There’s a reason Utah competed at home Friday night against Oregon State, followed by a meeting a few days later Monday night in Seattle against Washington.
The Red Rocks want to be as prepared as possible for the playoffs, both NCAA Regionals and hopefully Nationals.
In both post-season competitions, fixtures are held on consecutive days, so while the combination of Friday-Monday fixtures doesn’t exactly mimic that experience, it serves as a decent approximation.
Encounters so close together provide Utah with an opportunity to test both their physical and mental readiness for what’s to come.
Consider test #1 passed.
Last Friday, Utah posted a season-high 198 in their win over Oregon State, and Monday night the Red Rocks were nearly as good, beating Washington 197.950 to 197.275.
“I’m pleased with the overall performance of the night,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “… Nice team score on the road. Should have, could have, would have for this 198, but overall satisfied.
Freshman Grace McCallum had the best overall performance of her college career with a 39.775, while seniors Sydney Soloski and Alexia Burch had outstanding performances on floor and vault, respectively, earning victories.
The Red Rocks had nearly the best outings of the season on balance beam, floor, and vault, and the team’s final score was Utah’s best road score of the year.
Now that the standings are based on the National Qualifying Score (NQS), Utah’s score was good enough to move it from No. 4 overall to return to No. 2at least for now.
Perhaps most important, however, was the preparation for the playoffs.
“From a strength perspective, as we say in gymnastics or any sport, you want to build that mental toughness, and I think that stretch was a good prescription for athletes,” Farden said.
“For them at home going to 198, then two days later going to 197.950, to have almost mirror performance in terms of scoring and overall. …Hopefully it pays dividends down the road.
No routine won the competition for Utah, but there was one singular gymnast who stood out among the rest, even as her teammates put on some of their best performances of the year.
McCallum was simply outstanding, the best she’s ever been in a Utah leotard. She scored 9.90 or better on all four events (including a 9.950 or better on three) and recorded a career-high 9.975 on balance beam.
Right off the bat, McCallum looked relaxed and in her element, arguably more than she has in any other competition this year.
During her floor routine, she couldn’t stop smiling, and it wasn’t the “impress the judges” kind of smile. On the contrary, McCallum really enjoyed gymnastics.
“It’s been a process (with Grace),” Farden said. “It’s easy to take someone who is a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist and assume they can do it all, but she’s still an athlete and we (coaches) have to co-drive that with her.
“It’s a byproduct of understanding what she needs, better training advice, understanding what signals work for her and also what works in practice with her. Tonight at the balance beam, she rehearsed with a model that we had worked on in training, which was great.
Utah was strong throughout the competition, but there were still areas where the Red Rocks dropped tenths of points on the ground.
On vault, Utah scored a 9.775 from Sage Thompson, in part because senior Cammy Hall took a significant step back on her landing, scoring a 9.425 as a result.
Others, like Jaedyn Rucker and Lucy Stanhope, had strong dismounts, but steps on their landings led to scores of 9.850 and 9.875 rather than the 9.90 the two gymnasts are easily capable of.
On bars, Utah was clinical with their pear trees, but the outs and landings left something to be desired, and the result was four scores in the 9.80 range and just two 9.90s.
“On the bars, I wish I could retake some of those outings,” Farden said. “But the handstands were good, had good form. On the jump we had a very solid finish, but we weren’t typical in second place with Cammy’s jump with her stepping back like that.
Again, there were plenty of positives for the Red Rocks.
- Senior Alexia Burch landed her best jump of the year with a score of 9.950.
- Adrienne Randall had another great performance on beam, which made for strong back-to-back performances.
- Despite significant roster changes on the floor — Randall and Jaylene Gilstrap replaced Rucker and Maile O’Keefe on rest — Utah went a low 9.875, which Gilstrap recorded in his first competitive routine of the season.
However, there are no two performances more encouraging than those of Amelie Morgan and Abby Paulson.
Morgan recorded a 9.950 on beam and a 9.900 on bars, both scores from her top position in the lineup.
Over the past month, Morgan has become almost automatic at the front of Utah’s lineups, but her impact goes beyond that.
“What (Amelie) is doing even better now is affecting the team with her confidence,” Farden said. “She has a quiet competitiveness, but it rubs off on the team.
“Beyond the scores she delivers and the beautiful gymnastics, you can see the competitiveness is fading.”
Paulson, meanwhile, has now led on the ground in three straight encounters, taking over from the injured Jillian Hoffman.
She thrived, never scoring below 9.90, while leading Utah to two of its best ground rotations this season.
“It’s funny because we used (Abby) a lot last year and I remembered that,” Farden said. “She was my go-to when Jillian went down and we were at Cal and had four seconds to make a decision. I did not hesitate.
“What she does well is a new floor routine, with a spectacular new tumbling first pass. She is fast, reliable and has an eye-catching technicality. She is good at level changing, which is what the judges are looking for. (His routine) is clean and very well done.