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Utah gymnasts start their season with sights set on a national title

Red Rocks return 23 of 24 routines while adding Olympian Grace McCallum to the roster

(Matt Strasen | AP) Utah's Maile O'Keefe competes in the floor during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, last April. O'Keefe is a leader on a Utah team with lofty expectations this season.

Building a gymnastics program that can win a national title requires putting so many elements together. Take a little of this, a little of that and with a little added luck, the mixture will blend into a championship-winning concoction.

This year the Utes appear to have everything they need for their would-be Master Chef moment. Utah coach Tom Farden has been a tireless recruiter, bringing in the most decorated rookie class in the program’s history. The experience is there, with Utah returning 23 of the 24 routines that earned the Utes third-place in the 2021 NCAA Championships. There is heat too, obvious in the way the Utes were miffed at their fourth-place spot in the NCAA preseason poll, a spot behind Florida, a team the Utes beat at the NCAAs.

Indeed, if there was ever a Utah team that looked on the verge of experiencing the sweet taste of an NCAA win, it would be this one.

The Utes, who begin their season with the Best of Utah meet Friday at 7 p.m. in the Maverik Center, aren’t hiding from the expectations either, if anything they are pushing them higher.

Best of Utah

Utah, BYU, SUU and Utah State

Jan. 7 at 7 p.m.

At Maverik Center

Case in point, the team’s reaction to the preseason poll. It would have been easy enough to say they were fine with the fourth-place slot, but they aren’t and they let it be known after their Red Rocks preview. Maile O’Keefe said it added fuel to the fire and Sydney Soloski characterized it as “not insulting” but also short in expectations too.

“It was quite flattering they think we can make it to the final day of the NCAAs,” she said. “But this team is returning all but one routine and we have a class of four incredibly talented women coming in. We know we can do more than just make it to the final day.”

One only has to look at the roster to see why the Utes are so optimistic. The rookie class arguably is the most talented in history with Olympian Grace McCallum, Olympic alternate Kara Eaker, British Olympian Amelie Morgan and three-time junior Olympic qualifier Sage Thompson joining the Utes.

The heart of the team’s experience comes in the junior O’Keefe, who won the NCAA titles on the uneven bars and floor last year, Abby Paulson, an All-American on the beam, senior Cristal Isa, a four-time All-American, and senior Adrienne Randall, who was a starter on the beam in every meet.

Experience plus leadership comes in Alexia Burch and Soloski, who opted to return for a fifth-year as granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic.

The Utes have others pushing for a spot in the lineup, giving the team the legitimate depth of eight gymnasts on every event. That is a luxury Farden has never had before and he admits managing all that depth will be a great part of 2022.

“We are going to use it to our advantage,” he said. “But anyone who knows me knows I’m not afraid of changing our lineups. You have to go with your gut a lot.”

The Utes will get a chance to play around with their lineups some in the season opener when they face BYU, SUU and Utah State. But then it’s full throttle into the season with the home opener against No. 3 Oklahoma on deck followed by the heart of the Pac-12 schedule.

The challenges are there waiting, but the team will be ready, the Utes insist. Utah is proud of what was accomplished in 2021 with a limited roster. This year the Utes don’t really see many limitations.

“This year is going to be unreal,” Burch said. “We brought in a phenomenal freshman class and the energy has made everyone on the team push themselves. We have a lot of drive and motivation.”

The gymnasts have been around long enough that they aren’t taking anything for granted. They know teams like Oklahoma, Michigan and so on have a lot of talent too, but there are expectations this team should do very well. The team is driving many of those expectations.

“If we can stay super healthy and stay mentally in the right state of mind, I think we can do more than we ever thought we could,” O’Keefe said.

Game on.

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