How the Utah gymnasts have coped with the loss of Grace McCallum

The Red Rocks will compete in the Pac-12 championships Saturday at the Maverik Center.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Makenna Smith on the beam as Utah hosts California, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

When a team is as consistent as Utah’s gymnastics team, it’s human nature to focus on the Utes’ surprising dips, such as the loss at Oregon State a week ago or the knee injury to Grace McCallum that has sidelined the star.

Less glaring than the glitches have been, there is a quiet improvement going on for the Utes, and it just might make the difference for them going into Saturday’s Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at the Maverik Center.

As the second seed, Utah competes in the 6 p.m. session along with top seed UCLA, Cal and Oregon State. The 1 p.m. session features Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford and Washington.

Utah is the two-time defending champion and also won the title in 2014, 2015 and 2017. The competition was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

The Utes have gotten the most attention this year for their balance beam team, which ranks No. 1 nationally with a 49.67 national qualifying score.

But the Utes have quietly made some big gains with their floor efforts in recent weeks, posting scores of 49.675 against Cal, 49.625 against Arizona and 49.475 at Oregon State.

The Utes rank eighth on the floor with a 49.485 NQS. UCLA is No. 1 with a 49.625 average, but as the Utes are capable of posting big scores and are much better than they were in the early weeks of the season when they averaged just 49.267.

“Out of all the events, floor has had some of the biggest improvements,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “Everyone has been able to make some tweaks and improve some things mechanically, too.”

It isn’t a huge surprise a team has improved throughout the season, especially on floor, which in Farden’s mind is one of the easier events in which to see increased scores as the season matures.

But the Utes have been able to pull it off without McCallum or Kara Eaker being available due to their injuries. Utah has closed the gap by using Maile O’Keefe after she was used sparingly in the early season in an effort to manage her knee pain. Abby Paulson and Jaylene Gilstrap are getting increased scores, too.

Gilstrap has been a bit of a surprise, earning 9.9 or higher in the last five meets.

Previous to the streak that started on Feb. 11, Gilstrap had only one 9.9 in the first five meets.

“It has been a tale of two halves for her,” Farden said. “She has had some tremendous development and she can really carry her routine.”

The Utes have also benefited from using Abby Brenner, the fifth-year transfer from Michigan, as the leadoff. Brenner took over the role from Paulson, who was moved deeper into the lineup, in January and has thrived with her experience and ability to play up to the crowd.

All in all, the Utes have made enough improvements that Farden feels good about the event going into the championships, even with McCallum still sidelined.

The Utes defeated UCLA and Cal earlier in the year and are coming off the loss to the Beavers, but Farden continues to focus on the positives such as floor.

“This team continues to fight,” he said.

How to watch the Pac-12 Championships

Maverik Center

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Evening Session, 6 p.m.

No. 4 UCLA (197.94), No. 5 Utah (197.845), No. 7 Cal (197.765), No. 11 Oregon State (197.49)

Afternoon session, 1 p.m.

No. 14 Arizona State (197.105), No. 19 Stanford (196.93), No. 27 Washington (196.585), No. 28 Arizona (196.57).

*National qualifying score in parentheses