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‘We worked for five years to make this happen,’ Utah gymnasts say as No. 3 Oklahoma visits the Huntsman Center

The No. 4 Utes will be without freshman Kara Eaker, who suffered an injury during the Best of Utah meet.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Grace McCallum begins her floor routine at the Best of Utah NCAA Gymnastics Meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Forget the matchup against the in-state rivals, the Pac-12 battle with rival UCLA or the competition against SEC giant LSU, the meet that stood out the most on Utah’s gymnastics schedule in 2022 is the home opener against Oklahoma.

For years now Oklahoma has been one of the most consistent, winningest programs in the country, winning national titles in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

The Sooners are the program many others measure themselves against and on Friday they visit the Huntsman Center for a 7:30 p.m. showdown. The meet will be televised by ESPN2.

Utah coach Tom Farden wanted to schedule the Sooners for years and it just so happens their appearance in Salt Lake City comes in a season when both are projected to be among the final teams vying for a national title.

“We worked for five years to make this happen,” he said. “They are an incredible team year after year. No one has been more consistent than they have in the past decade.”

Utah gymnastics

No. 4 Utah vs. No. 3 Oklahoma

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Huntsman Center

TV: ESPN2

The only downer for the Utes will be the absence of freshman Kara Eaker. The Utes envisioned the Olympic alternate would compete on at least two or three events but Eaker is sidelined with an ankle injury she suffered in the season-opening meet. Eaker’s hand slipped on the vault causing her to land awkwardly.

An MRI showed there isn’t any damage other than a sprain, so Farden feels lucky she will be back this season.

“The initial prognosis, we weren’t sure what we were dealing with,” he said. “She will miss a few meets and in the meantime, it will be a test of our depth.”

Jillian Hoffman is expected to compete in her place on the vault, veteran Maile O’Keefe is the likely replacement on floor and Adrienne Randall is penciled in for the beam lineup.

Oklahoma opened its season with a 197.4-195.875 win over No. 6 Alabama. The Sooners swept all the event titles, an effort highlighted by 10.0 vaults from Katherine LeVasseur and Allie Stern. Sophomore Audrey Davis won the uneven bars (9.95) and all-around (39.325).

Farden isn’t downplaying the significance of the meet, pointing out his goal is to “win every meet.”

That is a slightly different tactic than some gymnastics teams use since it is the score that matters in the end and is calculated for the postseason seeding, not wins and losses.

If there is a downside to the anticipation for Friday, it is the rising number of COVID cases. Masks are now required by those attending. The attendance could be down because of the cases but it should still be high enough to give the Utes the home atmosphere they haven’t enjoyed since March of 2020.

Getting in front of a home crowd against a national rival has the Utes eager for Friday.

“It’s a different experience,” said British Olympian Amelie Morgan. “The Red Rocks preview felt crazy to me so I can’t imagine what it is like with another team in there.”

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