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Utah showed it can contend for a national title by winning the Pac-12 championships

Deseret News logo Deseret News 3/21/2021 Trent Wood
a woman holding a cell phone: Utah’s Maile O’Keefe reacts after competing on the beam during the Pac-12 gymnastics championships in West Valley City on Saturday, March 20, 2021. © Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Utah’s Maile O’Keefe reacts after competing on the beam during the Pac-12 gymnastics championships in West Valley City on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

Utah’s gymnastics team is Pac-12 champions.

That was true prior to Saturday night’s Pac-12 championships, held in West Valley City. The Red Rocks had already won the regular-season conference title before they even stepped foot onto the floor inside the Maverik Center.

The Pac-12 championships are a different animal, though, a pressure-packed meet on a podium that decides exactly which team is the best in a winner-take-all event.

The championships challenge gymnasts to be their very best on one single night, all the while competing in an unfamiliar and uncertain environment with their rivals mere feet away doing the same.

It wouldn’t have been strange had Utah fallen short. Any of Cal, UCLA and Arizona State could have, even would have been deserving champions, but Utah wouldn’t have any of that.

Powered by season-best performances on both balance beam and floor exercise, Utah defeated the lot, winning the Pac-12 championships for the first time since 2017.

The Red Rocks scored a season-high 197.725, thanks to a pair of 49.675’s on beam and floor. The floor score was the best by any team in the country this season, and the beam score was the second-best.

On an individual level, Maile O’Keefe won the all-around competition with a 39.700 and was named Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year. Cristal Isa had a career night herself, as she finished with a 39.650 in the all-around and picked up event victories on both beam and bars.

Abby Paulson and Sydney Soloski also walked away event champions, while Alexia Burch was named Pac-12 Specialist of the Year.

It was simply a night to be remembered, if for no other reason than it showed that Utah is in fact capable of competing at the same level as the country’s best teams. Utah’s score was one of the best of conference championship weekend, better than that of Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan, and Cal, four of the five teams ranked ahead of the Red Rocks.

“It was a great night. Obviously super proud of the team and the staff. It takes a village and I don’t think everyone really understands that. ... I’m feeling really grateful right now, especially in a pandemic with the challenging year that every program has had. Everything we’ve had to go through. Pretty spectacular.” — Tom Farden

“It was a great night,” head coach Tom Farden said. “Obviously super proud of the team and the staff. It takes a village and I don’t think everyone really understands that. ... I’m feeling really grateful right now, especially in a pandemic with the challenging year that every program has had. Everything we’ve had to go through. Pretty spectacular.”

As the No. 2 seed entering the competition, Utah’s convincing victory could be viewed as an upset of sorts, although O’Keefe and her teammates don’t see it that way.

“Seeding doesn’t really mean much,” O’Keefe said. “What matters is how you perform that night.”

And outside some iffy routines that bookended the meet, Utah was at its best. Good to enough to be champions again.

“It is a goal we have every year and it is hard to do,” Farden said. “The regular season (championship) is one thing, because you have to be so consistent and get up for every Pac-12 meet and that in itself is as gauntlet. But this (the Pac-12 championships) is different. (Winning this) is validation for your preparation for the postseason. Each year you coach the teams a little different and it is really satisfying for the staff, for all of us, for the program to remain at a high level.”

Defining moment

There was no more important a moment in the meet than that provided by Emilie LeBlanc.

In a championship filled with scores 9.900 or better — Utah finished with 13 in total — including new season and career-highs, it was LeBlanc’s 9.875 on bars that completely changed the competition, shifting it decidedly in Utah’s favor.

LeBlanc, a senior, is only competing on bars at this point in the season, but after Abby Paulson fell in her leadoff spot, and Alani Sabado and Burch posted back-to-back 9.775’s, Utah was reeling. Badly. Another subpar routine and the meet may have gotten away from them, ala what happened to Utah at the first day of nationals in 2019.

In that pressure-packed moment, LeBlanc delivered what can only be described as her best routine of the season, score notwithstanding. When she stuck her landing, she gave Utah new life and the Red Rocks took it and ran with it.

O’Keefe and Isa followed LeBlanc with a pair of 9.950’s and for the rest of the meet, at least until vault, the momentum sparked by LeBlanc propelled Utah to its best showing of the season.

“It sparked 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 to do that, it really showed leadership. She’s been there. She is as senior. She knows what to do. It was a momentum changer for us.”

Area for improvement

It feels a little nit-picky after what was Utah’s best meet this season, but there is still growth that can be made on bars and vault. Significant growth even.

Utah counted two 9.775’s in its bars rotation and had a fall. While the final three gymnasts in the lineup were outstanding, improve those 9.775’s to even just low 9.8’s and Utah would have had a chance to earn the best score in the country on conference championship weekend.

As for vault, there was another fall, this one from Burch, and Utah was forced to count a 9.725 scored by Lucy Stanhope. It got to the point that Farden swapped Sabado into the lineup in place of Cammy Hall, banking on her hitting an easier vault, a Yurchenko full with a start value of 9.95, rather than risk the more difficult one, a Yurchenko 1.5 (10.0 start value), from Hall.

“Lexi unfortunately and uncharacteristically fell in that fifth spot, and I just went with my gut,” Farden said. “I pulled Alani, who was the alternate and just told her to go. I don’t like to do that. We have event coaches who are very capable, but I felt it was necessary to secure the win. A little unorthodox, but you have to go with your gut at the end of the day.”

Utah didn’t have a single score on vault above a 9.850 and those were the first two vaults in the lineup, courtesy of Isa and O’Keefe. For a team ranked No. 8 in the country on the event coming into the meet, that showing simply wasn’t good enough. Or rather it won’t be come NCAA regionals.

Area for excitement

This section belongs to O’Keefe and Isa. For all the success had by the Red Rocks as a team, the night truly belonged to the pair of Utah gymnasts from Las Vegas.

They battled back and forth for the all-around title all night long, though they wouldn’t describe it that way. O’Keefe and Isa kind of grew up together and it was their unique bond that spurred their standout outings.

“What’s funny is they had mutual friends in Las Vegas so they have a little bond,” Farden said. “Going back to high school, they would go to birthday parties with friends, kind of had one degree of separation. So they feed off each. That bond that they had in high school is carrying through in college and it is pretty unique to see. It is not the only one we have, but I think it helps and they were both in their element.

“One thing we did with Cristal, we coached her through some things and this is her third year now so now coaching her, you know the athlete a little bit better. And Maile, she was determined tonight, was in a good mind space and wanted to come out and put on a show.”

The ability shown by both, in the all-around no less, means Utah can claim to have two of the best and most complete gymnasts in the country heading into the postseason.

Isa in particular made good on her potential in a way she had yet to do in her career, while O’Keefe simply did what she had done all season long, excel even with the pressure of being the Red Rocks’ most important competitor.

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