SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – How ready are the Red Rocks for the NCAA Nationals?
“We’ve been ready all season,” said Abby Paulson. “Our goal is to peak right for nationals, and I think that’s what we’re doing. All of the emotions and all of the excitement is there.”
“We’re going in as confident as we can,” said Jaedyn Rucker, who has three Perfect 10s on the vault this season. “This team, I’ve been saying it since preseason, this is a special group of people.”
The Utes will compete against Oklahoma, UCLA and Kentucky Thursday night in the national semifinals with the top two teams moving on to Saturday’s championships.
The Utes lost to the top-ranked Sooners earlier in the year, and they’ve beaten UCLA three times already. A fourth and it would be on to finals Saturday.
“They’re all great teams when you get to this point,” said head coach Tom Farden. “Every team there deserves to be there. We’re going to approach this as a fresh clean slate, zero to zero, first time that we’re seeing UCLA.”
“Every meet is definitely a new adventure,” said Maile O’Keefe. “But, I think they’re a great team and they always put up a good fight when we go up against them. They kind of bring out the best in us.”
Maile O’Keefe has brought her best all year. She has set a school record with eight career perfect 10’s this season.
“You’re watching a living legend,” Farden said. “She’s going to go down as one of the best Red Rocks in the history of our program, which is a lot to say with our 48-year-old program.”
“It’s really cool knowing that that record is just being built upon,” O’Keefe said. “I still have another year to add onto that.”
There’s a chance Olympian Grace McCallum could be back this week, possibly to compete on the uneven bars. But even without McCallum, the Red Rocks have a ton of nationals experience on the roster.
“We only have two freshmen, which is a big change from previous years,” Paulson said. “I feel like two year ago in 2021, pretty much the entire team had never competed at nationals.”
The nationals is unique in that it’s a neutral setting, there’s no home team, so the Utes need to provide their own energy as they try to end a 28-year championship drought.
“It’s fun because it brings out the energy within your team even more than you already feel it,” said Rucker. “So I think it’s really cool because it allows the teams to come together even more than they have in the past.”