Utah managed to keep pace with the country’s best — aka Florida and LSU — with come-from-behind win over ASU
The No. 3-ranked Red Rocks defeated the No. 16-ranked Sun Devils 197.450 to 197.150, overcoming a challenging start thanks to season-high scores on vault and floor
One of the more unique aspects of college gymnastics are the rankings, specifically once the postseason draws near and seeding for NCAA regionals and nationals rises to the forefront.
While there is a committee whose job it is to seed the top 16 teams in the country, their decisions are almost exclusively based on national qualifying score (NQS). The team with the best NQS is ranked No. 1 in the country, second-best is No. 2 and so on and so forth.
Team scores — Utah, 197.450; ASU, 197.150
All-around — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 39.525
Balance beam — Abby Paulson (Utah); 9.950
Floor exercise — Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Hannah Scharf (ASU); 9.925
Uneven bars — Juliette Boyer (ASU); 9.925
Vault — Alexia Burch (Utah); 9.975
In a normal season, NQS is an interesting concept, albeit at times slightly confusing.
In simplest terms, take a team’s top six scores from the season, three of which must have come on the road — this is done to eliminate perceived biased scoring at home — then remove the highest score and average the remaining five.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NQS is different in 2021, though. Simpler. Much simpler.
When the regular season comes to a close in late March, teams will be ranked in order by average score based solely off their two best home meets and two best away meets.
That change put some considerable pressure on Utah’s gymnastics team Saturday afternoon in Tempe, Arizona.
Saturday’s meet wasn’t just a meet on the road against a conference opponent. Thanks to the cancellation of Utah’s meet at Stanford, it was only one of only two remaining away meets for Utah this season. And after scoring a 196.900 at the Best of Utah and a 196.550 at Oklahoma, Utah needed a better road score, particularly if it wanted to keep pace with No. 1 Florida and No. 2 LSU.
While it wasn’t exactly pretty early, the Red Rocks managed to do just that in the Valley of the Sun. Utah defeated Arizona State 197.450 to 197.150, rallying from a slow to start to take down the Sun Devils for the 28th straight time.
Sophomore Maile O’Keefe had a career performance — that’s becoming a weekly thing — and recorded new career highs on vault and floor, to go along with another victory in all-around competition.
Abby Paulson and Alexia Burch were also event winners, Burch with a career-high 9.975 on vault, Paulson with a 9.95 on balance beam.
“It is hard to win on the road,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “You are in a different bed, sleep in a hotel and have different food, plus all the travel restrictions we have now. You have to be really impressive to win at somebody else’s arena.
“Hats off to Arizona State. I thought they came out swinging. We definitely could tell they were bringing some energy and had nothing to lose against us, but we felt that our athletes responded really well.”
As for that 197.450, which is far and away Utah’s best away score of the season, well it didn’t go unnoticed.
“It was incredibly important for us,” Farden said. “We knew we had a mid-196 on our tab still, and it is in the back of your mind.”
There were many Saturday, thanks to considerable pressure applied by ASU. The Sun Devils led after the first rotation, after recording a season-high 49.350 on vault, and stayed in the lead after two rotations, even after Utah responded with its own season-high on vault, a 49.475.
The Red Rocks had to be close to their best to pull out the win. As previously mentioned, Burch set a new career-high, O’Keefe set two new career highs, and Jaedyn Rucker added a new career high of her own.
Cristal Isa’s anchor routine on bars saved what was a disappointing rotation, while Sydney Soloski kept up her run of impressive scores on floor.
Really there were plenty of standout performances for the Red Rocks. While the meet was ultimately decided on beam — Utah scored a 49.325 compared to a 49.025 scored by ASU — it was the end of the floor lineup that really changed the meet, altered it in Utah’s favor.
Rucker, O’Keefe and Soloski each scored a 9.90 or better on floor — Lucy Stanhope had a 9.875 to set them up — helping Utah to a season-high 49.425 on the event.
Soloski did what she seemingly always does, while Rucker and O’Keefe continued to make strides.
In her homecoming — she is from Mesa — Rucker had what was genuinely her best floor routine as a Red Rock.
“I thought Jaedyn was in her element,” Farden said. “She had a really nice vault today and then by far her best floor.”
As for O’Keefe, she just keeps getting better and better each week.
“Maile was stunning on floor exercise,” Farden said. “I think her performance quality continues to get more confident as the season goes on.”
Those three routines, back-to-back-to-back, gave Utah the breathing room it needed heading to beam. All the beam team had to do was not mess up and for the most part they did not and as a result the Red Rocks walked away with the win.
Area for improvement
There was glaring weak spot for Utah: the bars rotation.
The Red Rocks have had their moments on bars this season, but Saturday was not one of them. After an excellent leadoff routine by Paulson — that makes back-to-back weeks that she’s given Utah a chance for an elite score — almost everyone else struggled.
First, freshman Alani Sabado suffered an uncharacteristic fall, but a fall nonetheless. After that, the pressure seemed to get to the rest of the lineup, and every gymnast until Isa scored a 9.825.
Isa rescued the rotation with her 9.90, but even that wasn’t her best or the best performance in the meet, as Arizona State’s Juliette Boyer claimed the event title with a 9.925.
“We really felt like things tightened up,” Farden said.
Unlike beam, floor and vault, Utah has yet to have a truly standout performance on bars this year. Ranked No. 6 nationally with an average score of 49.213, Utah hasn’t been anywhere close to bad. They’e been great on bars. But they also haven’t reached elite status there.
One could argue they haven’t reached their potential, but it could also be argued that they have actually reached their potential and and that what they’ve shown through the first half of the season is who this team is on bars.
The answer to that will assuredly be determined in the coming weeks — Utah has four meets remaining before the Pac-12 championships — but at the very least, going forward the Red Rocks need to be better on bars than they were against the Sun Devils.
Area for excitement
There was a lot to be excited about for Utah.
First and foremost, they recorded new season-highs on vault and floor.
Then there was Burch’s vault, which was good enough that Farden expected it to be a perfect 10.
“Lexi knew as soon as she hit that table that she let that one loose,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a 10. That is how impressed we were.”
Rucker and O’Keefe had great outings, and the team showed considerable mettle battling back from the early deficit to come away with the win.
“They showed a lot of fight coming back,” Farden said.
Then there was the beam team. Those six gymnasts did their jobs about as well as could have been asked and sealed the victory.
“Carly (Dockendorf) got the team really ready,” Farden said. “Lexi led us off with a magnificent performance. We felt like beam was going to be a separator and it was in this meet. Our staff was super pleased with that.”
Arguably the most exciting thing that happened though was the debut of Stanhope on beam.
Before the season, Soloski promised fans that they’d love Stanhope’s skills for their uniqueness.
“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.”
She put those skills on display in her beam debut and while she wasn’t perfect, she definitely teased her potential on the event.
“I’d be remiss not to mention Lucy, with her making her debut today,” Farden said. “She did a really nice job and we can all see a lot of potential with her.”