SALT LAKE CITY — Senior gymnast Sydney Soloski is used to the heated rivalry with UCLA.
On a Friday night at a mostly empty Huntsman Center, there was no more important position than that of anchor for No. 3 Utah — the final gymnast to compete in a close battle between two of the most storied programs in the sport.
Leading up to that point, No. 14 UCLA controlled a narrow 0.050 lead and was moments away from upsetting the Red Rocks on their home floor.
In a normal setting, the Huntsman Center would be a madhouse with 15,000+ fans throwing their vocal support behind Soloski — one of their own — in a vitally important routine.
With only a smattering of family and friends offering the loudest support they could muster, Soloski remained composed and delivered exactly what the Red Rocks needed.
The senior specialist danced and flipped her way to a 9.925 score on floor to give Utah a 197.225-197.100 win and to stay undefeated in conference play. The performance from the MVP of the night was enough to give Utah (7-1, 4-0) its fourth consecutive 197 score of the season and a key win over a conference opponent.
"Sydney was the MVP tonight for many reasons and she just, through her leadership and then also being able to get it done in a decisive moment, it just speaks volumes for her confidence and for her ability to command her gymnastics," Utah head coach Tom Farden said after the meet. "I really enjoyed watching that particular floor routine; I thought it was very spunky."
Soloski said the mindset wasn't any different than normal, though.
"My mindset was kind of the same as it always is. My goal is always to hit," Soloski said. "But I did do the math going in knowing you need a 9.90 — I think that was the correct math for me to win. I just wanted to fight until the end — there wasn't much different than my mindset normally."
Ahead of Soloski, Utah delivered on four straight routines that started with freshman Jaylene Gilstrap setting the tone with a 9.875 score — one judge gave her a 9.950 but it was averaged with a lower 9.80 from another judge. Lucy Stanhope and Jaedyn Rucker added a 9.875's of their own in the third and fourth position, and Abby Paulson upped it with a 9.90 in the second spot to set a high benchmark.
Sydney Soloski clinches the WIN!! Syd adds a 9.925 with this beauty! pic.twitter.com/qCTG1dVE3j— Utah Gymnastics (@UtahGymnastics) February 20, 2021
Utah's only gymnast competing in the all around Friday night, sophomore Maile O'Keefe, looked to continue the trend but had some stumbles in her routine and was forced to settle with an unusually low 9.750, which knocked her out of contention for an all-around title with a 39.325 score. Instead, the honor went to UCLA's Chae Campbell, who finished with a 39.425 score.
Utah previously built up a 0.250 lead (98.525-98.275) after the second rotation of the night and looked to be pulling away from a UCLA team that hadn't scored more than a 196.750 all season. But the final two events of the night were destined for a showdown.
UCLA (4-1, 3-1) quickly closed the gap with a strong floor routine that was topped by Campbell winning the event with a 9.950 score. Gymnast Nia Dennis, who made headlines for her viral floor routine and was scheduled to compete in the all around, stumbled on her routine and stepped out of bounds. Shortly after the routine, she ran off the floor into the locker room and was scratched from the final event of the night.
But UCLA didn't need her score and managed no lower than a 9.825 in counted scores with its remaining gymnasts — Dennis' 9.725 was thrown out.
Meanwhile, Utah went to work on beam, where it ranks No. 3 in the country. Alexia Burch stuck her landing and hit a 9.850 score and O'Keefe recorded a 9.90 despite another judge disparity where one judge gave her a near perfect 9.950 and the other a 9.850.
"Honestly, it is the most frustrating part sometimes when I see out there, or our coaches see out there, disparities of a tenth or more, because it almost questions you as a coach," Farden said. "The angles should be both side on or across from each other as far as the judges and what they're seeing, and it's the liabilities of a subjective sport."
Still, it was enough to hold off a UCLA surge.
Utah has some work to do still with its landings, which weren't as flawless as in weeks past, but Farden believes his team is moving forward and making progress.
"The game plan is to keep building, and so we definitely want to make sure that the details that we did work out, and tried to work out during our bye week, start coming to fruition," he said. "And so we've got to make sure that we're doing the right drills and the right mechanics so that we improve on their landings."