After an undefeated run in 2020, the Utah gymnasts were left heartbroken when the season was stopped due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Months of isolation from their teammates fired the gymnasts up for the return to the Dumke Gymnastics Center late in the summer.
Hungrier than ever to prove what they couldn't finish last season, the 10 returners and three incoming freshman worked through new protocols in the gym with one thing on their mind - make a 2021 season possible.
To get the preseason started, Utah held its annual team retreat and despite scaling back on the usual festivities, the gymnasts did not take the time being together for granted. The Red Rocks participated in team building activities and a scavenger hunt around campus that ended with the team receiving their 2020 Pac-12 Regular Season Championship rings.
It was mid-December that the Red Rocks returned to the Huntsman Center for the Red Rocks Preview. Although no fans were in attendance, the Utes did not disappoint in their first look at routines in nine months and had a terrific jumping off point leading into the season opener.
It was one of the sharpest intrasquads in recent years and you could see right away that this team had the potential to make a run in 2021.
Utah opened its season at the Best of Utah where the team rolled past in-state opponents BYU, Utah State and Southern Utah for the second-straight title at the podium event.
Cristal Isa and Maile O'Keefe went one-two in the all-around, and Maile also won shares of the floor and beam titles. Abby Paulson also earned a share of the beam title, while Cammy Hall recorded her first collegiate win with a 9.90 on vault to highlight the dominant victory.
The second week of the season brought two top-three teams to an early battle as Utah traveled to Oklahoma to compete on ESPN2.
A slow start on vault caused Utah to fall into a hole, but the bars and floor lineups slowly inched Utah back into the meet heading into the final rotation down just one-tenth.
A few uncharacteristic mishaps on beam doomed the Utes as hopes of a comeback fell short in Norman, marking the team's first loss of the season.
Utah turned to Pac-12 play the next two weeks, hosting Arizona and Washington. The Utes bounced back from the loss and reached their first 197-plus score of the year against Arizona, swept the event titles, and debuted Yurchenko 1.5s from Lucy Stanhope and Jaedyn Rucker to bring the team total to four 10.0 start values.
The week after against Washington, Utah posted the nation's second-best score of the year at that point. Maile O'Keefe earned her first 10.0 on beam against the Huskies, while Sydney Soloski earned a career-high 9.975 on floor to highlight the night.
Utah then prepped for a road matchup against Arizona State. The Utes had to battle from behind, but after season-high efforts on vault and floor, the gymnasts had just enough fire power to hang on for the 197.450-197.150 win and remain undefeated in the Pac-12 in its first big conference test.
Five of six gymnasts tied or surpassed a season high on vault to highlight the set that scored a 49.475 - Utah's best of the year. Alexia Burch scored a career-high 9.975 for the vault win.
Riding an undefeated conference streak, the Red Rocks returned to the Huntsman Center to host UCLA. With a similar feel to the meet last season, the competition came down to the final routine after the meet was close from start to finish.
It came down to senior floor anchor Sydney Soloski where she delivered as she had done all season and scored a 9.925 for the win. Capped by Soloski's meet-winning routine, Utah posted a season high on floor to take the 197.225-197.100 victory.
The last meet of the regular season brought senior night to the Huntsman Center against Utah State. The Utes honored senior Emilie LeBlanc, along with former Utes Kim Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler, who did not receive a proper senior night last year when the season ended unexpectedly.
Although it was not the meet Utah had hoped for heading into the postseason, the Utes rolled to a victory to end the regular season with a 10-1 overall record. It was time to regroup and battle for the program's fourth Pac-12 Championship.
Against a stacked field, Utah was in the quest to prove itself once again as the leaders of the Pac-12 at the conference championship. Thanks to three season high event scores, Utah scored a season-high 197.725 to be crowned the outright Pac-12 Champions and win the title by four tenths.
