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Utah gymnastics: The Red Rocks defeat rival UCLA on final routine

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There is just something about Utah versus UCLA.

The Pac-12 powers and heated rivals almost always seem to bring out the best in each other, and when they don’t do that they still manage make things about as interesting as possible.

That was the case Friday night in Salt Lake City at the Huntsman Center as the third-ranked Red Rocks hosted the 14th-ranked Bruins.

The meet came down to the final routine of the night, a floor set by Utah senior Sydney Soloski. If Soloski were to hit her routine, Utah would win. If she didn’t, there was a chance the Bruins would score the upset. Not only that, but the winner would take a step forward in the race for the Pac-12 regular season title, with only No. 13 Cal realistically standing in the way.

With so much on the line, it would have been understandable if Soloski faltered. On this occasion, though, she was more than up to the task.

Powered by a meet-closing 9.925 scored by the captain, Utah defeated UCLA 197.225 to 197.100 and improved to 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12.

“Hard fought win tonight,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said.

The meet was nowhere close to Utah’s best, though. There was at least one routine on three of the four events that Farden and his staff believed weren’t up to the Red Rocks’ usual standards.

“We definitely feel like that wasn’t our best performance,” Farden said. “However, love the fight our athletes never gave up and had each other’s back all the way through. We hit enough to get out with the win and proud of the team’s hunger to continue to fight to the end.”

Soloski was of a similar mindset.

“I think this win will be really big for our underclassmen,” she said. “UCLA is a good team and they brought it tonight. We learned that we can’t let down and have to keep pushing. This is a confidence booster, but we are definitely going to have to learn from this one.“

Defining moment

In a meet that came down to the final routine of the night, the defining moment should be clear and simple. And of course, Soloski’s meet-winning floor routine was nothing if not clutch. She needed to be at or near her best in order for Utah to win the meet, and she was.

“Sydney was the MVP tonight for many reasons,” Farden said. “Through her leadership, but also getting it done in the decisive moment. It speaks volumes to her confidence and her ability to command her gymnastics.”

As important as Soloski’s routine was, the entire final floor rotation needed to be pretty much at their best for Utah to come out on top. And they were, starting with Jaylene Gilstrap’s leadoff routine, for which she earned a career-high 9.875, followed by routines from Abby Paulson, Lucy Stanhope and Jaedyn Rucker.

Gilstrap’s routine set the tone for the entire rotation, while also being was her first competitive routine in weeks.

“I was really proud of everyone who went before me, but especially Jaylene, who has been out for a few weeks and came in and really delivered,” Soloski said. “Everyone did a really good job. They all rose to the occasion and delivered.”

Farden went further, noting that Gilstrap’s routine gave Utah’s floor lineup the confidence they needed to hit again and again and again.

“She does a wonderful job in practice, and that is what we saw in the meet,” Farden said. “When she went up there and hit that monster score, it was a confidence boost to the rest of the athletes and they fed on that. From then on out, minus Maile (O’Keefe), everyone took advantage of that.”

It wasn’t just Gilstrap, though. Paulson tied her career-high with a 9.900, and her routine came on the heels of a fall on beam and a less-than-stellar bars routine. Stanhope, meanwhile, matched her career-high with a 9.875, while Rucker established herself once and for all as one of Utah’s most important floor performers.

And then of course it all went back to Soloski.

“My goal is always to hit,” she said. “I did the math going in, but I just wanted to fight to the end.”

Area for improvement

In what is starting to become a regular thing for Utah, there was one glaring weakness Friday night, one event on which the Red Rocks need to get better and in hurry — the uneven bars.

Yes, the beam rotation had its faults, with two routines earning less than 9.800. Vault too, wasn’t perfect, Alexia Burch’s 9.975 notwithstanding. Even the meet-winning floor lineup left something to be desired, if just barely. And yet, it was bars that were the most disappointing.

Specifically against the Bruins, it was Utah’s landings that weren’t up to par.

While Paulson and Cristal Isa both stuck their landings, from their leadoff and anchor positions, respectively, Burch, Alani Sabado, O’Keefe and Emilie LeBlanc all failed to stick their dismounts. Whether they be slight steps or a shuffling of feet, the Red Rocks gave away valuable tenths or half tenths of a point on four bar routines. If not for the heroics of the floor lineup, those mistakes would have cost Utah the victory.

“We were close,” Farden said. “For whatever reason, we bookended that (rotation) with sticks and then everyone had some kind of shuffle or a slight hop. Those were anywhere from a half a tenth or a full tenth deductions.”

The team is well aware of the need to fix its landings. Burch noted that the next step for Utah is to “get back into the gym and work on the details, the landings, the handstands, a little bit of form on things. Small things that we need to work on. Those little details.”

Whether or not the Red Rocks make those improvements will determine just how successful a season they have, which is why Farden is intent on challenging his gymnasts to get better.

“One thing we are going to do when we get back to the gym, and I don’t think they were very far off, but we are going to challenge them with some new and creative assignments. We need to get them more comfortable going after their dismounts,” he said.

Area for excitement

During the 2019-20 season, Utah had something of a predilection for getting into and then winning close and dramatic meets.

Whether it be at UCLA, Cal or Washington, the Red Rocks managed to pull out back-to-back-to-back wins a season ago in incredible fashion, hitting on routines late in meets to either come from behind or hold on for victories by the slimmest of margins.

It was enough that former Red Rock Macey Roberts told the Deseret News after the season that there was just something different about those ‘20 Red Rocks.

“They never gave up in a meet,” Roberts said. “When they started to get behind, they were like, ‘OK, we need to step it up.’ They would pull out the wins. Watching how much talent there was on the team, how much drive they had to compete and to win, that made me so excited to see what the postseason brought. This team, honestly, there was just something different about it.”

This year’s team had yet to display the same trait, in part because it really hadn’t had a close meet before Friday night. In wins this year, Utah had been largely dominant, and in its lone loss to Oklahoma, it was beaten before the final rotation even started.

Against the Bruins, though, the ‘20 Red Rocks made a reappearance, in spirit at least, hitting routine after routine after routine on floor to stay just ahead of surging UCLA.

It brought back memories of last year’s team and established that the ‘21 Red Rocks may just have the competitive makeup needed to come out ahead in challenging situations, which will only be a boon come the postseason.

“I think this one would qualify (as a close meet),” Farden said with laugh. “Once they (UCLA) went 49.400 (on floor) and we let the door open up with balance beam because we had a 9.7-something on our tab, it definitely got tight in there. But, they (the Red Rocks) didn’t back down. We like to see that. Nobody backed down, nobody gave up. They fought for every tenth. Was it a perfect meet tonight? No, but we like what we saw in terms of their ability. They know they are at the top of the conference and undefeated in the Pac-12. They know they have a quasi-target on their back and they still got it done.”

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