Where Are the 9.9s?

Utah will hope Georgia Dabritz can bring in 9.9s on at least two events in 2012.

There is a common refrain, especially among coaches, that any team making it to the final session has a chance to take the national title.  Well . . . not quite.  While all the teams making it that far are talented, there is often a significant gap between the top contenders and the ones who should be pleased to get through the semifinals.  This gap can be measured reliably by the number of 9.9-quality routines.  The scores from Super Six in the last two years bear this out.

2011 Super Six – Routines scoring 9.9+
Alabama – 8
UCLA – 8
Oklahoma – 7
Michigan – 4
Nebraska – 2
Utah – 2

2010 Super Six – Routines scoring 9.9+
UCLA – 11
Oklahoma – 9
Alabama – 9
Stanford – 4
Florida – 4
Utah – 4

So what does this tell us?  (Other than making it painfully clear that 2010 was a much stronger year than 2011, which we already knew because we have eyes.)  It shows that even though the scores may appear similar, as we saw when Stanford and Florida finished within .250 of Oklahoma and Alabama in 2010, the disparity in quality of the top routines is often quite large and will dictate how the championships play out.
(As a side note, Florida managed six 9.9s in semifinals and seven 9.9s in regionals in 2011, which kept them afloat despite their beam performances, as opposed to Stanford, which did not advance past regionals due to suffering from severe 9.85-itis.)

Let’s take a moment to look at some of the major teams and where they can expect their 9.9s to come from in 2012.

Alabama is losing only Kayla Hoffman, but she was bringing in 9.9s across the board by the end of the season.  Those numbers will have to be replaced, likely by a combination of Ashley Priess (UB and BB) and Kayla Williams (VT and FX).  Although, word is that Priess will return to training the all-around this year.  My first question is, why?  And my second question is, huh?  For a CGA gymnast with her leg history, this seems like an unnecessary risk since the team is already deep with sturdy tumblers like Diandra Milliner and Ashley Sledge (who should bring in their fair share of 9.9s on these events).

Other than this group, Geralen Stack-Eaton can bring in 9.9s everywhere and Kim Jacob delivered the beam performance of the championships to earn a 9.95 during Super Six.  Expect this to continue.  If Kaitlyn Clark can remain healthy, she is another who can contribute big numbers on at least one event.

While we won’t have the pleasure of watching Brittani McCullough on floor anymore, she did not have her best season in 2011.  With the talent coming in, UCLA should easily be able to replace her scores.  The solid 9.850-level consistency of Niki Tom early in the beam lineup may end up feeling like the bigger loss.

There is a tendency to automatically assume that Vanessa Zamarripa will be able to return to her 39.675 AA quality right away, but coming back from a torn Achilles at the same level is no given.  Still, if she is able to do it, she can single-handedly bring UCLA’s 9.9 total up from 8 to 12.  As for the freshman, Mattie Larson has the potential to be an all-around star right away, and the judges will be itching to give her humongous scores on floor.  Cassie Whitcomb should also provide much-needed quality scores on bars and potentially elsewhere (although see note about CGA legs above).

For the returners, Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs may find herself out of favor in the all-around with the depth coming in, but she should bring in 9.9s on two events, especially if they can figure out how to get her out of that double arabian on floor.  Sam Peszek will see a slew of 9.9s during the season on every event (even bars, if 2011 scoring is a guide), and Olivia Courtney and Tauny Frattone will contribute to a truly insane vault lineup.  Courtney will also be relied upon for high 9.8s on at least two other events.

For Florida, Kytra Hunter will be expected to step in and replace Maranda Smith’s scores (and probably exceed them), so like Alabama and UCLA, they should be able to raise the bar from last year.  It remains to be seen whether Kiersten Wang and Rachel Spicer (is she still planning to enter in January?) can perform up to 9.9 level, but the team has enough sophomores and juniors to rack up the huge scores in any lineup.

