Utah gymnastics thrives in chaotic meet, advances to national championship meet

Utah's Makenna Smith celebrates after her uneven-bars routine during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2024.
Utah's Makenna Smith celebrates after her uneven-bars routine during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2024. | Tony Gutierrez

Carly Dockendorf wasn’t shy when she said it.

She didn’t hesitate, nor did she stutter.

“We are a dangerous team,” she declared in the week leading up to the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships.

Head coach of the University of Utah’s women’s gymnastics team, Dockendorf went on to say, “We beat them (Oklahoma) Day 1 last year at nationals. They are obviously an incredible team but we’ve seen them once already this year. We can’t control what they do, but we can definitely control what we are going to do.”

Her words proved prescient, in every sense of the word.

Thursday night in Fort Worth, Texas, Utah proved itself a true national title contender, beating all comers in the second of two national semifinal meets.

The Red Rocks defeated No. 4 Florida, No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 8 Alabama — in that order — and earned a spot in the national championship meet on Saturday, along with the Gators, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Cal (the later two teams earned their spots in the other national semifinal).

Utah finished the night with a 197.9375, just ahead of the Gators who finished with a 197.8750.

The Sooners and Crimson Tide were undone by mistakes, falls specifically, with Oklahoma gymnasts falling five times in the meet, Alabama gymnasts falling four times.

It was everything Dockendorf had said. Utah took care of itself, with one of its best meets of the year, considering the stage (nationals), the judges (six judges on each event) and the stakes (win or go home). The Red Rocks proved themselves equal to any team in the country.

And then rest, the things that Utah couldn’t control, took care of themselves.

Maile O’Keefe
Utah's Maile O'keefe competes on the uneven bars during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2024. | Tony Gutierrez

Defining moment

Thursday night’s competition was defined by the mistakes make by Oklahoma, especially. The Sooners came into the meet the far and away favorite to win the national title. No one had come close to competing at the level of Oklahoma all season long.

So falls — or near falls — on three of the Sooners’ first four vaults to start the meet were shocking. And opened the door for the remaining three teams.

Utah didn’t waste the opportunity.

Starting the meet on balance beam, the Red Rocks were at their best from the outset, almost catching the rest of the competition off guard.

Amelie Morgan started things off with a 9.9250 and Utah didn’t look back, with three of the next four routines all breaking the 9.90 barrier, another scoring a 9.8875.

Utah finished the first rotation of the meet with a 49.6375 — the team’s best event score of the night — and the Red Rocks never trailed from then on.

Standout routines

While no Red Rock came away with an individual NCAA championship this year, that doesn’t mean there weren’t routines worthy of recognition.

Beam routines by Abby Paulson and Maile O’Keefe — each scored a 9.950 — capped off Utah’s impressive showing on beam.

O’Keefe and Jaylene Gilstrap did the same thing for Utah on floor, with a pair of 9.950s.

For Gilstrap, the score was more of the same. Since mid-March the senior — who is going to return for a fifth season next year — has been at the top of game on floor, regularly scoring 9.950s. Thursday was more impressive than all the others, though, given there were six judges on the event, leading to more scrutiny.

On vault, Makenna Smith and Ella Zirbes both competed arguably the best vaults of their seasons, each earning a 9.9125.

For Zirbes, it was further evidence that the freshmen has not been phased at all by collegiate competition. She also had a standout performance on bars, with a team-best 9.9250.

Smith’s bar routine was noteworthy as well. The sophomore struggled mightily on bars in Utah’s regional final, but responded with about as good a leadoff routine Thursday as could have been expected, earning a 9.9125.

Smith’s showing in the all-around — 39.6375 — was on par with some of the best gymnasts in the country. She finished third in the evening semifinal, behind only Florida’s Leanne Wong and Oregon State’s Jade Carey, both of whom are vying to make the U.S. Olympic team this summer.

Adjustments to make

Ella Zirbes
Utah's Ella Zirbes competes on the uneven bars during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, April 18, 2024. | Tony Gutierrez

Utah wasn’t without flaws.

On every event.

And the Red Rocks weren’t immune from falls. Gilstrap fell on beam, plus Rucker nearly fell on floor and vault. Utah didn’t count those scores, but in a different meet those mistakes would have cost the Red Rocks.

On vault, Morgan under-rotated her effort significantly, while Ashley Glynn over-rotated hers to the same degree. Each gymnast earned a 9.8800.

And then Grace McCallum made enough mistakes on hers to garner a 9.7750.

On bars, O’Keefe had a major hop on her landing, which led to a score in the low 9.8s, and McCallum — regularly Utah’s best bars performer — was unable to stick hers, earning a 9.8750.

Even on beam and floor — Utah’s best events — there was room for improvement and not just the elimination of falls.

Smith’s lead off routine on floor was ever so slightly lacking in control, McCallum’s beam routine lacked the fluidity it normal has, noticeable on her wolf turn.

The Red Rocks on the whole were excellent, better than the rest of the competition, but there remains another level for the team to reach.

The takeaway

Utah will compete for a national title, again.

The Red Rocks have been here before, having now made it to the Final Four four consecutive years, but this time the field appears wide open.

With Oklahoma eliminated, any of the four teams — No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Cal, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 Utah — is capable of walking away national champions.

The Red Rocks were poised, calm and collected amid chaos Thursday, competing without fear of repercussion, which O’Keefe predicted.

“You say it all year long, ‘We have nothing to lose,’ but you really have nothing to lose once you are at nationals,” she told the Deseret News leading up to the meet. “Only everything to gain.”

A repeat performance could net Utah its first national title since 1995.

For the first time in years, it seems like a real possibility, especially with Utah slated to compete in Olympic order on Saturday (vault first, followed by bars, beam and floor).

At the very least, though, the Red Rocks have proven themselves “a dangerous team.”