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Observations from the opening weekend of college gymnastics season

Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker does her floor routine as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Boise State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.
Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker does her floor routine as the Utah Red Rocks compete against Boise State in a gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The 2024 NCAA women’s gymnastics season began over the weekend, with 16 teams gathering in Las Vegas, four teams competing in a Philadelphia, another four meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and four more battling it out in Columbia, Missouri, to say nothing of many multiple dual meets held across the country.

Nearly three months of gymnastics remains until conference championships, and it will take nearly another month after that for the national champion to be crowned, meaning there shouldn’t be a major proclamations made after a single week of gymnastics.

And yet, there were things to be gleaned from the opening weekend.

Here are some observations from Week 1 of the college gymnastics season:

Oklahoma is the title favorite for a reason

The Sooners, two-time defending national champions and winners of five of the last seven national titles, competed at the Mean Girls Super 16 championship held in Las Vegas, and their four-team meet was arguably the most talented of four meets held in Vegas, with OU’s featuring Michigan, Michigan State and Kentucky.

The later three teams should all contend for their respective conference titles this season — the Wolverines and Spartans in the Big Ten, Kentucky in the SEC — and all will likely all be threats to make it to nationals.

And the Sooners still looked to be on a completely different level.

Oklahoma outscored second-place Kentucky by more than a point (1.075 to be exact), thanks in part to an unreal uneven bars rotation that scored a 49.625, tied with Oregon State for the highest scoring event of opening weekend.

Oklahoma was complete on every event too, never scoring below 49.350, and sophomore Faith Torrez — projected to be a star for the Sooners this season — tied for the all-around title with a 39.625, the second-highest all-around score of Week 1.

Is it surprising the Sooners won their meet? Of course not. Is it surprising they did as well as they did? Not really.

But the opening meet did show that expectations for Oklahoma — that the Sooners will win a third straight title — are more than fair.

Utah isn’t going anywhere

Ranked No. 2 overall — behind Oklahoma — after Week 1 are the Utah Utes, who entered the season ranked No. 4.

Many questioned whether the Red Rocks would be mentally and emotionally prepared for the season, particularly after a late head coaching change saw Tom Farden leave the program and Carly Dockendorf elevated.

The Red Rocks competed at home Week 1, hosting Boise State, and quieted most concerns after posting the second-highest score of the weekend, a 197.300.

That score was the highest season-opening score for Utah since 2005 and included a perfect 10 on balance beam from reigning NCAA all-around champion Maile O’Keefe, plus strong outings from Abby Paulson, Grace McCallum and Jaedyn Rucker, to name a few.

Utah’s No. 2 ranking is the Utes’ highest since the second week of the 2021 season, when the Red Rocks were also ranked No. 2 overall.

If there was a weak point for Utah it was vault — the Red Rocks scored a 49.150 and are ranked No. 12 on that event — but the team competed five 10.0-valued vaults and showed plenty of room for improvement.

“I think that from here we just refine the details a little bit,” Dockendorf said. “This team showed how confident and determined they are. They could have come up with so many excuses for why they wouldn’t be ready today, based on the fall that we had, but they chose to control their emotions and attitudes every day, all fall.

“That is strength to not be overlooked going forward. This team is pretty unbreakable.”

The return of Alabama?

Historically, the Crimson Tide have been one of the best gymnastics program in the country. There is no disputing that.

It has, however, been a long time since Alabama truly contended for a national title.

Since 2012, the last year the Crimson Tide claimed a natty, the programs hasn’t managed either a first- or second-place finish at nationals.

And since the institution of the Four on the Floor, which replaced the Super Six in 2019, Alabama has advanced to nationals only twice, never qualifying for the national championship meet.

That may change this year, with Week 1 offering real credence to the idea that Alabama is on the rise.

The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 4 overall after the opening weekend, thanks to a 197.125 that was enough to defeat UCLA, Cal and Auburn during another session of the Mean Girls Super 16 championship.

