam (9.800) and Wells on floor (9.775)
- Like the Flippin’ Birds, the Aggies struggled on beam and finished with a score of 47.975. Aside from that event, however, USU was solid, with a score of 48.5 or better on bars, floor and vault. “It was great to get out on the floor with this team,” said head coach Amy Smith. “We are so fortunate to be able to compete this year, and we really wanted to make it a celebration. We wanted to get out here and see what we’ve got. Beam obviously didn’t go the way that we wanted, but I was really proud of what they did. The three other events were spectacular.”
- The Flippin’ Birds finished fourth, but had their first event winner in the competition in junior Mayson Bentley, who made her SUU debut after not competing as a gymnast as a freshman or sophomore. Bentley’s debut went about as well as it could have. She competed on only one event, uneven bars, but won it with a 9.90.
- Junior Karley McClain competed in the all-around and finished fourth behind Isa, O’Keefe and Miner-Alder with a 39.225.
- Beam did the Flippin’ Birds in. SUU was right behind Utah after one rotation and not too far back after two. On their third rotation, however, Southern Utah had two gymnasts score a 9.275 or lower on beam, scores that proved too much to overcome.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the team scores for SUU and Utah State. Utah State finished third with a score was 194.350; SUU’s score was 194.325.