Second-ranked Utah gymnastics team struggles in win over Arizona State

Senior Cristal Isa scores 9.975 on the balance beam to rally the Utes past the No. 13 Sun Devils.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Cristal Isa competes on the beam at the Best of Utah NCAA Gymnastics Meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Utah’s gymnastics team can put on a magical performance when the Utes are “on,” as they showed in their win over Oklahoma a week ago.

On Friday against No. 13 Arizona State, the second-ranked Utes showed a different version of themselves, one that was a little more surprising to the 10,752 fans in attendance at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes won the meet 197.4-196.1, but the score doesn’t indicate the struggles that the Utes faced.


Vault: Lucy Stanhope (Utah) and Alexia Burch (Utah) 9.9

Uneven bars: Grace McCallum (Utah) 9.925

Balance beam: Cristal Isa (Utah) 9.975

Floor: Jillian Hoffman (Utah) 9.975

All-around: Hannah Scharf (Arizona State) 39.5

Gone were the crisp, spot-on routines the Utes used to beat the ooners. Friday, the Utes had several breaks and missed landings to leave them in a closer than anticipated meet with their Pac-12 rival.

The Utes, leading just 98.7-98.4 at the halfway mark, put the meet in jeopardy on the balance beam, of all events. Yes, the event that has saved them so many times in previous years nearly did them in.

First, freshman Grace McCallum fell, scoring just 9.25 as the second gymnast up. That fall put the Utes under pressure. They performed like they knew it as Adrienne Randall (9.65) and Abby Paulson (9.675) both had major breaks.

Their missteps, plus a strong showing on the floor by Arizona State, gave the Sun Devils a 118.05-117.725 lead at one point in the rotation.

But then Cristal Isa, who moments earlier skillfully covered a break on the uneven bars to pull out a 9.775, came through again for her team.

The senior nailed her difficult pass then showed off a big smile that seemed to tell everyone things were going to be all right. She finished with a spot-on dismount, scoring a 9.975.

Maile O’Keefe followed Isa’s example and scored 9.95 to finish out the set for the Utes. The last two routines were enough to keep the Utes in the lead, 147.725-147.275 going into the final rotation.

By then it seemed everyone knew the Utes had survived their threat.

“Beam was not what we trained,” O’Keefe said afterward. “We have high expectations on beam and we are going to have to focus in on that event.”

Maybe Utah’s test on the balance beam will serve them well. After all, the Utes never know how they are going to perform in a tough spot unless they have the experience. It’s much better to have it happen now than in the postseason.

The beam has been so good to the Utes in the past two seasons, the breaks were almost shocking for fans, much less the team. But Isa showed the importance the seasoned veterans have in the lineups.

“That was the best beam routine I have ever seen her do,” Utah coach Tom Farden said.

O’Keefe was proud of the way the Utes ultimately responded.

“When you mess up you can be mad destructive and have a breakdown or be mad decisive and flip a switch,” O’Keefe said. “That is what I had to do, flip a switch and start over in a way and set a new tone.”

The Utes carried the momentum from the final beam routines to the floor, where Jillian Hoffman led off with a 9.975 in her first floor routine of the season. Lucy Stanhope and Jaedyn Rucker followed with 9.875 and 9.925, respectively.

McCallum had trouble landing her passes cleanly but still scored 9.75, followed by 9.95s from O’Keefe and Sydney Soloski to finish the meet.

Many times the Utes are happy when they break the 197-mark. Friday, they seemed more relieved.

“We can’t take things for granted,” Alexia Burch said. “Making little mistakes adds up over time.”