Ashanee Dickerson, Mackenzie Caquatto, and Alaina Johnson regularly put up huge AA totals, with 9.9s on at least three events, and Marissa King excels on vault and floor.  Looking at this team’s potential, 198 seems realistic for them to reach several times this season.  Their biggest issue (besides making sure those 198s happen at the end of the season) is solving the beam problem.  Where do the 9.9s come from on beam?  We don’t have a solid answer yet.  It’s the weakness for Caquatto and Johnson, Dickerson struggles with consistency, and Hunter struggles with leaps.  They all can get there, but will they?

Of all the top coaches, one could make a compelling argument that K.J. Kindler has gotten the most out of her gymnasts.  She certainly is able to get big scores out of the most unheralded group.  Case in point, when Hollie Vise graduated, everyone expected Oklahoma to fall off, but they kept up the same pace.  Their biggest elite, Natasha Kelley, is still able to anchor them with strong scores on bars and beam, and senior leader Megan Ferguson will be expected to put up 9.9s on three events.

But the biggest thing that has kept Oklahoma among the top is the sheer number of less notable gymnasts who can pop up at any moment and deliver a 9.9.  All of the sudden Kayla Nowak, or Sara Stone, or Brie Olson, or Taylor Spears will show up with a big routine, made all the more impressive because the score is never based on reputation or prior success.  Put GAGE’s Rebecca Clark right up in that same group, and Oklahoma should be contending once again.  They may still feel the lack of a strong AA force, which is why they could find themselves struggling to keep pace with the three teams above them, but expect them to be confident, solid, well prepared, and ready to step in if others falter.

Oh Georgia, what are we going to do with you?  The leadership provided by Cassidy McComb’s hairstyle (like a beacon in the dark wilderness) will be missed.  She never blew you away with form, but she knew how to fight for scores and squeeze every .05 out of her routines, something we haven’t seen from the likes of Shayla Worley and Christa Tanella.  In fact, Noel Couch is probably the best of the younger group in this area, but her form (get those legs together!) largely keeps her out of 9.9 territory.

The last class of the Suzanne era (Kat Ding and Gina Nuccio) will provide 9.9s on bars (and hopefully one other event each) as long as they can remain healthy.  Their leadership will be necessary, but these specialists are not enough to sustain a team.  The team needs Kaylan Earls and Chelsea Davis to be intact and in lineups consistently to have a chance.  Both have the potential to bring in big scores, but let’s face it, the success of this season will depend primarily on whether The Shayla can get it together.  She needs to be healthy.  She needs to be bringing in 9.9s on three events.  She needs to not fall on her bars mount.  Time will tell.

Notice that Utah is last on each of the lists above.  They are excellent at making it to Super Six, but they don’t have the major scoring potential to get much higher than that 4th-6th range these days.  Gymnasts like Stephanie McAllister, Corrie Lothrop, Nansy Damianova, and Mary Beth Lofgren are very 9.850, and each one will probably step into 9.9 territory a few times during the season, with McAllister the most frequent visitor.  That isn’t enough to contend for a championship, though, and they will need to find a way to significantly raise the scoring potential to challenge the top three teams.

The most likely candidate to do so is Georgia Dabritz whose training (seen above) indicates that she has the form and difficulty on vault and bars (Yurchenko 1.5, Comaneci salto) to reach the top level.  The return of Kyndal Robarts is also crucial, and her vault already looks exceptional.  Looking at the potential in this group, though, they appear to be a 196.500-196.750 team, with little indication (at this point) that they can move higher.

It’s too soon to tell much about other top teams like Michigan and Stanford that will be so reliant on cultivating their freshman talent.  Michigan will be concerned with somehow finding a way to make up for the loss of Kylee Botterman’s scores, and Stanford will be relying on Hong, Shapiro, and Wing to get them out of the 9.850 purgatory in which they were stuck last season.  That Stanford group has some serious potential, but will it happen?

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