While the increased parity in NCAA women’s gymnastics has been overstated in some quarters, everyone can agree that postseason results are certainly not the foregone conclusion they once were. The best evidence for this evolution is how exciting regionals day has become in recent years as we all switch from meet to meet, follow the scores, and watch for which top team will be the latest to miss out on championships. While Florida pulled through by the thinnest of margins after the tension of that Boise State beam rotation last year, Stanford was not so lucky and rode a truly dismal performance right out of contention.
I made the comment in an earlier post that the team had to count a fall and therefore missed out, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale. Stanford found themselves in a rather weak regional and could easily have pulled through even with the two falls on beam. However, in their regional performance, 13 of 24 scores fell below 9.8, and they had a grand total of one 9.9. Even if they hadn’t counted a fall, they still wouldn’t have broken 196.
Stanford got into an advantageous position in the rankings last season (#4 regionals seed, #2 for most of the season) largely on the strength of their 9.850 routines. While UCLA and Alabama were falling all over the place early on, Stanford kept scoring in the mid to high 196s to jump ahead of nearly everyone else and look like a contender. This was an illusion. They were very consistent, but they never had the big scoring routines to take them far, even if they had made championships.
A quick look at the returning gymnasts for 2012 bears this out. Stanford will have Ashley Morgan and Alyssa Brown on 3 events; Nicole Pechanec, Shona Morgan, and Nicole Dayton on a couple events; and potentially a routine from Jenny Peter. While this group is capable of popping up with a 9.9 here and there (with Ashley Morgan’s floor the biggest potential routine), each of them would be very pleased with that score in competition. That’s the difference between this group and a championship team. On a championship team, the 5th and 6th gymnasts expect 9.9s with the potential for 9.950. A 9.9 is regular. It’s not a peak performance. For Stanford in 2011, a 9.9 was a treat, not an expectation.
If Stanford is going to have those expected 9.9s in 2012, it will fall to the stellar freshman class to get it done. There’s not really a dud in this group. Kristen hit the jackpot. She just has to keep that jackpot out of the hospital.
If you were to design a gymnast to excel in NCAA, she would look a lot like Ivana Hong. She has those wonderful GAGE basics, an elegant line, and strong skill variety and difficulty across all events. Seeing Ivana compete for the first time in over 2 years is one of the most anticipated events in the new season, but it is that lack of competition that causes some trepidation. Does she have the competition confidence back? (Did she ever really have it?) Has she changed? If all goes to plan, she should be a late lineup worker on all events. As an elite, bars became her most discussed weakness, but routine composition will be her friend. Without a stalder full and a tkatchev, and with a dismount that works for her, she should perform exceptionally.
Samantha Shapiro’s body just couldn’t handle being a senior elite. She suffered injury after injury and ended up having the career of your average second-tier elite, which is a discredit to her talent level. She’s been conspicuously absent from Stanford’s training videos (just a few skills on beam with a wrapped ankle), but as we’ve seen in short spurts, she is capable of wonderful gymnastics. Depending on her health, it may be prudent to limit her numbers on the leg events and focus on getting her into competition shape on bars and beam (which would be a shame, since her floor work is a delight). Remember when she was supposed to be the next great hope on bars? As a senior, her handstands deteriorated along with her body. Getting that routine precise should be a major focus.
Becky Wing is another one we haven’t seen in a while, but the joy of watching her gymnastics is undeniable. She was an Olympian in 2008 and will bring that experience along with her excellent line and presence (and the bangs) to this Stanford team. Unlike the two above, she hasn’t been put through the US elite system and therefore should have a better chance of staying healthy for longer periods. Vault is a weakness (she’s British), but beam and floor are her best pieces and we should expect her to contribute consistently on them. Hong and Shapiro will get more attention, but Wing may end up being just as important.
The team is also bringing in Pauline Hanset this year who, if the recent training videos are any indication, is going to be a sturdy necessity. Balancing all the team’s eggs on Hong and Shapiro’s legs is a rickety proposition. Hanset will be expected to stay healthy and consistent to keep the team afloat when needed, though it’s hard to imagine her bringing in the 9.9s. Her handspring pike 1/2 on vault will provide good diversity in that lineup.
I didn’t speak much about Stanford in my discussion of where the 9.9s will come from because they just have too many unproven entities (at least in an NCAA context). They will be relying on freshman for at least half of their competition routines (potentially more), and we haven’t seen any of those freshman compete in over a year. Certainly, the potential is there. Judges will want to throw 9.9s at Ivana Hong like rice at a wedding, but putting the majority of the scoring responsibility on freshmen with significant injury histories will not be easy. Stanford fans can only sit back and hope for health and greatness.