One week ago, Utah needed great routines from seniors Alexia Burch and Sydney Soloski to overcome Pac-12 rival UCLA in a nationally-televised contest. The Red Rocks were coming off a bye week, so it makes sense that they were a little rusty against the Bruins.
But against No. 9 Cal on Friday night, the Red Rocks weren't rusty. For the first two rotations, they looked completely out of sync — finding themselves trailing by .050 to the Golden Bears.
Then Cristal Isa happened.
During Utah's third rotation on the balance beam, Isa broke the Red Rocks out of their funk with a season-high 9.950 and set the stage for the comeback. Utah rallied with sensational beam and floor routines to take down Cal 197
“Kind of a tale of two halves,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “The confidence came out for the athletes on beam and floor and they really showed what they are capable of. It was really, really fun to see.”.375-197.125, their fifth consecutive meet of breaking the 197-point barrier.
Isa, who garnered a lot of attention early in the season, had been somewhat overshadowed by teammate Maile O'Keefe's quick rise to national stardom. But while O'Keefe has been consistently winning the all-around competitions, Isa reminded everyone how good she is.
“It is 100% accurate,” O’Keefe said of Isa's meet-altering routine. “After Cristal hit her beam routine the energy exploded, both within the team and within the Huntsman. It was a really nice boost to energy that we needed.”
But what Isa did on Friday was lead by example, as her score on the balance beam was enough to ignite the Red Rocks and completely change the momentum and outcome of the meet.
"I feel like at the beginning of the meet we were just really nervous because Cal is an amazing school and we knew that they were going to bring their 'A' game and we thought we had to force our 'A' game and we were going to be perfect," Isa said. "But a big thing this week has just been trust, and we didn't really trust each other — well, ourselves — at the beginning. But once we got to beam, I feel like we got a feel of everything and really made a comeback."
Isa's number was followed by Abby Paulson's 9.950 before O'Keefe's 9.975 score in the anchor routine two turns later completely turned things around. The 49.500 total turned a .050 deficit into a .250 advantage heading into the final rotation.
Utah then completed the comeback on the floor when Jaedyn Rucker and Soloski posted scores in the 9.900 range to lead the Red Rocks. Rucker's 9.950 was a career-high as she finally put together a full routine in which she was able to harness all of her power and explosiveness into consistency.
“She has done an incredible job with her performance quality,” Farden said of Rucker. “That has improved. We have been working on her front pass. Coach (Courtney) McCool has been working on her legs, getting them super tight and some level changes, technical things, but that came around tonight. I thought her leaps were her best this season. Courtney is the floor coach and gets all the credit for that. Those two have worked really well together and you can see what the work has led to.”
Cal did a great job of coming out on fire to begin the meet, taking advantage of Utah's inconsistent issues. The Red Rocks failed to post a score in the 9.900+ range through the first two rotations.
"It's kind of funny, this team was behind for two rotations and — similar things happened at Arizona State — and then they just come out and start hitting their routines like they can do in practice," Farden said. "I think it was a mindset. A few of them do look at the scores, and obviously they're announcing the scores in the arena. If the athletes wanted this win they were going to have to be aggressive and determined on that event, which they were."
After a shocking loss last week in the all-around competition to UCLA — largely due to some inconsistent scoring — O'Keefe responded by winning the all-around with a score of 39.525.
The sophomore thrived on her birthday after nearly picking up another perfect 10 during her beam routine, but settled for a 9.975. She also finished with scores of 9.800 (vault), 9.875 (bars) and 9.875 (floor).
Utah (8-1, 5-0 Pac-12) will now turn its attention to Oregon State in its final meet of the Pac-12 competition before the Pac-12 championships on March 20. Competition is set for Friday, March 5 in Corvallis at 6 p.m. MT.
“We felt that they were pressing and going after those sticks,” Farden said. “We want those sticks to happen, they just have to let them happen a little bit more. ... Vault, when it is on, can be great. We added four 10.0 vaults, which is where the elite teams are at. But this is a process. We have to get those (Yurchenko) 1.5s secured and make sure we are getting them in that landing zone the judges like. There is progress everywhere and we are going to keep chipping away. We have a plan. There is a map, but because of the intermittent training this season, this was always going to be a progressive build with this program this year.”
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