Utah Gymnastics: Maile O’Keefe, Kara Eaker in playoffs, Grace McCallum debuts

The Red Rocks are back.

Utah Gymnastics held its annual preview of the Red Rocks Friday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, an exhibition showcase in preparation for the 2022 season, which officially begins Jan. 7 with the Best of Utah meet.

No score was kept, the atmosphere was in the regular season, but it was university gymnastics that returned to the front of the stage.

Here are some impressions from the preview.


Maile O’Keefe is practically ready for the playoffs

Utah has only one NCAA national champion on its roster, and she’s already in rare form. Maile O’Keefe won two individual national titles last season – on floor and bars – and she seems to have picked up exactly where she left off.

In fact, she may even have improved.

O’Keefe stood out in all three events she performed (uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise), and as the reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, she will be the face of the Utah program.

“She looked very close to playoff form tonight and it’s December,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “That performance quality, they are competitors and they see what she can do, and she can be the brand. They can look to her to see how we do it.


Jaedyn Rucker has the makings of a star

Rucker was a star at Utah last year, particularly in the playoffs, after returning from an injury that sidelined her entire first season.

Now she has the makings of a star. Rucker competed on vault and floor and displayed startling athleticism, even on a team packed with power athletes.

His jump has the potential to be Utah’s best, and his floor routine will be a fan favorite (the fan-favorite floor routine will likely belong to Adrienne Randall, if only because of her musical selection). If there’s a candidate for breakout star, it’s Rucker.

“Jaedyn has something special about her,” O’Keefe said.


The return of Jillian Hoffman

Fans would be excused if they didn’t recognize Jillian Hoffman. The junior didn’t compete the entire 2021 season, and as a 2020 rookie she was in and out of training — Hoffman competed almost exclusively on floor exercise — and was injured for multiple meets.

The Utes have been waiting for a healthy Hoffman since she arrived on campus, and it looks like she’s finally arrived.

Hoffman only competed in the vault, but she actually competed.

“Jill’s had a really tough battle the last two years, and she’s just been an amazing teammate to everyone, in every way possible. To be able to watch her go out tonight and be able to do something, have a body healthy and seeing her smile after her jump was so impactful,” said senior Sydney Soloski.

“She’s amazing on all events, so this is just the beginning for Jill.”


Sage Thompson is as good as advertised

The least heralded gymnast in the Red Rocks freshman class is Utah native Sage Thompson, but after Friday she is expected to be held in the same league as Grace McCallum, Kara Eaker and Amelie Morgan.

Thompson had arguably the strongest barre routine of any gymnast in Utah and, according to Farden, is about as secure as any Red Rock on the event.

“Sage is a lock right now,” he said. “She has this fluidity, this rare quality on the bars that stands out. You look and you notice.


Kara Eaker will have a significant impact

Eaker is another one of those vaunted freshmen, and she probably had the best performance of any of them.

Eaker competed on beam and floor and looked completely at ease, showcasing an elegance that will surely be his calling card this season.

Utah’s beam roster was one of the best in the country last season, second only to Florida, but Eaker has every chance to break into that roster.

“I think Kara did a great job,” Farden said. “I think she was in the same ranks in her two events as Maile in her three. Championship form already.


And Grace McCallum?

An Olympic silver medalist, McCallum has arguably the best pedigree of any gymnast in Utah. There is no doubt that she will be a star for the Red Rocks. When asked which gymnast could simply do things others couldn’t, Soloski and O’Keefe were quick to name McCallum, despite her protests.

On Friday, however, she was not at her best. And that’s OK. She’s too talented and too dedicated not to make a positive impact at Utah, preseason exposure aside.

“It’s December,” Farden said. “We still have three weeks before our first meeting.”


Is the safe improved?

If there was one event that let Utah down last season, it was the jump. The Red Rocks were elite on balance beam, floor, and bars at nationals, but vault did not prove on par with other elite programs in the country.

There wasn’t much to glean from the vaults Utah played — the Red Rocks didn’t shy away from the event — but Farden later confirmed the Utes will have seven vaults with a starting value of 10.0 this season, up from just four a year. There are.

“We were a bit conservative and didn’t throw the 10.0 jumps,” Farden said. “That’s why Kara didn’t go. His is ready. The eight who went did a good job. We have three (Yurchenko) full options and we have seven (jumps with a starting value of 10.0) in the arsenal, so we’ll see.


And the bars?

For most of last season, bars were a work in progress for Utah. It all came together at the last moment during the playoffs, but the bars remain behind the beam and the floor when it comes to the Red Rocks’ strongest events.

It still is, but Utah has the potential to be great on bars, and Farden was nothing but happy with how their gymnasts performed.

“We missed a few handstands, but in general we were pretty good,” he said. “We haven’t worked too hard yet to get the teardowns done. It’s a little too early for this stuff, but the headstand is something you can never be too good at. There were no huge breaks or crashes.


Jaylene Gilstrap is fine

Only one Red Rock did not participate in the preview: the second Jaylene Gilstrap. She was wearing a boot and was a spectator, but she is not seriously injured.

Per Farden, she sprained her foot during training, and the boot was merely a precautionary measure.

Much of the preview was precautionary, in fact.

“We dipped our toes in the water. I just wanted to see how the athletes would react,” Farden said. “They did a good job. We are in December.


Thoughts on being ranked No. 4 in the WCGA preseason poll

Utah finished No. 3 in the nation last season, the team’s best finish since the 2015 campaign. The Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association released the 2022 preseason poll early Friday and Utah arrived at the 4th, behind defending national champions Michigan, Florida and Oklahoma.

“I understand,” Farden said. “I watched Michigan, and they looked amazing. Really, really good. Florida had an amazing incoming class, but I get their nod. Oklahoma has been the mainstay for the last decade. .

“LSU is right behind us, and then there’s Alabama. The top is quite solid.

However, the Red Rocks themselves weren’t exactly thrilled with their placement.

“Our approach will be to prove them wrong,” O’Keefe said. “It’s Utah gymnastics.”

“Rankings are rankings,” added Soloski. “They wrote it down and it’s on a piece of paper. We were ranked higher and lower and the end result was different.

“We know what we want and we will continue to work towards it, no matter what everyone thinks of us.”

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