The regular season is hereby complete, and we have depressingly few meet days remaining until another season has passed us by. While the events that are yet to unfold in the postseason will go a long way toward determining how this season will be remembered, it’s time to take a step back and analyze what we’ve seen so far.
Overall, I’m pleased. The level of gymnastics, especially among the top teams, has been noticeably stronger than it was last year. Certainly, the scores have been much higher than they were in 2011 (and we’ll get to that in a minute), but more importantly the routine quality and difficulty has been stronger across the board. Utah is a prime exemplar of this improvement. The additions of Delaney and Dabritz have given this team a refinement and scoring potential that they lacked a year ago. And yet, they made Super Six last year, which is no guarantee for them in 2012. We have enough parity at the top this year that I honestly think we won’t see a team making Super Six while counting a fall in Semifinals, which is always the ideal.
Everyone expected Florida, Alabama, and UCLA to have great seasons, so while the (primarily) strong gymnastics they have given us this season should not be overlooked, all three of these teams have largely met expectations without necessarily exceeding them. Instead, I give a lot of credit for the excitement we are soon to see (legitimate, high-quality fights for places in Finals!) to the strength of Oklahoma, Georgia, and Nebraska.
First, our #2 Oklahoma Sooners. Oklahoma was the preseason #4, which should indicate that their presence in the title race is no surprise. However, after the loss of Natasha Kelley, everyone (and by everyone, I usually mean just me, but in this case I really mean everyone) believed that this team would fall well behind. We said the same thing after Hollie Vise graduated. I give K.J. Kindler a lot of credit on that front. Over the last few years, her teams’ performances have been incredibly consistent regardless of the changing rosters. One gets the sense that she could take a group of Level 9s and have them competing for the NCAA title after a year with her.
In Georgia’s third year under Jay Clark, we have seen by far the most cohesive team of his tenure. While the 2010 team was probably more talented (with McCool, Taylor, etc.), this team seems both healthy and totally bought in to Jay as their head coach. Georgia was the preseason #9, the lowest preseason ranking ever for a Georgia team, but they have proved an ability far beyond that ranking, led by Kat Ding’s emergence as one of the country’s top all-arounders. Likewise, Nebraska was a bit of a surprise entrant in Super Six last year, and it seemed completely unlikely that it would happen again. Yet, this team has ridden it’s two and a half gymnasts all the way to #6. I mentioned at the beginning of the year that the lack of depth was unsustainable, but this team has sustained it.
Along with some delightful standout individual performances across the country, those teams are the reasons this season has been pleasant. And yet, it’s not all sunshine and candy-coated raindrops. In fact, I expected (perhaps naively) some stronger overall gymnastics, especially because of the immensely talented crop of new gymnasts, many of whom have not really materialized as stars. Now, I grant that it is difficult for many freshmen to adjust and become scoring leaders right away, but some excellent former elites haven’t had the impact I would have liked to see.
Mattie Larson has been a fine mid-lineup performer on three events for UCLA, but her most delightful event should be floor. We were all looking forward to seeing her raise the level of performance. Instead, her lack of consistency has her behind even Sydney Sawa on UCLA’s floor depth chart. Because of injuries, Ivana Hong and Samantha Shapiro have not performed the kind of gymnastics we would like to see from them, and Kayla Williams has also been very slow to make herself useful for Alabama. The previous accomplishments of these gymnasts gave us high expectations that have not even remotely been met.
The other major disappointing story this season has been gymnastics being overshadowed by scores. Every season we have a preponderance of 9.825-quality routines. The ability to produce this kind of consistent score is very valuable to every team, but rather than appreciate that kind of consistent performance, we can only marvel at why these 9.825 routines are suddenly receiving 9.900s. When the score is so out of sync with reality, the gymnastics becomes secondary. So many times this year we have seen the judges deem that there is no difference between an average routine and an exceptional one, which leaves us only to gape and wonder (and complain . . . oh, yes, the complaining . . .).
And yet, as I said before, I’m pleased. I’m pleased because I honestly think we will have a thoroughly exciting Championships weekend. Even if the scores are insane, it will make for fantastic sport, and that’s ultimately what we look for. And if the judges finally wake up and realize the difference between good and great, then even better.