While it was certainly unusual to see defending champion Alabama ranked #2 in the preseason poll, it’s hard to argue that a team with UCLA’s talent level should be anywhere but #1 in 2012. In 2011, they were not a championship-caliber team. Without Vanessa Zamarripa or Sam Peszek for half the season, this depleted group had to rely on routines from Brittani McCullough and Tauny Frattone on their weaker events where they ideally should not have had to compete. That UCLA even managed to place second is a testament to this team perfecting the art of maximizing its potential. Without a significant chunk of star power, UCLA had to get 9.9 routines from unexpected places, like the two that Sydney Sawa put up in Super Six. What makes UCLA more dangerous in 2012 is that they will also have that deep stable of stars from which they can draw those top scores.
The most exciting change for UCLA this year will be the return of Vanessa Zamarripa who, at her best, churns out 39.600 performances like it’s nothing. Coming off an Achilles tear, it would be foolhardy to assume that Zamarripa will be back to that level immediately. As we learned from Ask the Bruins, she is not back on floor yet. This is probably the event where she is least necessary to the team, so it’s not a major blow if she’s unavailable at the beginning of the season. They will certainly need her come postseason, but Zamarripa is not as important to the floor lineup as Hopfner-Hibbs, Peszek, or Larson. UCLA will need her abilities more so on vault and bars, where she appears to be on track.
Zamarripa doesn’t run away with the “most exciting change” category because UCLA is also debuting freshman Mattie Larson. Larson has become one of the more beloved elites of recent years because she covers both the “artistry” narrative and the “we love you even though you fell at Worlds” narrative. Combine those with her genuinely elegant execution, and the judges will be itching to give her big scores on each event. Aside from staying healthy (she’s an AOGC elite, so knock on Sequoias), Larson’s biggest job in 2012 will be to undergo a successful headcase-ectomy. Over the years, she never showed her best gymnastics on international assignment and very publicly lost her mind at team finals in 2010. When thinking about UCLA’s best possible lineups, Larson has an asterisk next to her name because she will have to develop and prove the ability to hit under pressure in a team environment, otherwise all the talent in the world is irrelevant.
The other scholarship athletes for UCLA this year are Cassie Whitcomb and Dana McDonald. McDonald is a clean vault and floor specialist. She will probably see some competition time early in the season, but it’s hard to imagine her making March and April lineups unless she has to step in because of injury. As for Whitcomb, no surprise, she’s already dealing with injury. With the depth on this team, there’s no need for her to be contending in the all-around, and she wouldn’t make all the lineups, anyway. Her biggest asset will be her bar routine, where she stood out as an elite with her toe point and good CGA flat hips.
While beam was the most discussed weakness for UCLA last season (and we’ll get there in a minute), if you were to watch a meet without looking at the scores, you would say that bars was just as much of a problem. Though the award for Most Overscored Lineup is always a very tough category, with all the top teams getting some degree of overscoring at home, I would give the 2011 title to UCLA on bars. We have to give some credit to them for once again maximizing potential and sticking landings at the end of the season, but this lineup was not particularly strong and often got charitable scoring. This was never more clear than when Hopfner-Hibbs performed her straddled double layout dismount with a lunge forward and still got a 9.9 from one judge. On a championship team, Peszek and Hopfner-Hibbs are early-lineup workers at best on bars, not anchors. This will have to be fixed in 2012, which is why Zamarripa, Whitcomb, and Monique De La Torre will be so important. Ideally, Lichelle Wong would also make the lineup, but she is still training that double front 1/2 dismount that they scrapped last season because she couldn’t compete it without significant deduction, so she’ll have to work that out to make the top six. Wong somehow always seems to find a way to not be in lineups she should be in.
For the last two seasons, Val has had to place some of her top workers at the beginning of the beam lineup to give the team some stability because too many falls were happening. Last season, neither Frattone nor McCullough should have been in that lineup in April, but there was no one else more reliable to use. While they were able to avoid a fall in Super Six, it was not one of the prettier rotations. In 2012, however, there is actually some room for optimism. A core group of Peszek, Hopfner-Hibbs, Gerber, Zamarripa, and Courtney should actually be more reliable than we’ve seen from them in the recent past. If Larson can prove consistency and make that lineup as well, we shouldn’t have to spend too much time pretending that Frattone and Wong are able to hit in competition.
As is the case with the other top three teams, vault and floor don’t look to be much of a problem. The team is very deep on vault, and Zamarripa, Frattone, and Courtney will give them a banner end to that rotation, all 9.950 capable. On floor, there is a bit less depth, especially if some of the top scorers aren’t ready to compete right away, but as a team they have more than enough talent and potential, in addition to the general goodwill towards Val’s choreography that will keep them scoring well. Expect UCLA to have an early meet where they have a couple falls and another where they have 18 OOBs, but this lineup should still match or exceed Florida and Alabama when all the pieces are in place.
Like Florida and Alabama, UCLA has definite leftover weaknesses from 2011 that need to be addressed in order to be capable of winning the championship. They will not be able to rely on the talent of their gymnasts alone and will have to find hit routines on beam and cleaner routines on bars. However, if I’m picking a preseason favorite, I have to go with the coaches on this one and put UCLA at #1. While Florida’s group of Johnson, Caquatto, Hunter, Dickerson, and King can probably match UCLA’s group of Zamarripa, Peszek, Larson, Hopfner-Hibbs, and Courtney, the difference-maker for UCLA is the 9.9 potential coming from outside the notable names. Florida isn’t going to get many 9.9s from outside their group, but UCLA has Frattone on vault, De La Torre (at least) on bars, and Gerber on beam who are going to be just as important as the all-arounders. Of all the teams, UCLA has the highest scoring potential from outside the top tier of athletes, which can make the difference for them in April.