It was a night of spectacular individual performances as five Utes became Pac-12 champions. Maile O'Keefe scored a 39.7 in the all-around to earn the all-around title, along with claiming co-champion status on bars, beam and floor. Cristal Isa became a Pac-12 co-champion on bars and beam, while Abby Paulson joined O'Keefe and Isa for a share of the conference beam title. Along with O'Keefe, Jaedyn Rucker and Sydney Soloski also earned titles of Pac-12 co-champions on floor.
Utah kicked off its NCAA run in the second round against Arizona State, Boise State and Southern Utah. The Utes flew past the opening round after leading through its entirety and winning by nearly a full point to advance to the regional final.
Maile O'Keefe became the Salt Lake City Regional balance beam champion and was the all-around runner up. Abby Paulson tied for second place on beam, while O'Keefe and Sydney Soloski finished tied for third on floor across both sessions.
With an NCAA Championship berth on the line, Utah was stacked up against LSU, Arizona State and Kentucky in the regional final. The Utes started the night with a season high on bars, which included five-of-six sticks. Utah continued the strong start with a 49.6 on beam that saw 9.95s from Cristal Isa, Abby Paulson and Maile O'Keefe to pull ahead at the halfway point of the highly competitive start to the meet.
On floor, the lineup built scores all the way through and did not have to count a routine below a 9.90. The big floor push extended the lead to 0.450 heading into vault. The vault set did not start as Utah had hoped for, but a career-high 9.95 from Jaedyn Rucker got the set back on the right track and Alexia Burch hit to lock in the meet. The Utes pulled off the first-place finish with a 197.925 to advance to a record 45th consecutive national championship and 39th straight NCAA Championship - remaining the only program in the nation to do so.
The NCAA Semifinals for Utah saw Oklahoma, LSU and Alabama competing at Dickies Arena, battling for a spot in the NCAA finals. The Ute gymnasts fell into a slight hole early on after beam and had to compete from behind to start.
The floor team exploded for a 49.6, but the big effort only gained enough distance to move into third at the halfway point. The Ute vaulters could not make up much distance either and after the third rotation, Utah still sat in third place and trailed the current second place team by three tenths.
With work left to do, the Red Rocks chose not to throw in the white flag but rather fight until the end and see what happens.
A huge triumph in the corner of the arena sounded as Utah saw they had advanced to the national championship by 0.025th of a point. Down but never out, Utah persisted and the gutsy performance paid off in the end. Utah had finished in second place behind Oklahoma to advance to the NCAA finals over Alabama and LSU.
In the midst of the excitement as the team advanced to the finals, Maile O'Keefe became a two-time National Champion with titles on the uneven bars and floor in the semifinals to etch herself a spot in the record books. She is just the fifth Ute to win at least two event victories in the same night at the national championships, joining all-time greats Sue Stednitz (1982), Megan McCunniff Marsden (1984), Missy Marlowe (1992) and Theresa Kulikowski (1999).
In addition to O'Keefe's national titles, Utah collected NCAA All-American honors for individual finishes in the semifinal where four Red Rocks placed in the top-8 to be recognized on their respective events.
After the dust settled, it was time for the Utes to give it their all one last time and they did just that. The NCAA finals were finally here and Utah went out with a season-high 197.9875 to place third in the nation - the program's best finish since 2015 and the third top-3 finish since 2009. The team score was the best in program history at NCAAs, while the 49.7 on beam was also the best ever at NCAAs.
Utah started the night on bars and could not have asked for a better start. The big set put Utah in third place and after the whopping 49.7 on beam, the team still sat in third place as Oklahoma and Michigan continued to bring it. The Ute floor team continued to put the pressure on, but still found themselves in third place just 0.1625 tenths behind first place. Utah had a strong end on vault with a meet-high 9.9875 on vault by Rucker and a 9.9375 by Burch to end the set, but it wasn't enough to cut the gap as Utah would end the phenomenal competition - and season - in third place after leaving it all out on the floor.
The 2021 Red Rocks gave it their all in a year of uncertainty and will only continue growing from here. The Utes return 23-24 routines from this year's squad and will be back for more, returning to the Huntsman Center in 2022 ready to see 15,000 fans joining in on the hunt for a national championship...