One of the joys of this season has been the presence of many teams competing with a similar level of performance and execution. While there are certainly no teams that I would rank close to the status of memorable greatness, the parity (feel free to hate me for using that word) among the top few has made this an exciting year. There’s a lot of pretty good gymnastics coming from a number of teams. Because of that, it’s not too difficult to imagine one of our favorites having an average meet in Semifinals and failing to advance to Super Six. However, we cannot assume falls, especially at this point in the season. So, for the purposes of previewing the action, I’m going to set our top five seeds (Florida, UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia) aside as fair bets to advance and discuss them later. For now, the focus turns to the battles for qualification and what I assume will be the most interesting story line next Friday, the Utah and Nebraska 9.875-off in the afternoon session (with an assessment of Arkansas’s chances thrown in as well).
Utah vs. Nebraska
It’s a shame this Semifinal has to take place in the afternoon because it’s far more interesting and should be featured in the night session. However, that’s not the case, so we’ll just have to move on and try to get by somehow. If we assume that UCLA and Oklahoma will advance, which is a fragile assumption especially given Oklahoma’s injury blight but should still be the case if both teams hit, then the third spot will come down to the Utes or the Huskers.
These teams have already competed against each other twice this season, and they have split the meetings, both of which took place in Utah. Because this is Championships, we can expect the scoring to run much closer to level of Regionals than the dual meet, which means, as I alluded to earlier, this will largely be decided by whether similar routines from both teams go 9.875 or 9.825.
Let’s start by looking at Nebraska because the single biggest determining factor in this session will be the health of Jamie Schleppenbach. She was not able to compete at Regionals, and Nebraska clearly did not have to routines to fill her place. While most of the top teams can muster up a 9.825 replacement in the event of an injury, Nebraska was not able to replace her with countable scores. I expect Schleppenbach to be back in the lineup for Nationals, but if she isn’t there on every event or hasn’t had the numbers, Nebraska will not be able to withstand the loss of her routines and will feel it in the scores.
On the positive side for the Huskers, we have Jessie DeZiel. Not only is she competitive with anyone in the country on vault and floor, but she has proven enough toughness on bars and beam to be a reliable mid-lineup worker, which the team is particularly desperate for on beam. I remember seeing Pan Ams last fall when DeZiel hit the most confident beam routine of anyone on the team, and at that moment I realized that her biggest contribution to Nebraska would not be her vault but her ability to hit a beam routine every time out under pressure. Beam is by far the weakness for the Huskers, so they will need that kind of stable performance to stay competitive. They may legitimately rank 5th on beam at this meet, and they have to minimize the damage so they can make up for it on good events. Nebraska will start the meet on bars, and they will need to outscore Utah here to advance, so look for something 49.300+. If they go below that, Utah will smell blood.
For the Utes, Regionals was similarly not a meet to remember, but not because of any one reason. It typified why Utah has not been in the title conversation for a few years now because there wasn’t really anything wrong with the gymnastics, but there were enough reasons to deduct that it became a parade of 9.825s. Some of this was to be expected once we entered the postseason, as counting on Beers or Hansen to go over 9.825 on bars is unrealistic. However, the biggest issue for Utah was the weird lineup decisions. Lopez anchoring beam with Lothrop leading off? Lothrop’s so-far-from-competition-ready vault as anchor? We saw plenty of conservative lineup decisions, which is not acceptable for this point in the season. Robarts even mentioned in her post-meet interview that they placed her last on floor because they were afraid she would fall. That’s some February nonsense right there.
Utah needs to have the confidence to put the best routines at the end of these lineups, otherwise they will be looking at another year of trying to sneak into Super Six on the strength of 9.850s and other people’s mistakes with no chance of making an impact on Saturday. Utah has more depth of scores in the floor lineup than Nebraska does, so look for Utah to try to get out in front on that event and hit beam with a bit more confidence than they did at Regionals. If they can excel on those two events, Nebraska will have to be perfect on the other two to match them.
Turning to the evening session, I debated putting Arkansas among the bottom tier of teams, but they are the most likely team in the evening session to cause an upset. So, perhaps out of sheer desire for something unexpected to happen during that session, I’m giving them a bit more of a chance to score well and take out one of the favorites.
The return of Katherine Grable erases so many of the holes for this team, which should allow them to exceed most expectations that are derived from the way they ended the regular season. In an ideal meet, this team can score in the 49.2s on every event, which means that they would be in prime position to knock off a team that does not have a great meet. Now, they probably will need a team ranked above them to count a fall or a score or two in the 9.6s for that to happen, but it’s a possibility, especially because the Razorbacks have the confidence and momentum coming off the Regional performance. They will feel like they have a second wind and a chance to peak for a second time this season now that Grable has returned.
This team will have to squeeze every possible 9.850 out of the lineups, so pay attention to whether landings are stuck on bars (because they have no hope without it) and how those 3rd and 4th workers are scoring on each event. We know that Pisani will be stratospheric and that a returned Grable will be able to nearly match her, but the deciding factor for Arkansas will be how people like Lewis, Borsellino, and Salmon are scoring. A 9.800 won’t be enough from this group, even though that’s what we’ve seen most of the season. Those routines have to go 9.850 for Arkansas to have hope of staying with anyone above them.