#2 Alabama Preview

It wasn’t a smooth path to the title for Alabama in 2011.  They started the season disastrously, particularly on bars, but by April, it was the lack of notable weaknesses relative to the other teams that won them the national title.  While we can point to the balance beam for Florida and UCLA or to the floor for Oklahoma as the weakest piece, once Alabama established consistent lineups on bars and beam, they were able to deliver hit performances on each event without the specter of counting a fall looming over them.  Even after Kayla Hoffman fell on beam in Super Six, we knew the next two were going to hit because they were the solid Bama we’ve come to expect.
However, with their most dangerous competitors improving, Alabama cannot expect to deliver the same performance in 2012 as they did in 2011 and still win the title.  They will have to match the others’ improvement.  Unfortunately for them, of the top three teams, they face the biggest graduation blow in losing Kayla Hoffman.  Hoffman was a huge contributor on three events (while she competed beam as a senior, she was never really a beamer), and they will have to find a gymnast to replace that potential.  The most likely candidate is Ashley Priess, who missed last season with yet another injury and is expected to return to the all-around this year.  Even though Alabama has Priess training all events, that’s a risky little game given her injury history.  It may be advisable to have her focus on bars and beam, where the team is less deep and where she can have the biggest influence on the team score.  There is no question that she is capable of delivering excellent scores on vault and floor as well, but can her body hold up to training those events, and is the risk worth it?
The good news for Alabama is that they will not have to rely solely on Priess to try to regain what they had last year.  
Kayla Williams is their biggest new recruit, and the 2009 world champion on vault will be expected to contribute immediately.  The gym change to Cincinnati ended up being an excellent choice for Williams as Mary Lee went to town on some of her weaknesses.  Improvement in those areas will be of great help to her in NCAA.  But while her bar work has improved in the last two years, she was certainly not recruited to compete that event.  She was recruited because of vault and floor, but it will be important for Alabama not to take those events for granted.  The leaps still need work, and the Yurchenko 1.5 she competed in L10 was in the good-but-not-amazing category because she usually landed in a significant squat.  This is not a massive problem, but we hold higher expectations for a world champion.  She needs to be 10-capable on her championship event.  She wasn’t recruited to get a 9.850 on vault.  It will take time to make her into an excellent NCAA gymnast.  She probably won’t be the big star immediately, but she has more than enough potential to get there over time.

Joining Williams in the freshmen class are Kaitlyn Clark and Brooke Parker, both of whom were in that group of secondary elites from the early part of this quad along with Georgia Dabritz, Annette Miele, Morgan Steigerwalt, Rebecca Clark, and their teammate Kim Jacob.  Alabama will certainly be hoping to get equivalent performances from these two as they did from Jacob in her freshman year.  Clark had back surgery in the offseason, which has set her training back and limited her to bars and some beam, but they will hope to have her return to competing on her better events at some point this season.

Of potential concern to Alabama is that they have recruited a bunch of gymnasts with similar skill sets over the last two years, and that skill set doesn’t include particular strength on the bars.  This makes the return of Ashley Priess even more important to add stability at the end of that lineup and bring in those 9.9s.          

Other than Priess, Stack-Eaton, and Sledge (who has a wonderful double layout dismount but was buried at the beginning of the lineup last year to add stability), the team doesn’t have big bar routines, and Stack-Eaton can be touch and go sometimes, especially with that dismount.  Sarah Demeo and Kim Jacob were solid contributors in 2011, and I expect that to continue, but I’m not sold on them as scoring leaders on this event.  While Alabama can probably get by on this event in 2012 in the 49.250-49.300 area, the strengths of this team, particularly the freshmen and sophomores, appear over-stacked on vault and floor with less depth and scoring potential elsewhere, meaning they will be extra reliant on Stack-Eaton and Priess this year (and then what happens in the future or in the event of injury?)

That being said, Alabama is in the advantageous position of having their biggest weaknesses be potential weaknesses should injuries or problems arise.  Many of the teams ranked below them have weaknesses that are glaring and not conditional.

The upside of having a potentially lopsided team is that Alabama is very much set on vault and floor and (especially if they do get Priess back to strength on those events) will have six gymnasts performing in competition who should all go 9.850 with the possibility of going 9.900.  They won’t be worried about putting up leadoff scores that they will hope to drop as they can be confident counting scores from any number of gymnasts.  Even on beam (where they will still have to experiment to find a lineup that works), they should have enough gymnasts capable of competing and showing strong difficulty.  A commitment to difficulty (they have a couple double pike dismounts) will help them here as well.

As in the case of Florida, it would not be a surprise if Alabama repeated and won the title.  They have enough potential 9.9 routines to do it.  However, aside from the concerns about getting Priess back or the depth on bars, Alabama may also become the victim of simply being outclassed by other teams.  How many times have we seen them put together a very strong team that finished 2nd or 3rd because they just weren’t as amazing or as flashy as another team or because they had great 9.9 routines, but no one was standing up and wanting to give them a 9.950?  Looking at this group, there is just a feeling that Alabama’s best gymnastics would be less impressive than Florida or UCLA’s best gymnastics.  If Florida has another Florida postseason, and if UCLA has another beam hemorrhage or succumbs to injury, I fully expect Alabama to win the championship, but the quest for the title this year may not be entirely within their control.

One thought on “#2 Alabama Preview”

  1. Agreed on Bama recruiting a lot of gymnasts with similar strengths. They need to be bring in some more great bar workers. Realistically, beam should be great for them this year, with Jacob, Demeo, Stack-Eaton, and Priess in the lineup. If they can find 2 9.85s or so (probably Milliner, Clark, or Parker) to start out the rotation, it has the potential to be best beam lineup of all the top teams next year.

    Bars however, is really dependent on Sledge, Priess, and Stack-Eaton to bring in the 9.9s.

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