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Beam team dominates as Red Rocks erase early woes to advance to regional finals

Utahโ€™s Alexia Burch thanks fans during senior night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Utahโ€™s Alexia Burch thanks fans during senior night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY โ€” There could be no more mistakes for the top-seeded Red Rocks at the Seattle regional Thursday night.

After a shaky first two rotations on floor and vault, the Red Rocks found themselves in an uncharacteristic position at the halfway mark in the regional meet at Alaska Airlines Arena. No Utah team had ever failed to qualify for nationals, but suddenly there was a risk of not even qualifying for the regional final on Saturday.

The 2022 roster of gymnasts didn't want to be the first.

But when Grace McCallum came off the low bar on a transition on uneven bars in the second position, the risk of dropping the meet became even more a reality. But the Red Rocks battled back to finish strong on bars and capped off the night on beam with a 49.700 score โ€” no gymnast scored below a 9.90 on beam โ€” to win the meet.

The Red Rocks finished with a 197.800 team score to finish in first place, and was followed in an upset by Stanford with a 197.450 in second. The Cardinal came into the regional needing to beat San Jose State in Wednesday night's play-in meet to qualify for the second session Thursday. Stanford used that momentum to claim the second spot of the night and advance to the regional final in a stunner.

Utah and Stanford move onto the regional final on Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN+) where they will meet up with Alabama (197.900) and Michigan State (197.325), who claimed the top two spots in the earlier session of the Seattle regional.

No. 13 Oregon State (197.425), who was projected to join the Red Rocks in the regional final, and Illinois (197.375) were the two teams eliminated from the second session, and Washington (197.175) and BYU (196.625) were eliminated from the first session.

"We thought the start we would have liked to see a little bit stronger start in terms of their legs and a little bit more pop; but the tale of two halves, I thought on the intricate events, the athletes settled in, really nice bar score, and then obviously an incredible balance beam score to take it home for us," Utah head coach Tom Farden said. "So super proud of everybody.

"They don't call it March Madness for nothing."

Going into the final rotation of the night, only 0.150 points separated the four teams in a highly-contested meet. The Red Rocks worked themselves out of a hole after a start in fourth place and controlled a slim 0.025 lead over Illinois going into its strongest event of the season.

The Red Rocks entered the meet as the best beam team in the country, but a win was anything but certain. In three losses this season, Utah had multiple athletes fall off the beam with uncharacteristic falls. Thursday night couldn't resemble any of their previous losses, even with the pressure at an all-time high.

British Olympian Amelie Morgan set the tone early in the leadoff position and scored a 9.90 โ€” exactly the momentum-setting opportunity the Red Rocks needed. McCallum was scheduled to go next in the second position but was a last-minute scratch by the coaching staff and was replaced by Adrianne Randall. The senior did exactly what she needed to do and followed up Morgan's 9.90 score with one of her own.

It was a welcomed surprise after an end-of-season stumble on beam that kept her out of the beam lineup since.

"We feel as a staff, athletes are in different places at different times," Farden said. "We used her on floor exercise and she was in a good headspace, and then going over to the balance beam again, we saw her warm up aggressively. And as everybody knows, she has some of the most challenging moves in the NCAA on that event and they were flawless and so we made the decision."

Alexia Burch upped the ante in the third spot and performed a career-tying 9.950 to show the Red Rocks weren't going to concede an inch to closeout the night. Burch was credited with turning the meet around in the third rotation after scoring a career-high 9.950 score on bars after McCallum's stumble. The night was Burch's and she delivered when it mattered most.

"She was in a good space and I commend her on having good rhythm throughout the night, good patience and then also making the right choices with choosing confidence before she goes," Farden said of Burch. "Just her overall presence was just fantastic, and I thought the team fed off a lot of it."

Cristal Isa and Kara Eaker added to the dominance and followed up Burch's 9.950 score with a pair of 9.950 scores of their own. By the time Eaker's score was posted, the Red Rocks had done enough to win the meet.

But Maile O'Keefe, who finished second behind Oregon State's Jade Carey in the all-around competition, added a 9.950 score of her own in the anchor position to avoid any confusion about how dominant the beam team can be โ€” even with two replacements in the lineup.

"We've got a lot of weapons on balance beam, and to test our depth and to use two athletes that aren't normally in the rotation and both of them scoring 9.95 and 9.90 speaks volume for their readiness," Farden said.

"In those moments when when the meet is on the line and we're going to the balance beam, we really try to coach the athletes to let their gymnastics happen in those moments, and couldn't be more proud of the work that was done over there."

It was a fitting ending to the night, especially one that started out with uncertainty.

The Red Rocks opened the night on floor and had Jaedyn Rucker and Grace McCallum score 9.90's, but the remaining scores were lower than their traditional scores, including an uncharacteristic 9.775 score from senior Sydney Soloski, who stepped out of bounds on her first pass of the night. The team finished with a 49.300 score but in fourth place and a lot of work to do in the final three rotations.

O'Keefe and Lucy Stanhope gave the team a boost with back-to-back 9.90's to start off on vault, but the Red Rocks were forced to take Rucker's 9.775 after Cammy Hall took a big step forward on her landing and scored a 9.750. But it was Burch, again, whose 9.950 in the fourth spot cemented a better positioning for the team as the Red Rocks inched up to third after the second rotation.

Survive and advance.

Note: The Red Rocks were without Abby Paulson Thursday, who was scratched from the night after injuring her back in warmups ahead of the meet. Farden said she's being evaluated and her status for Saturday is unknown.

Team scores (second session)

No. 4 Utah

  • Floor (49.300)
  • Vault (98.625, 49.325)
  • Bars (148.100, 49.475)
  • Beam (197.800, 49.700)

Stanford

  • Beam (49.350)
  • Floor (98.775, 49.425)
  • Vault (148.000, 49.225)
  • Bars (197.450, 49.450)

No. 13 Oregon State

  • Vault (49.325)
  • Bars (98.475, 49.150)
  • Beam (147.950, 49.475)
  • Floor (197.425, 49.475)

Illinois

  • Bars (49.400)
  • Beam (98.775, 49.375)
  • Floor (148.075, 49.300)
  • Vault (197.375, 49.225)

Individual Red Rocks scores

1st Rotation: Floor (49.300)

  • Jaylene Gilstrap: 9.800
  • Adrianne Randall: 9.800
  • Jaedyn Rucker: 9.900
  • Grace McCallum: 9.900
  • Maile O'Keefe: 9.900
  • Sydney Soloski: 9.775

2nd Rotation: Vault (49.325)

  • Maile O'Keefe: 9.900
  • Lucy Stanhope: 9.900
  • Jaedyn Rucker: 9.775
  • Alexia Burch: 9.950
  • Grace McCallum: 9.800
  • Cammy Hall: 9.750

3rd Rotation: Bars (49.475)

  • Amelie Morgan: 9.900
  • Grace McCallum: 9.400
  • Alexia Burch: 9.950
  • Sage Thompson: 9.850
  • Maile O'Keefe: 9.900
  • Cristal Isa: 9.875

4th Rotation: Beam (49.700)

  • Amelie Morgan: 9.900
  • Adrianne Randall: 9.900
  • Alexia Burch: 9.950
  • Cristal Isa: 9.950
  • Kara Eaker: 9.950
  • Maile O'Keefe: 9.950

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics โ€” primarily football, menโ€™s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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