The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

#4 Oklahoma Preview

A major loss.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma drew the short straw this year and were the team hit by a significant preseason injury when Natasha Kelley went down with yet another Achilles problem, sidelining her for the season. She has faced so many major injuries over the years that we have to wonder how much more gymnastics her body can take and whether she will be able to come back from this.  She was limited by the right knee even before this latest injury.  
In contrast to some of the other recent major injuries at top schools (UCLA losing Vanessa Zamarripa and Alabama losing Ashley Priess last year), Oklahoma doesn’t have as many major contributors with high scoring potential, so it will be harder for them to manage without their anchor on bars and beam.  Still, even though some have constructed this injury as completely devastating to Oklahoma’s chances, they do have other strong gymnasts who can keep them in the top group of 5 or so schools.  In fact, after the graduation of Hollie Vise, many expected Oklahoma to return to the second tier, but they kept pace in 2011 by getting refined, well-prepared routines from unexpected places.  Now, without another well-known elite, they’ll have to do the same in 2012.
Kelley had assumed much on the scoring leadership on her two strongest events (bars and beam), but now that responsibility falls squarely to Megan Ferguson.  Ferguson has displayed strong scoring potential throughout her collegiate career, but she became a star in 2011 by leading the team through the postseason (not posting a score below 9.850 at regionals or championships) and performing energetic, attention-grabbing routines.  Sometimes it’s easy to overlook Oklahoma because they don’t have the program history and don’t always perform the most difficult routines, but it’s impossible to ignore Megan Ferguson.

But as we’ve seen so many times, one star cannot make a team.  Ferguson doesn’t contribute on vault, and that piece could turn out to be a problem for Oklahoma, with three or four routines to replace from a lineup last year that wasn’t going to compete with UCLA, Alabama, or Florida anyway.  One of the major concerns on vault is the frequency of Yurchenko halfs we’ve seen from this team.  While the blind landing makes it difficult (and difficult to score well), it’s still considered a bit of a soft 10, and it doesn’t necessarily stack up against schools that are performing one or more Yurchenko 1.5s.  If you’ve just watched a Yurchenko 1.5 from Kytra Hunter, Georgia Dabritz, or Kayla Williams (or seen something from Zamarripa’s stable of phenomenal vaults), you’re not going to be that impressed by Madison Mooring’s Yurchenko half, even if it’s clean.  Oklahoma’s vaults could give them too many 9.825s in that lineup.

Interestingly enough, even though Kelley was the anchor, beam still looks to be Oklahoma’s strongest event in 2012.  They were far and away the best beam team in 2011, and that was just as much due to confident performances from Ferguson and the rest of the lineup (Nowak, Spears, Mooring, and Ratcliff) as it was to Kelley’s scoring.  Kayla Nowak in particular will be necessary as a solid early lineup gymnast on that event to give the team that base 9.800-9.850 (in addition to her anchor position on floor).   

Oklahoma is a bit lucky in that they did not lose any hugely influential seniors after last year, so they did not enter this season with too many holes that the freshmen were expected to fill aside from solidifying that vault lineup.  That means that if they can find the routines (likely a combination of gymnasts rather than a single star) to account for Kelley’s scores, they may be able to keep pace with the scoring potential from last year.  This will likely come from some lineup experimentation, meaning that the notable freshmen, Rebecca Clark and Erica Brewer, will be given a prime opportunity to prove their worth to the team.

         

We haven’t seen anything from Rebecca Clark in ages, but back in the day she was a junior with potential, making her way onto the junior squad for 2008 Pacific Rims.  She’s part of a group of new freshmen who are difficult to judge, having flown under the radar since competing as elites in 2009, but we see that her strength is in her clean form.  Coming from GAGE, this is not a surprise and can earn her high scores in NCAA if maintained and cultivated with positive routine composition that shows off this strength.  The team will need her healthy and contributing frequently.

It’s certainly going to be a challenge for Oklahoma in 2012.  The injury to Kelley has put them in the same position as teams like Michigan, who have to focus on replacing lost scores instead of gaining new, better ones.  Oklahoma does have significantly more depth than Michigan, which should help them have a much stronger result in 2012, but they will have to get ideal performances from all their remaining gymnasts. Even if that happens, without enough significant names of note, it will be extremely difficult for them to crack the top 3.  While things can always change, it seems that those top 3 teams are just too deep and talented.  One of the most interesting storylines for 2012, though, could be the fight for that 4th place, and Oklahoma is still right in that race.

  
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