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Deseret News

Utah showed its national title-winning potential against UCLA

By Trent Wood,

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe competes on the beam as No. 4 Utah takes on No. 5 UCLA at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah gymnastics is a national title contender.

The Red Rocks aren’t the favorite — reigning champion Oklahoma gets the nod there and for good reason — but after Friday night’s showing against rival UCLA, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Utah is capable of beating anyone in the country on any night.

That includes at the NCAA gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, in mid-April.

With the rival Bruins in Salt Lake City Friday night and the Huntsman Center buzzing, the Red Rocks put on a show and scored a season-high 198.200.

It was the fourth-highest score recorded by any team this season, behind only the back-to-back 198s recorded by Oklahoma the last two weeks (198.425 and 198.225) and Michigan’s score from Friday night (198.300).


Team scores — Utah, 198.200; UCLA, 197.450

Event winners

All-around — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 39.775

Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 10.0

Floor exercise — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 9.950

Uneven bars — Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Cristal Isa (Utah), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Grace McCallum (Utah); 9.950

Vault — Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jillian Hoffman (Utah); 9.975

Utah tied the program record on beam, with an event score of 49.775, recorded a season-high 49.575 on bars, tied its season-high on floor with a 49.475 and was altogether the best it had been all season.

That includes individually as Grace McCallum had her best all-around showing of the year (39.750), though she lost the all-around title to her Olympic teammate Jordan Chiles (39.775).

Maile O’Keefe recorded the fifth perfect 10 of her career, leaving her one behind Utah great Theresa Kulikowski for the school record on beam.

Jillian Hoffman had a career-high on vault (9.975), on a vault she has now only performed twice in college.

Kara Eaker got as close as she could get to earning her second perfect 10 of the season, settling for a 9.975 on beam, a score McCallum matched.

Across lineups, Utah was the best it had been this season (or close to it).

“Another step in the right direction for the program,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “Some of the things we’ve been working on in the gym, and mindset things that go along with gym work, was cashed in today. Excited about that.”

Added McCallum: “I think this is a good little confidence booster. Just knowing that we are heading in the right direction and making small improvement each day. We are gaining confidence every time we go out there.”
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Defining moment

Usually this would be the section in which to wax poetically about O’Keefe and her excellence on beam, as well as Utah’s beam lineup on the whole.

The Red Rocks are the country’s best beam team and Friday was just further evidence of that.

The meet didn’t come down to Utah’s performance on beam, though. Nor did the event alter the trajectory of the Red Rocks’ overall performance.

That happened on bars.

Bars had been one of Utah’s weakest events this season — along with floor.

It was on bars where Utah disappointed in the loss to Oklahoma and entering the meet against UCLA the Red Rocks had yet to demonstrate elite potential on the event.

Utah was elite on bars Friday.

Across the lineup, the Red Rocks were simply the best they had been all season, scoring no lower than a 9.850.


O’Keefe, Cristal Isa and McCallum closed out the rotation with back-to-back-to-back 9.950s, but Amelie Morgan led things off with a 9.875. All six routines were at the worst good, at the best great. There were vertical handstands and stuck landings and just overall great gymnastics.

Something Utah hadn’t shown it could quite do.

“Each week we go in the gym and write down what we did at the meet that past weekend and what we are going to fix in the week,” McCallum said. “Then we make little goals. I think that has been helping our scores.”

Added O’Keefe: “Tom has been really having us focus on handstands. That is really the make or break thing in routine. You can have a really nice routine with a stuck dismount and still go 9.850 because handstands are a big deal.”

Farden is Utah’s bars coach and this year’s team is progressing on the event just the way he likes it.

“People who have watched bars the last several years know I have a method to my madness,” he said. “I call myself a plodder. I just plod them along so they are ready to do it when they really need to do it.”

They needed it against the Bruins and didn’t disappoint.

Needs work

One of the first things Farden said following the meet — and it wasn’t unusual — was that there were mistakes made and areas for growth and improvement for Utah.

“Still some things we see out there, some tenths (of a point) we have to get back,” he said. “As I always say, it is a process and we will move them along in a logical progression.”

The easiest area for growth was on vault, where Utah took a slight step back from previous weeks, scoring a 49.375.

The first four vaults in the lineup were ever so slightly off, be it with hops on landings or crooked flight, leg separation, etc.

Utah closed the rotation strong — McCallum scored a 9.90, followed by Hoffman’s 9.975 — but overall the rotation wasn’t Utah’s best.

Some of that was due to the lack of a sixth vault valued at 10.0, which had been the plan for Utah prior to warmups.

“We were planning on debuting six 10.0 vaults tonight, but Lucy (Stanhope’s) warmup didn’t go as planned,” Farden said. “She is still suffering from that bruised heel. (Her absence) was precautionary, smart training. We pulled back in it.”

There remain tenths to be had on bars and floor as well, though Farden joked that the Red Rocks have much more to give on beam too.

“I’m disappointed that beam went 49.775,” he said. “We have two and a quarter points left to get there.”

He added: “This team has the execution to do whatever they want. I’ll just leave it at that.”

That’s encouraging

Encouraging is absolutely the wrong word this week, with inspiring much more apropos when it comes to Utah and the beam.

The Red Rocks have been the best beam team in the country this season, but what they did against UCLA was something else altogether.

The 49.775 Utah scored matched a similar outing by the Red Rocks against UCLA during the 2020 season, but this time around it was just more of the same.

For years now the Red Rocks have been elite on beam and Friday was a simple reminder of that fact.

“I think our fanbase needs to realize what they are witnessing right now,” Farden said. “Right now, the clutch of beam workers that we have is perhaps the best in the history of our program.

“I’ve watched Utah gymnastics for a long time. I wasn’t here in 1975, but ...”

Farden was quick to credit assistant coach Carly Dockendorf, Utah’s beam coach, for the success. Her and the gymnasts themselves.

“What Carly does with them, she instills a level of calmness,” he said. “The girls really feed of her leadership. I really can’t say enough good things about Carly and the collection of beamers that we have.”

O’Keefe was the best of the group against UCLA — scorewise at least — with her perfect scoring routine inching her ever closer to a unique place in Utah gymnastics history.

She was quick to say that she thought she could improve upon the routine, but the fact remains that she has become one of the best gymnasts in program history.

“When we started recruiting her, she was pretty young,” Farden said. “What popped off the page with her was just her ability to do unreal balance beam at a very young age. And I’m talking unreal. I went to her gym and watched and thought, ‘This is plain out silly.’ She was throwing out the hardest start values in the world and staying on, while doing it well.

“That obviously translated well into college and what you see. And now it is her stage. That is really cool. You watch her, and she pauses, takes her time and is very thoughtful. You can see it. It is poetry. I’ve said it before.”

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