No. 4 Utah edges No. 9 Cal in Pac-12 gymnastics showdown

Red Rocks use strong effort on balance beam to turn back Bears, 197.325-197.125.

Last season it was surviving a run through UCLA, Cal and Washington on the road that built the character of Utah’s gymnastics team.

This season, the fourth-ranked Utes survived a similar test to earn at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season title with a 197.375-197.125 win over No. 9 Cal on Friday at the Huntsman Center.

The win alone was impressive, considering the Bears have evolved into one of the Pac-12′s strongest teams and led by .50 halfway through the meet.

But taken together, three recent wins show the Utes can win in a variety of ways and scenarios.

The Utes beat an upstart Arizona State team on its own floor, survived some major mistakes to hold off UCLA a week ago and then came from behind to beat the Bears on Friday.

The Utes not only came out with a 5-0 conference record with just Oregon State remaining, they gained the kind of confidence they want as they prepare for the post-season.

“We are definitely a team that likes pressure,” senior Cristal Isa said. “We rise to the occasion.”

The Utes did so in impressive fashion Friday, scoring a 49.5 on the balance beam to snatch the lead from the Bears. The rotation had a huge lift from a 9.95 from Isa, a score matched by Abby Paulson and then bested by Maile O’Keefe with a 9.975.

Utah wasn’t finished, capping the effort with a 49.45 on the floor to tie its season best. Jaedyn Rucker won the floor with a 9.95 and Sydney Soloski had a 9.925, but what was most notable was the Utes made it through the whole rotation without any of the big breaks present a week ago.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker performs her floor routine during a gymnastics meet between the University of Utah and the University of California, Berkeley, held at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

If the performance is an indication the Utes are on track for the postseason, coach Tom Farden will take it.

“I feel floor has come on strong,” he said. “I thought it was going to be one of our strongest events and it has definitely gotten better.”

It remains to be seen if the improvements will be enough to allow the Utes to be on the floor the night the NCAA title is decided.

There is plenty of work remaining to clean up routines and make landings more consistent before that April chance, but for now the Utes are confident in their evolution.

In addition to the floor, the Utes are starting to hit their vaults better. Utah has four vaults worth 10.0, so in Farden’s mind it should be at least as strong as floor for the Utes.

Earlier in the season when they were getting the vaults dialed in, steps and shaky landings could be forgiven. But against teams like UCLA and Cal, such errors can lead to losses. The Utes weren’t spectacular on vault Friday, but they at least were fairly clean and consistent in a 49.175 effort.

“I’m seeing progress everywhere,” he said. “We’re chipping away. We have a plan, there is a map.”

The Utes don’t have many opportunities left to test themselves since a March 5 meet at Oregon State and a March 12 meet at Utah State are all that remain on the schedule before the Pac-12 Championships on March 20.

But there is a sense, particularly after Friday’s win, the Utes will be in good shape to possibly win the title.

Individual winners

Vault: Milan Clausi (Cal) 9.9

Uneven bars: Nina Schank (Cal) 9.875

Balance beam: Maile O’Keefe (Utah) 9.975

Floor: Jaedyn Rucker (Utah) 9.95

All-around: Maile O’Keefe (Utah) 39.525