SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – The Utah gymnastics team is off to an 8-0 start for the first time since 2015. But the Red Rocks face their toughest test of the season Sunday afternoon at UCLA.
The Utes and Bruins are tied for #3 in the nation in the latest rankings. They have combined to win the last six Pac-12 Championships, and with UCLA beating Utah three times last year in the dual meet, Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Championships, the Utes are out for revenge.
“This is exciting,” head coach Tom Farden said. “This is a great stage for our program to be on. Our athletes, our staff, our community is excited about it. It’s a barometer check for us to see where we’re matching up among the elites right now.”
“I feel like with both of us tied for number three, it adds a little bit more to the intensity and the pressure,” said freshman Maile O’Keefe.
“They’re always a really good team and we can’t deny that,” said junior gymnast Sydney Soloski. “Plus, them being a really big rival, it’s always fun for us and I think it’s fun for them. Going into Pauley Pavilion is always a bit of a hostile environment. They beat us the last two years [in the Pac-12 championship], but not by much.”
Maybe the biggest reason behind the Utes undefeated season is their performance on the beam. Not normally a strength of the team, the Utes are ranked fourth in the nation on the beam, led by sophomore Cristal Isa, and freshmen Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulsen.
“With our incoming freshman class including Abby, we’re both very strong beam workers,” said O’Keefe, who leads the top-ranked team on the beam in the Pac-12. “I think having some of the freshman being really nice beam workers helps push the upperclassmen in a sense.”
“When I was growing up, I was really bad at beam, and I never considered it to be one of my strengths,” said Isa, who has four individual victories this season. “It wasn’t until this year when I really embraced doing beam because I was always scared of it. Now, I’m more confident.”
To add to the drama of their meet against the Bruins, ESPN2 is televising the event live at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday.
“For me personally, I think that adds more excitement and doesn’t add pressure,”said Soloski. “We’re a younger team and they haven’t been on ESPN before, so for them it’s exciting and they want to do really well.”
“I’m so excited that it will be on ESPN because everyone has ESPN, and everyone will be able to watch us,” Isa said. “It adds to the nerves a little bit, but it also adds to the excitement. So if we just channel that energy into something good, it will be great.”