Utah gymnasts beam themselves into NCAA championships

Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker leads the vault competition with a 9.9625

(Tony Gutierrez | AP) Utah's Abby Paulson competes on the balance beam during the NCAA college women's gymnastics championships, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas.

So many gymnastics teams compete on the balance beam to survive. The Utes compete to win it.

That is exactly what they did on Thursday, delivering yet another standout performance on the 4-inch wide beam to earn a spot in the NCAA Championships Saturday.

The Utes advanced along with Oklahoma in Thursday’s early session. The Sooners won the session with a 198.1125. Utah scored a 197.7125 for second, while Minnesota (197.1125) and Alabama (197.1) failed to make the cut.

In the afternoon session, Florida scored a 197.975 to win and advance along with Auburn (197.8375) while Missouri (197.2) and defending champion Michigan (196.2875) were eliminated.

The championships are set for 11 a.m., Saturday in Ft. Worth and will be televised by ABC. The other two finalists will be decided in Thursday’s afternoon session when Florida, Missouri, Auburn and Michigan compete.

The Utes have a shot at their 11th national title and first since last winning it in 1995.

Utah, which starts on the beam Saturday, was third in 2021 behind Michigan and Oklahoma.

“What we found is it is whoever brings their ‘A,’ game that day,” Utah coach Tom Farden said of the finals. “But that’s what you want when there is so much parity.”

The Utes enjoyed an unexpected bonus win Thursday when Jaedyn Rucker’s 9.9625 vault couldn’t be matched, giving Utah its first NCAA vault champion since MyKayla Skinner tied for the title in 2018. Utah’s other NCAA vault champions were Kristen Kenoyer (1992), Megan Marsden (1984) and Elaine Alfano (1982, 1983, 1985).

The junior’s season-best was a 9.975 against Cal, one of five times she scored 9.9 or higher.

“We knew she had one of the best vaults in the country,” Farden said. “It was an unbelievable vault and, in my mind, she stood out with her cleanliness in the air and absolute control of her landing.”

Utah, ranked No. 1 on the beam, was ahead of Alabama for the second-place spot by just 0.1375 going into the final rotation after the Utes had a surprisingly subpar effort on the uneven bars.

Often teams crumble under that kind of pressure on the balance beam. Not the Utes, who posted a 49.6 on the balance beam to earn their spot in the finals.

The early part of the lineup was so strong, with Amelie Morgan scoring a 9.9, Grace McCallum a 9.8875, Abby Paulson a 9.9375 and Cristal Isa a 9.875, that all Kara Eaker had to do to seal Utah’s spot was score a 9.4.

Instead, the freshman posted a 9.9375. Anchor Maile O’Keefe closed out the set with another 9.9375.

Alabama seemed to feel more pressure than the Utes as the Tide had trouble sticking their landings and scored only 49.125 on the vault to slip to fourth place.

Ever since a dismal performance of 48.725 on the beam at Arizona on Feb. 25, the Utes have been outstanding on the event, scoring 49.6 or higher.

Utah excelled on the beam at regionals, scoring 49.7 and 49.725, but Thursday’s effort was delivered under so much intensity, one could argue it was the best performance on the event this year considering what was at stake.

“People saw what we were doing as a staff by recruiting great beamers and Carly (Dockendorf) is a great beam coach,” Farden said. “It was on the podium and on ESPN and they knew all that but what we were trying to do is just really focus and not let it distract us too much.”

The Utes needed that kind of effort after their uneven bars rotation put them in a bind.

In a good spot in second place going into the bars, the Utes totaled a season-low 49.2125 as several gymnasts had uncharacteristic mistakes.

McCallum landed low and scored only 9.725 and Isa had a break in her routine to score only 9.7. Sage Thompson and O’Keefe led the team with 9.9s.

The previous season-low on bars was a 49.225 in the season opener.

The Utes were particularly strong on the event late in the year, scoring a 49.4 or higher in the last five meets making Thursday’s result that much more surprising.

The poor showing widened Oklahoma’s lead with the Sooners leading 148.4375, followed by Utah (148.1125), Alabama (147.975) and Minnesota (147.725) going into the final events.

Utah could have easily let their effort on the uneven bars affect their mentality going into beam, which probably would have resulted in them being eliminated.

Instead, they attacked the beam, just as Farden wanted them to do.

“I told them they were playing it safe trying to be too perfect,” he said. “I told them to let loose on beam and that is exactly what they did.”