Utah gymnasts miss opportunity for an upset in Oklahoma

Third-ranked Utes fall to second-ranked Sooners 197.025-196.55

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah gymnast Maile O’Keefe, shown during a meet last February at the Huntsman Center, won the overall on Sunday at Oklahoma, but the third-ranked Utes lost to the No. 2 Sooners.

Utah’s third-ranked gymnastics team has talked about being one of the nation’s elite teams this year. On Sunday, the Utes missed a big chance to prove their talk with results as second-ranked Oklahoma beat the visiting Utes 197.025-196.55.

Despite a few mistakes on the vault, the Utes had a chance to come from behind and upend the Sooners since they trailed Oklahoma by just 0.1 going into the final rotation. Normally coming from behind on the balance beam is near impossible, but the Utes made a habit of winning meets on the beam in 2020.

With the same beam lineup available this year, the Utes are expected to be great on the balance beam again. But they had too many issues on Sunday, with leadoff gymnast Emilie LeBlanc falling (9.125) and Cristal Isa (9.625) and Abby Paulson (9.725) having some minor mistakes.

As a team, the Utes scored just 48.975 on the beam. Granted, catching Oklahoma might not have been possible anyway since the Sooners finished with a 49.35 on the floor, but the Utes would have preferred to at least lose with a strong performance, not a subpar one.

Utah coach Tom Farden was clearly dejected after the meet. Not only was losing disappointing, but doing so on the beam clearly bugged him. Sunday was the first time the Utes had competed against Oklahoma in a dual meet since 1992.

Since then, the Sooners have become the premier team in the nation, winning three of the past four national titles. Both teams were undefeated when the season ended last year, so Sunday’s matchup was a great opportunity for the Utes to prove they can compete on the same level as the Sooners.

What added to the sting of the loss was it wasn’t Oklahoma’s best day either. The Sooners had their own mistakes on the vault where they scored just 49.15, giving Utah a chance to pull off a rare win at Oklahoma. Under coach K.J. Kindler, the Sooners entered Sunday’s meet 109-4 at home.

Utah coach Tom Farden said he felt the Utes weren’t quite on their game in warmups. Unfortunately his hunch proved correct.

“Going into the fourth rotation we had climbed out of a hole and were back in the meet, just separated by a tenth,” he said.  “I felt we could have made it up but there were things we have to do better. We have to do a better job in the gym then transfer that to the competition floor against the nation’s elite.”

In addition to the missed opportunity for the win, the Utes are working with the added pressure of the uncertainty of the season. The Utes need a minimum of four meets this year to qualify for the postseason, but the Pac-12 has yet to release a schedule.

Utah is operating under the assumption it will have a meet next week, but as we have all learned during the pandemic, nothing is certain.

“As coaches we have to go in and train them as if we are going to compete,” he said.

Sunday wasn’t all bad for the Utes. After all they did put themselves in a position to win after the 49.0 effort on vault with a 49.3 on floor. Sophomore Maile O’Keefe had a great meet too, winning the all-around with a 39.55.

But the Utes are past the stage where making it close or individual efforts are totally satisfying. They wanted a big win, one they could look back on as the highlight of whatever season is to come.

Instead, they are headed back to Utah with some bitter disappointment in themselves.

“We have talked about staying at the top of the conference and the finals and that we have to be comfortable,” Farden said. “Today there were some instances we weren’t comfortable. As a coach, we have to expose them to this opportunity and learn from this and better.”