Utah showed it can be elite in win over Cal, but there is still work to be done and the Red Rocks know it
The fourth-ranked Red Rocks rallied to defeat the ninth-ranked Bears 197.375 to 197.125, thanks to elite beam and floor rotations.
Through two rotations Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, the fourth-ranked Red Rocks were in trouble.
No. 9 Cal had come to Utah and looked right at home, even as snow flurries began to fall outside. Utah, meanwhile, looked like anything but the fourth-ranked team in the nation. The Bears actually led the Red Rocks halfway through the meet, and after a couple of routines in the third rotation, Cal genuinely appeared to be on its way to a major upset victory over the Utes.
Team scores — Utah, 197.375; Cal, 197.125
All-around — Maile OKeefe (Utah); 39.525
Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.975
Floor exercise — Jaedyn Rucker (Utah); 9.950
Uneven bars — Maya Green (Cal), Cristal Isa (Utah), Maile OKeefe (Utah), Nina Schank (Cal); 9.875
Vault — Milan Clausi (Cal); 9.900
Then Cristal Isa happened, followed by Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe, with a little Jaedyn Rucker and Sydney Soloski, too.
Isa sparked a major turnaround for the home team, which posted elite team scores on balance beam (49.500) and floor exercise (49.450) to close out the meet. As a result, Utah (8-1, 5-0) defeated Cal 197.375 to 197.125 and remained unbeaten in Pac-12 competition.
O’Keefe won the all-around title, on her birthday no less, while Rucker and Isa each earned individual event victories (O’Keefe shared the uneven bars victory with Isa and two Bears, Maya Green and Nina Schank).
“Kind of a tale of two halves,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “The confidence came out for the athletes on beam and floor and they really showed what they are capable of. It was really, really fun to see.”
Nerves were the problem for Utah early on. The Red Rocks let Cal’s name and ability get to them a little.
“We were really nervous,” Isa said. “Cal is an amazing school and we knew they were going to bring their ‘A game’. We thought we had to be perfect. We didn’t really trust ourselves until we got to beam.”
Once there, though, things turned around in a hurry.
“I think the meet went really well actually,” O’Keefe said. “It is not nice, but it is good to know that even if we are down, we can pick ourselves up.”
As this season has proven thus far, there aren’t many times where one single moment defines a meet. After all, each team has 24 routines, so realistically one routine shouldn’t make or break anything.
Rotations? They can make or break a competition, as can even just a couple of routines here and there. But a single performance? That simply does not happen very often.
It did against Cal, though. One routine all but saved the meet for Utah, and that routine belonged to Isa.
The junior from Henderson, Nevada, was the third gymnast in Utah’s beam rotation. Prior to her routine, the Red Rocks looked, quite frankly, lethargic, almost like they didn’t want to be there.
Utah was pressing early on, according to Farden, specifically on vault, and the struggles there and on bars, not to mention the first two routines of the beam rotation, had sapped the Red Rocks of any semblance of momentum.
With nothing going for her, Isa proceeded to tie her career-high on beam with a 9.95. The moment she stuck her dismount, a palpable burst of energy flowed through the team. After Isa, Paulson recorded a 9.95, and then O’Keefe scored a 9.975 from the anchor position.
Just like that, Utah had all the momentum, and even though Cal was fantastic on beam in the final rotation, the Red Rocks’ floor lineup picked up where the beam rotation left off and carried Utah to the win.
“It is 100% accurate (that Isa’s routine changed the meet),” O’Keefe said. “After Cristal hit her beam routine the energy exploded, both within the team and within the Huntsman. It was a really nice boost to energy that we needed.”
Area for improvement
This could, for the third consecutive meet, be a conversation about bars, but Utah actually improved on bars Friday. Things are trending up on that event.
Yes, no gymnast scored better than a 9.875, but the routines on the whole were cleaner than those of previous weeks and there were more sticks to be found.
“We are actually moving in the right direction,” Farden said. “The small details that we are working on in the gym are starting to translate. It is slow, but it is progressive and we are going to keep attacking those. We will keep working at it and I can promise this — the athletes work very very hard and they are bound and determined to be the best versions of themselves out there.”
No, the most glaring area that needs work is actually consistency, specifically on vault.
At times this season, Utah has been elite on vault. Prior to the meet against Cal, the Red Rocks were ranked No. 6 in the country on the event and had scored as high as a 49.475, better than the best of all but three teams.
That being said, Utah has also had meets in which vault has left much to be desired, and that was the case against the Bears. No Utah gymnast scored a 9.90 or better on vault Friday, which, considering that four gymnasts compete a Yurchenko 1.5 — a vault with a start value of 10.0 — was not the optimal outcome.
“We felt that they were pressing and going after those sticks,” Farden said. “We want those sticks to happen, they just have to let them happen a little bit more. ... Vault, when it is on, can be great. We added four 10.0 vaults, which is where the elite teams are at. But this is a process. We have to get those (Yurchenko) 1.5s secured and make sure we are getting them in that landing zone the judges like. There is progress everywhere and we are going to keep chipping away. We have a plan. There is a map, but because of the intermittent training this season, this was always going to be a progressive build with this program this year.”
Area for excitement
This one is easy. With apologies to beam lovers, there is no more exciting a rotation for Utah this year than floor.
A season ago, Utah was good, great even, on floor, but not elite. That has changed this year. The Red Rocks are elite on floor again, almost reminiscent of the MyKayla Skinner era, and that idea was reinforced against Cal.
Of the six gymnasts who competed on floor Friday, not a one scored lower than a 9.85. Rucker recorded a career-high 9.95, while Soloski continued her impressive run of scores above a 9.90 with a 9.925. Paulson, Lucy Stanhope and Jaylene Gilstrap each had a 9.85, while O’Keefe added a 9.875.
Utah knew that floor would be improved this year, but it might be the team’s best event now.
“I think floor is right up there with balance beam,” Farden said. “Floor has come on strong and it is arguably our strongest event. Getting some different personnel in there, in terms of Jaylene, has helped.”
So has the progression of Rucker. The sophomore sat out all of last season after a pair of ACL surgeries, but now she might be Utah’s most dynamic performer on floor.
“She has done an incredible job with her performance quality,” Farden said. “That has improved. We have been working on her front pass. Coach (Courtney) McCool has been working on her legs, getting them super tight and some level changes, technical things, but that came around tonight. I thought her leaps were her best this season. Courtney is the floor coach and gets all the credit for that. Those two have worked really well together and you can see what the work has led to.”
A little love for a Salt Lake City native
Friday night’s meet was a homecoming for Cal junior Milan Clausi, daughter of Utah legend Missy Marlowe.
Fittingly, Clausi had her best meet this season in her return to Utah.
She won the vault title with a 9.90 and posted a 9.850 on floor and a 9.875 on beam, all of which were season highs.