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November 29, 2021
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No. 4 Red Rocks open season as 'Best of Utah' in win over in-state schools

SALT LAKE CITY — From the onset, it was all Red Rocks as No. 4 Utah gymnastics repeat as the “Best of Utah” Saturday night in the team’s first meet of the season.

Utah defeated in-state schools No. 17 BYU, No. 23 Southern Utah, and Utah State with an overall team score of 196.900 in the second-ever Rio Tinto Best of Utah meet at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.

BYU finished with an overall score of 195.700 for second, and Utah State edged out the Flippin’ Birds of Southern Utah with a score of 194.350 to 194.325.

“It was really fun to be back out there with the gang,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “I thought our athletes handled it well. In terms of a first meet, it was a really nice meet as a jumping off point. We went 28-for-28 routines. That was our goal: to come in here and hit, and hit every exhibition. One of the things you always worry about as a coach is consistency. By them coming out and hitting 28 routines showed they are ready to check that box, do what they do in practice, and simulate it in a meet.”

Utah junior Cristal Isa won the all-around, edging out Utah’s Maile O’Keefe by just .025 at the podium event to finish a 39.400 in the team’s first meet since its undefeated 2020 season that abruptly ended early due to the coronavirus pandemic. Isa opened up the meet in the anchor position on bars and got a team-high 9.850 in the event to take an early lead on the night.

But Isa’s best event of the night came in the second rotation on beam in the third position, where she got a 9.90. She, however, didn’t win any events on the night. Teammates O’Keefe and Cammy Hall won events, with O’Keefe winning beam with a meet-high 9.925 and Hall getting her first career win with a 9.90 on vault.

“Their training has been going really well,” Farden said. “Given the circumstances and challenges of the preseason, we were pleased with how we competed tonight. There are some things we need to do in terms of getting better — more refinement and handling some of the details better — but we still think there is a big ceiling for this team.”

Utah opened up the night on bars, with sophomore Abby Paulson setting the tone with a 9.775. Alexia Burch and Emilie LeBlanc each added a 9.80 to round out a 49.00 score in the first rotation, leading Southern Utah by .375.

And the momentum continued from there for the Red Rocks, who claimed the top scores of the night in their final three events. Utah’s best event of the night came in second rotation on the beam, where Utah finished No. 2 in the country last season.

“It’s been such a whirlwind preseason all around the country,” BYU head coach Guard Young said. “Gymnastics is a precision sport that takes lots of repetition, and it keeps getting interrupted with COVID-19. Just the fact that four schools in the state of Utah can come out during opening week and put a meet together, it’s a miracle.”

Burch opened up the event with a 9.750, and the scores only grew from there. Isa landed a 9.90, and that was followed by Adrienne Randall’s 9.875 and then back-to-back 9.925 scores from O’Keefe and Paulson to round out the event with a team-high 49.375.

On floor, Utah’s third rotation of the night, Isa kept the momentum going and got a 9.850. Jaedyn Rucker, in her first collegiate start, went next with an 9.875 that was followed by Paulson’s 9.875, Lucy Stanhope’s 9.850 and O’Keefe’s 9.90, who tied with BYU’s Abbey Miner-Alder to claim the top score in the event.

Miner-Alder finished third in the all-around, earning a 39.275 in addition to MVP honors for the Cougars.

“Abbey won this event last year,” Young said. “I think she did a good job of going out there and representing BYU.”

Southern Utah’s Mayson Bentley won the bars event with a 9.90, narrowly beating out Isa by .050.

Utah will now prepare for its first regular season meet against No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, on Jan. 17 at 3 p.m. MST on ESPN. The meet is currently the last of the season as of now, as the Pac-12 has yet to clear the league for a conference slate.

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