It was the second-high season opening score in program history, and multiple gymnasts had standout performances, including sophomore Gabby Gladieux, who earned a 9.975 on floor exercise, and seniors Luisa Blanco and Shania Adams.

Perhaps most importantly, Alabama didn’t have a weak event, scoring above a 49 on all four, while the other three teams all had to count an event score in the 48-range.

“I’m really proud of our team tonight. We were really focused on winning the moment. Whatever the challenge was going to be, whatever the setback was going to be, whatever the distraction might be, just learning how to respond, overcome it and win the moment to be able to create momentum and carry that throughout the competition,” head coach Ashley Johnston said. “And I feel like our team did that tonight. There was a lot of high moments and also some areas that we need to tweak and improve, but that’s to be expected at the first meet of the season. We’ll take what we learned and continue to improve and work as we move through the coming weeks.”

Don’t panic, but ...

A few teams with national title aspirations had rough weekends. UCLA and Michigan were foremost among them as the Bruins and Wolverines lost their respective quad meets in Las Vegas.

Of the two, UCLA’s performance was the least worrisome. The Bruins finished fourth, behind Alabama, Cal and Auburn, but were competitive, finishing with a 196.550. That score was made more impressive by the fact that UCLA had to count a 48.450 on balance beam, a score that included a counted fall.

Still, the preseason ranked No. 5 showed some cracks, particularly with the beam rotation that only saw one gymnast score a 9.9 or better. UCLA’s uneven bars rotation also wasn’t up to expectation, though given the track record of head coach Janelle McDonald that event shouldn’t end up being a concern.

Michigan, meanwhile struggled mightily, finishing behind Oklahoma, Michigan State and Kentucky.

The Wolverines’ 195.875 has them ranked No. 20 overall, after being slated at No. 6 in the preseason.

Formerly one of the top vault teams in the country, Michigan failed to record a 9.90, struggling throughout the lineup.

And floor, once a standout event, saw only one Wolverine break the 9.90 mark.

By and large, the Wolverines weren’t competitive with the competition, making significant improvement necessary if Michigan wants to compete at the level it has grown accustomed to over the years.

Work to be done for BYU and Utah State

In Utah, along with the Red Rocks, Southern Utah, BYU and Utah State all competed. BYU and SUU competed in the same four-team meet Vegas, while USU competed in a four-team meet in North Carolina.

The best of the three were the Thunderbirds, who scored a 196.025 and are ranked No. 17 overall. SUU scored a 49 or better on two events and managed a third-place finish behind Minnesota and Oregon State, despite having lost significant experienced gymnasts from last season.

“You never know what you are going to get going into that first meet. You know what you have done to prepare, but anything can happen. The team competed so well today, and we, as a staff, are very proud of them,” head coach Scotty Bauman said. “I see this team getting better and better, and this was a great place to start our season.”

BYU finished fourth in the same meet, with a 195.900. The Cougars’ season-opening score was a significant improvement upon their efforts to start last season, however, and strong outings from Anyssa Alvarado, Sydney Benson and Ava Jorgensen give reason for optimism.

“This was a redemption competition for us,” head coach Guard Young said. “We came to this competition last year, and it was not a good start to the season. So, to come down to the same arena and compete, it was an opportunity to start the season off better. We had a ton of new freshman compete today and they really came through for us. They proved that they are great athletes who can perform well under pressure.”

As for the Aggies, now in their second year under Kristin White, Week 1 was one to forget.

USU competed against North Carolina, Ball State and Rutgers and finished fourth with a forgettable 193.175. Not much went right for the Aggies, outside of a career-high 9.850 on beam by Lexi Aragon.

“Unfortunately, tonight we didn’t show up to compete, and we let our nerves get the best of us,” White said. “This team is capable of so much more and we need to focus on the things we can control. The ladies will get back to the gym next week and begin dialing in on our foundations of success.”