There was considerable excitement back in early November in 2018, when Utah gymnastics signed a trio of gymnasts — Abby Paulson, Jillian Hoffman and Jaedyn Rucker.

At the time, Utah knew it was going to need a serious influx of talent, as standouts such as MaKenna Merrell-Giles and Kari Lee were entering their final season as Red Rocks.

The excitement about the future of the program grew to a fever pitch at the beginning of March in 2019, when Utah added Maile O’Keefe to its signing class (around the same time that it was finalized behind the scenes that superstar MyKayla Skinner would be leaving the program to pursue her dream of competing at the Olympics).

O’Keefe and Paulson were both former Elites and U.S. National team members, Hoffman was a three-time Junior Olympic champion on three events (the all-around, floor exercise and uneven bars) and Rucker was a Junior Olympic vault champion.

It was clear even then that the foursome was special, a notable signing class for Utah.

Few would have predicted how special, though.

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Jump ahead to the present day, and there hasn’t been a more impactful group of Red Rock seniors (O’Keefe, Paulson and Rucker for five years, Hoffman for four) since the one that included Georgia Dabritz, Corrie Lothrop, Becky Tutka and Tory Wilson.

That foursome — seniors in 2015 — led Utah to its best finish at nationals in the last 15 years, a heart-wrenching second place behind the Florida Gators.

While the group of O’Keefe, Paulson, Rucker and Hoffman never managed to propel Utah to that height, they did something arguably even more impressive — they reestablished Utah as a perennial national title contender.

A quick walk down history lane.

Following the Ashley Postell era at Utah (2005 through 2008), the Red Rocks fell out of the realm of the elite in women’s college gymnastics.

It wasn’t a considerable fall , not like what has happened to Georgia in recent years, but where Utah once was a regular second- or third-place finisher at nationals, the Red Rocks quickly became a team that usually finished fifth, sixth and seventh overall, with the team even coming ninth multiple years.

From 2010 through 2019, Utah was a top three team at the end of the season just once — in 2015. Utah was going to nationals but was making it to the Super Six only about half the time and wasn’t ever seriously challenging for a national championship, save for the magical 2015 postseason.

Here are the year-by-year results:

  • 2010 — Sixth Place.
  • 2011 — Fifth Place.
  • 2012 — Fifth Place.
  • 2013 — Ninth Place.
  • 2014 — Seventh Place.
  • 2015 — Second Place.
  • 2016 — Ninth Place.
  • 2017 — Fifth Place.
  • 2018 — Fifth Place.
  • 2019 — Seventh Place.

During this time, new blue bloods emerged such as Oklahoma, Florida and LSU, and Utah became less of a national power. Still of interest, but no longer a program to be feared.

During the Skinner era, Utah was never better than the fifth-best team in the country and in her final postseason — the first where the Super Six was no more, replaced by the Final Four — Utah finished seventh.

Today, though, the Red Rocks are a top three program in women’s college gymnastics. They’ve proven it over the last four seasons.

And in 2020, Utah was trending towards a similarly high finish, rising to the No. 4 ranking before the season was cut short by the pandemic.

What do all those teams have in common?

O’Keefe, Paulson and Rucker (Hoffman was on the team for four years prior to transferring to LSU as a fifth-year senior, and for many of those she was sidelined with various injuries).

The group didn’t just turn Utah into a perennial national title contender, though.

Prior to their arrival in Salt Lake City, the Red Rocks were occasional Pac-12 champs, winning three conference titles compared to four won by rival UCLA and one won by Oregon State. After O’Keefe, Paulson and Rucker arrived in Utah, the Red Rocks never lost the Pac-12 championships, winning four straight.

The trio also etched their names in the program records as individuals, O’Keefe as the program’s all-time leader in perfect 10s in a career, Rucker as the program’s leader with perfect 10s on vault (tied with Kristen Kenoyer, Annabeth Eberle and Tory Wilson) and Paulson is only the 10th Utah gymnast ever with multiple perfect 10s on beam in a career.

Utah gymnast Jaedyn Rucker performs her floor routine during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tyler Tate

O’Keefe and Rucker are also individual NCAA champions.

Combine it all together and you’d be hard pressed to find a more impactful class of Red Rocks since the program stopped winning national titles in the mid 90s.

“They really have been so important to this team and our trajectory,” junior Amelie Morgan said.

They also only continued to get better, even as fifth-year seniors, Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said, though sometimes not in ways that those outside the program were able to see.

“I feel like this year, it was their ability to really step up as leaders,” Dockendorf said. “They’ve always been leaders just naturally with their work ethic and what they say in the gym, but I feel like they really stepped outside their comfort zone (this year) to really elevate this team, to captivate every single person on this team and bring the best out of every single person. They did that.”

For Morgan and many Red Rocks, O’Keefe, Paulson and Rucker stand as arguably the most impactful figures in their NCAA careers, more so than even their coaches.

“Each year I’ve been here I’ve grown closer and closer to those people,” Morgan said, “and they mean so much to me. They have shown me the way. They have led me on this team. They are the people I have looked up to, in and out of the gym, in every aspect of life. I am so grateful for what they’ve done for me and what they’ve shown me, just with their actions.”

Fittingly, the trio ended their Utah careers at or near their best at nationals, O’Keefe and Paulson with standout routines on floor and Rucker with an excellent vault.

They didn’t ultimately bring Utah a national championship — a stated goal entering this season — but they did change Utah gymnastics irrevocably and it started the moment they arrived on campus.

Utah Red Rocks’ Abby Paulson performs a perfect 10.0 beam routine while competing in a gymnastics meet against Stanford and Utah State University at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 15, 2024. The Utah Red Rocks won. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News