Missteps, injuries cost Utah gymnasts a shot at a national title

The Red Rocks finished third at the NCAA championships on Saturday

(Gareth Patterson | AP) Utah's Cristal Isa competes on the balance beam during the NCAA college women's gymnastics championships, Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Vault consistently has been the trouble spot for Utah’s gymnastics team in 2022. On Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, those troubles might have cost the Utes an NCAA Championship.

Leading after two rotations, the Utes slipped to third in the NCAA Championships after a subpar effort on the vault. Oklahoma, which was in fourth place after a slow start on the floor, surged back to win the NCAA title with a 198.2. Florida was second with a 198.0875 followed by Utah (197.75) and Auburn (197.35).

It was the fifth NCAA title for Oklahoma, which won outright in 2019, 2017 and 2016 and tied with Florida for the title in 2014.

The Utes were third in 2021.

Utah coach Tom Farden acknowledged the Utes needed a bigger score on vault, but also said he was proud of the team for fighting throughout the meet.

“We are going to hold our heads up,” he said. “It was a great year and an accomplishment for these athletes in what they’ve achieved this year and the past several years. They have much to be proud of.”

NCAA Gymnastics Championships

1. Oklahoma 198.2

2. Florida 198.0875

3. Utah 197.75

4. Auburn 197.35

Utah put itself in a position to win its first NCAA title since 1995 when it opened the meet with a huge effort on the balance beam. The Utes were strong enough on the floor to lead the meet at the halfway mark with a 98.975, ahead of Florida (98.875), Oklahoma (98.85) and Auburn (98.625).

But they lost their ground in the third rotation on the vault where they scored just 49.225 with only NCAA vault champion Jaedyn Rucker scoring above 9.9 with a 9.975.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma continued its surge by logging a 49.725 on the bars and Florida posted a 49.5 on the beam, allowing the teams to overtake the Utes.

Still, the title wasn’t out of the reach of any of the teams since the scores were close. Oklahoma led with a 148.575 followed by Florida (148.375), Utah (148.2) and Auburn (148.1225).

The Utes finished strong with a 49.55 on the uneven bars as Grace McCallum scored a 9.95, Sage Thompson had a 9.9125 and Amelie Morgan and Maile O’Keefe had 9.9s. But by then Oklahoma and Florida were on their own high levels with Oklahoma scoring a 49.625 on the beam and Florida finishing with a 49.7125 on the floor.

It might be harsh to say the Utes lost the meet on the vault, since there were other mistakes made such as O’Keefe’s first fall in 121 routines coming on the floor, but it was the most glaring event deficit.

Vault was thought to be one of Utah’s strength this year. The Utes had several vaults worth 10.0. But hitting those vaults cleanly proved too difficult to do consistently, particularly after Kara Eaker’s ankle injury took her out of the vault lineup and Jillian Hoffman was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon tear.

On Saturday, Cammy Hall fell and scored only 9.25, Lucy Stanhope had just 9.7625 and Alexia Burch and McCallum had 9.8375s and O’Keefe scored only 9.8125. Those scores simply weren’t good enough to keep the Utes ahead.

“Injuries are a part of sports,” Farden said. “Losing Kara, a proven commodity, and a leadoff who frequently was close to a 9.9, does hurt.”

What made the vault stick out too was how well the Utes did on the other events to put themselves right in the middle of the fight for the title.

The Utes were impressive on the beam, opening with a 49.5125 as Morgan and McCallum didn’t show any rookie nerves as they opened for the Utes with a 9.8875 and 9.875, respectively. Abby Paulson followed with a 9.9, Cristal Isa had a 9.8375, Eaker had a 9.95 and O’Keefe a 9.9 to close out the set.

While the score was a little less than the 49.6 the Utes scored Thursday in the qualifying round, it was arguably just as good of a set as the Utes handled the pressure of opening on the event extremely well.

The Utes followed beam with a 49.4625 on floor, but lost a chance for a higher score when O’Keefe suffered the first fall of her career, scoring only 8.7. She was 120-of-120 for hit routines going into the finals.

Sydney Soloski led the Utes with a 9.9125 and McCallum and Paulson had 9.9s.

Farden noted O’Keefe has stepped up numerous times when teammates have fallen this year and was happy others did so for her Saturday.

“People forget this is only the second time she has been at championships and it’s a different deal,” he said of O’Keefe.

The Utes still led at the halfway mark with a 98.975 followed by Florida (98.875), Oklahoma (98.85) and Auburn (98.625), but Utah just couldn’t deliver the big vault scores it needed to hang onto the lead.

Farden called the competition overall “unbelievable.”

“There are so many world-class athletes and Olympians everywhere you look,” he said. “It is intense and this format is a meat grinder.”