Utah hit a season high of 197,725 and got off to a miserable start to beat Cal, UCLA and ASU and win the conference championships. Maile O’Keefe was named Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year.
This was the case ahead of the Pac-12 Championships on Saturday night in West Valley City. The Red Rocks had won the regular conference title before they even stepped foot on the floor at the Maverik Center.
Team Values - Utah, 197,725; Cal, 197.375; UCLA, 196,725; ASU, 196,375; Oregon State, 195,625; Arizona, 195,400; Stanford 195,175; Washington, 194.400
Floor exercise – Kyla Bryant (Stanford), Chae Campbell (UCLA), Kyana George (Cal), Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Jaedyn Rucker (Utah), Sydney Soloski (Utah), Pauline Tratz ( UCLA); 9,950
The Pac-12 Championships are a different beast, however, a punchy podium meeting that decides exactly which team is the best in a winner-take-all event.
The championships challenge gymnasts to perform their best in a single evening, while competing in an unfamiliar and unsafe environment and their rivals doing the same just a few meters away.
It wouldn’t have been strange if Utah had come up short. Anyone from Cal, UCLA and Arizona State could even have earned championships, but Utah would have none of it.
With the best performances of the season in both balance beam and floor training, Utah beat the lottery and won the Pac for the first time since 2017 -12 championship.
The Red Rocks hit a season high of 197.725 thanks to a pair of 49,675 on the bar and floor. The floor score was the best of any team in the country that season, and the beam score was the second best.
On an individual level, Maile O’Keefe won the all-round competition with 39,700 and was named Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year chosen. Cristal Isa had a career night of her own when she finished with a 39,650 in all-round and took event wins on both beam and bars.
Abby Paulson and Sydney Soloski also walked away as event champions, while Alexia Burch was named Pac-12 Specialist of the Year.
It was just a night to remember, if for no other reason than that that Utah is actually able to compete at the same level as the best teams in the country. Utah’s score was one of the best on the conference championship weekend, better than Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan, and Cal. Four of the five teams were in front of the Red Rocks.
« It was a great night, » said head coach Tom Farden. “Obviously super proud of the team and the employees. It takes a village and I don’t think everyone really understands that. … I’m very grateful right now, especially in a pandemic with the challenging year each program had. Everything we had to go through. Pretty spectacular. “
Utah’s convincing win could be seen as something of a surprise, although O’Keefe and her teammates don’t see it that way.
And outside of some dubious routines that booked the meeting, Utah was at its best. Good enough to be the champions again.
« It’s a goal we have every year and it’s hard to achieve, » said Farden. “The regular season (championship) is one thing because you have to be so constant and get up for every Pac-12 meeting, and that’s a glove in itself. But that (the Pac-12 championships) is different. (Winning this) is an endorsement of your preparation for the postseason. Every year you train the teams a little differently and it is really satisfying for the staff, for all of us, that the program stays at a high level. “
There was no more important moment in the meeting than that of Emilie LeBlanc.
In a championship with 9,900 points or better – Utah finished the race with a total of 13 points – including new season and career highs – it was LeBlanc’s 9,875 on bars that completely changed the competition and decidedly moved it to Utah.
LeBlanc, a senior, only competes at bars at this point in the season, but after Abby Paulson fell in her starting slot and Alani Sabado and Burch had posted 9,775 in a row, Utah wavered. Bad. Another subpar routine and meeting they may have missed, including what happened to Utah on the First Day of Nationals in 2019.
In that punchy moment, LeBlanc delivered what can only be described as her best routine of the season, despite her score. When it caught its landing, it gave new life to Utah and the Red Rocks took it and ran with it.
Well please! Way to get us going! Emilie Em made the much-needed 9,875! @ Pac12Networkhttps: //t.co/l5zT0eVHd1 pic.twitter.com/BpLr9JO3WA
O’Keefe and Isa followed LeBlanc with a pair of 9,950 and for the rest of the meeting, at least until the jump, drove the momentum triggered by LeBlanc Utah at his best of the season.
Maile O’Keefe brings her out in this routine (and after her routine) for 9.95 !! ️ @ Pac12Network pic.twitter.com/A5vL5sfDjn
« It ignited us, » Farden said. « Really, if you think about it, the next two bar routines (after Paulson’s fall) were fine, but nothing incredible. But Emilie went up there and really set the tone for the last two bar routines. For her, that really showed leadership . She was there. She is so older. She knows what to do. It was a pulse changer for us. «
It feels a bit picky after the best get-together in Utah this season, but there is always still growth that can be achieved on bars and vaults. Significant growth in fact.
Utah counted two 9,775 in its bar rotation and fell. While the last three gymnasts in the lineup were excellent, they improve that 9,775 to only 9.8 , and Utah would have had a chance to get the best score in the country by the conference championship weekend.
As for the vault, there was another fall, this one from Burch, and Utah was forced to score a 9,725 from Lucy Stanhope to counting. It got to the point that Farden Sabado switched to the lineup instead of Cammy Hall, trusting them to hit a lighter vault, a Yurchenko with a starting value of 9.95, rather than risking the more difficult ones, a Yurchenko 1.5 ( 10.0 start) value), from Halle.
« Unfortunately and unusually, Lexi fell to fifth place, and I just walked with my stomach, » said Farden. “I pulled Alani, who was the alternative, and just told her to go. I do not like doing that. We have event coaches who are very capable, but I felt it was necessary to secure the win. A bit unorthodox, but at the end of the day you have to go with your stomach. “
Cristal closes your night with a beautiful vault! She gets us going with a 9.85!@Pac12Network pic.twitter.com/9Dvxju16E1
Utah didn’t have a single vault score above 9,850 and these were the first two vaults in the lineup, courtesy of Isa and O ‘ Keefe. For a team ranked 8th in the country at the event, that performance just wasn’t good enough. Or rather, there will be no NCAA Regionals.
This section belongs to O’Keefe and Isa. Despite the Red Rocks’ success as a team, the night really belonged to the two Utah gymnasts from Las Vegas.
They fought back and forth for the all-round title all night, although that’s not how they would describe it. O’Keefe and Isa somehow grew up together and it was their unique bond that spurred their stellar outings.
Just what we thought May scored our third 9.95 of the rotation !! https://t.co/gw3HwUJVix
« What’s funny is that they had mutual friends in Las Vegas so they have a little bond, » Farden said. “When they went back to high school, they went to birthday parties with friends and had some degree of separation. So they feed on everyone. That bond they had in high school continues into college and it’s pretty unique to see. It’s not the only thing we have, but I think it helps and they were both in their element.
“One thing we did with Cristal, we coached her through a few things and this is hers third year. Now that we’re coaching her, you know the athlete a little better. And Maile, she was determined tonight, was in good frame of mind and wanted to come out and put on a show. “
The skill they both show in all-around means that Utah can claim to have two of the best and most complete gymnasts in the country in the postseason.
Isa in particular has reached her potential in a way that had not yet reached her in her career, while O’Keefe was simply doing what she had been doing all season and excelling himself under pressure to be the Red Rocks’ main competitor.
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