Utah cruises to regional semifinal victory over Michigan State, Maryland and Towson

University of Utah gymnast Abby Paulson competes on floor exercise during a NCAA regional semifinals in Gainesville, Florida on Friday, April 5, 2024. Utah won the meet with a 197.825.
University of Utah gymnast Abby Paulson competes on floor exercise during a NCAA regional semifinals in Gainesville, Florida on Friday, April 5, 2024. Utah won the meet with a 197.825.

Top two and through was the motto. The emphasis for Utah gymnastics entering its regional semifinal.

All the Red Rocks needed to do to advance to the regional finals was to finish in one of the top two positions in their four-team semifinal.

Utah did that and more Friday afternoon in Gainesville, Florida.

Powered by season-high scores on balance beam and uneven bars and a run of 11 straight scores of 9.90 or better, the Red Rocks handily won their regional semifinal over Michigan State, Maryland and Towson.

No. 5 Utah finished with a 197.825, more than 0.3 points better than second place finishing No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans, reigning Big Ten champions, also advanced to the Sunday’s regional final with a 197.475, finishing ahead of Maryland (196.350) and No. 21 Towson (195.050).

Red Rocks won multiple event titles — Abby Paulson on beam, Jaylene Gilstrap on floor and Amelie Morgan on bars — and outside of a slow start on vault, Utah was clearly the best team in the contest, apparatus to apparatus.

“Obviously really proud of the team this afternoon,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “The job was to come in and do our normal Utah gymnastics and that is what we did.”

It was the kind of performance that elite teams have. Not too dissimilar to what No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 LSU pulled off Thursday night in their own regional semifinals.

Defining moment

Utah was not at its best to start Friday’s competition. The Red Rocks had the benefit of an Olympic rotation (competing on vault first, followed by bars, beam and then floor exercise), but the gymnasts were not up to their usual standards on vault.

No Red Rock completed a vault that was deemed worthy of a score of 9.90 or better, and the Utes’ NCAA vault champion Jaedyn Rucker sat her vault on the floor, continuing an up and down season on the event.

All told, Utah ended the rotation with a 49.225, below the program’s standards and expectations.

Because of it, Michigan State led after the first rotation — the Spartans started the meet with a 49.375 on floor — and Maryland was within striking distance of the Utes.

That all changed in the second rotation, though.

For most of the season, Utah had teased elite potential on bars — teased being the operative words — and the Red Rocks stopped teasing in Gainesville.

Led off by a 9.90 from Makenna Smith, every Utah gymnast in the lineup scored at least a 9.90. That included a career-high tying 9.95 from Morgan, a career-high 9.925 from Alani Sabado, plus 9.9′s from Ella Zirbes, Grace McCallum and Maile O’Keefe.

Utah finished with a 49.575, and with that one rotation had run away from Maryland and had tied things up with Michigan State.

Standout routines

Multiple career-highs were set or tied by Utah gymnasts. That included a pair of 9.950s from Morgan and Gilstrap.

Morgan, famously, is trying to have the best of both worlds while competing for Utah this season and also competing to hopefully earn a spot on Great Britain’s Olympic team for the summer games in Paris.

On Thursday she was named a reserve for Great Britain at the upcoming European championships. On Friday for Utah, all she did was score a 9.90 or better on both of her events — bars and beam.

“It was definitely something I had to adjust to,” Morgan said of balancing Elite and college gymnastics. “It is not what you do every season. I thought we did a good job working with the coaches and the team to compromise how I did my training.”

She added: “When I came back (from England) we just jumped right back to where I left off.”

As for her strong performance in Gainesvile on Friday, Morgan demurred a bit when praised.

“It is always amazing to get one of your highest scores and to me that felt amazing, but we came out to do our normal routines today and that is what I did,” she said. “I was very proud I got a high score but now I just have to replicate it on Sunday.”

Gilstrap, meanwhile, has come into her own on floor, scoring another career-high 9.950, just the latest in a run of them.

Slotted into the No. 5 spot in Utah’s floor lineup with O’Keefe resting, Gilstrap was the best Utah had to offer on what is normally its best event.

Then there was Sabado. The senior was a regular contributor as a freshman and then took a back seat for the next two seasons. This year, she’s been in the bars lineup nearly every meet, with some excellent showings, some dismal ones.

On Friday she was better than she had ever been, though, notching a career-high 9.925.

Adjustments to make

For as good as Utah was on two events, the Red Rocks left something to be desired on two others.

While bars (49.575) and beam (49.600) were events to remember, floor (49.425) and vault (49.225) can and need to be better.

On vault, the biggest issue was landings. No Red Rock managed to stick their vault — an ongoing issue — and under rotation led to a fall for Rucker and a step back for Ashley Glynn.

A substitution that removed Camie Winger from the lineup, in favor of Gilstrap, also lowered the difficulty that Utah was able to compete. The Red Rocks competed on five 10.0-valued vaults. Six will be a necessity going forward, if the Red Rocks wants to compete with the best the sport has to offer.

Floor has been, far and away, Utah’s best event this season. It wasn’t on Friday. Be it a lack of control on tumbling passes, landings with the chest down, hops out of landings or a lack of punch on skills, Utah just didn’t seem to have its normal explosiveness and control.

There were bright spots — Gilstrap for one, Zirbes another — but consistent performers like Paulson and Smith didn’t compete to their potential, costing Utah.

It didn’t matter Friday, given the lead that the Red Rocks opened up over Michigan State and the rest, but the competition will only get more and more difficult in each meet moving forward.

“We definitely left some room for improvement on some of our events that have been really strong for us this year,” Dockendorf said. “I think that is excellent. If you come out perfect on Day 1 then it puts a little more pressure going into Day 2. This really opens the door for us to continue to elevate in the regional final on Sunday.”

The takeaway

Utah did what it needed to and then some in its regional semifinal. The Red Rocks proved to be at or near their best on multiple events, while still leaving room for improvement in Sunday’s regional final.

Utah’s bars and beam rotations were encouraging. The Red Rocks being elite on the intricate events bodes well for future competition. Those events frequently undo teams.

Given the stakes (Utah is hunting for a 48th consecutive trip to nationals) and an unfamiliar environment (Utah hadn’t competed in Gainesville since 2012) the Red Rocks did about as well as could have been asked in their regional semifinal. And they left room for hope for even better performances to come, starting Sunday afternoon.