The Nationals Scene: The Favorites

First things first (again). I jumped the gun a bit yesterday, and we will be having live streaming of Semifinals. Happy day. On to the favorites.

While I have certainly addressed some candidates for the national title in the previous previews, namely Alabama, I would be willing to bet that our eventual champion will be one of the top two seeds. Given everything we’ve seen this season, Florida has to be considered the favorite. Even when they weren’t performing that well at mid-season, the Gators were still the top-ranked team in the country, and they have the fewest potential weaknesses and uncertain routines of all the teams at Championships. But given the history and some of my lingering concerns about the solidity of the freshmen on beam and the landings on floor, we can’t put all of our expectations on Florida to win. If you’re looking for a strong backup choice, head over UCLA’s direction. While the Bruins cannot be considered nearly as safe as Florida, the ceiling for this team is higher than any of the other contenders, which makes them most likely to challenge.


Even though we could spend months on Florida’s history of not performing at Championships (and I think I probably have), I would be shocked if they failed to make Super Six again this year. With the consistency this team has displayed and the charitableness (P.S. apparently charitability is not a word, and the dictionary and I will be having a little discussion about that because charitability is far superior to charitableness) of their Semifinal draw, a repeat of 2011 should not be on the agenda. The Gators are the only team I could see counting a fall and still advancing to Super Six.

So, with Semifinals dispensed with, let’s take a moment to investigate what needs to happen for Florida to finally win a title. On vault, it’s all about the landings. This team has improved exponentially over the last month on the vault landings, and that can’t go away this weekend. Because judges tend to be overly critical of Marissa King’s vault, she must stick to force them to go 9.900. Hunter and Johnson have strong enough form that a minor step is OK, but it must be controlled and can’t warrant a full tenth.

On bars, it should be all about Caquatto and Johnson getting their 9.925s (which have been less frequent this year than they were last year), but it’s become all about Dickerson. She sticks her DLO every time now, and that has led the judges to give her very high scores. Much like Noel Couch on floor, the form is not always worthy of the scores, and the deductions are there to be taken if the udges choose to. The treatment of Dickerson’s bar routine will be one of the crucial decisions of Championships. If the judges go 9.900, Florida will have no problem scoring exceptionally on this event as long as Caquatto and Johnson get their 9.900s.

Even taking into account my concerns, Florida is still extremely capable on beam and has not been nearly as shaky as they were last season. However, there is something about this lineup that just doesn’t sit well with me. Rachel Spicer has had a few uncertain performances as we’ve progressed toward the business end of this season. If she has a mistake in that second position, how will the rest of the team respond? Will they get all 2011-y again? They gave away too many tenths on beam at Regionals, and this issue needs to be addressed to ensure that Spicer is not this year’s Mahlich.

As Rhonda has mentioned all season, floor should be the best event, but it’s not there yet. This has been the slowest event to come along under the new training schedule, and I do wonder whether it’s just a little too slow. We’re still seeing some OOBs, some 9.7s, that do look like a result of lack of numbers or lack of certainty on the equipment. The podium at Duluth didn’t wholly agree with this team at SECs, so some adjustments will need to be made.

Because the Gators are really working the AA angle this year, with the four leaders and Caquatto’s bars the important routines on each event, there is no one standout gymnast that must perform for them to be successful. It needs to be more about minimizing those egregious errors, those 9.6s-9.7s, across the team so that the multiple 9.9s that we are sure to see can help raise the team up rather than bring them back from holes.


In true UCLA fashion, I barely even know what to make of this team going into Championships. That was also true last year, and they proceeded to look rather poor in Semifinals only to show their best gymnastics of the season in Super Six to fall just a Zamarripa short of a repeat national title. This year’s Bruins are more talented and more consistent than last year’s team, but so is nearly everyone else. I do believe that if Florida hits to their highest capability, no team will be able to catch them, but UCLA can get the closest and put themselves in a position where one minor mistake from Florida opens the door for an upset.

Vault is not really a concern for this team. They have the best vault lineup in the country and proved that at Regionals where they scored a 49.450 for just one stuck vault. However, because it’s a strength, it would be easy to overlook vault, and that’s a mistake. UCLA will not be able to compete with several other teams on bars, so much like Team USA, they have to maximize their advantage on vault. A 49.400 doesn’t provide enough cushion, and they vitally need sticks from Frattone and Zamarripa to give that lineup at least a couple scores over 9.900. A 49.500 has to be the minimum expectation.

UCLA hasn’t really been punished this season for what an issue this bars lineup is, but let’s not pretend that everything is fine. De La Torre had a handstand catastrophe and Gerber had a poor dismount at Regionals, but the true problem here is how little 9.9 gymnastics exists in this rotation even when everybody is hitting. Mattie Larson’s tkatchev isn’t great and she desperately needs to go to the Zamarripa School for Handstands. Sam Peszek is just 9.850 on this event because it’s her worst one, and Gerber is not really an anchor and will max out at 9.900 at Nationals. For this team to challenge for a title, every handstand must be hit and every landing must be stuck to squeeze any bonus tenths out of this event. They can very easily go 49.200, but a title is going to require something more like 49.350.

I’m going to say something shocking: I’m not concerned about UCLA on beam. While Kaelie Baer is a walking dropped score in the second position, the rest of the lineup contains five gymnasts that I trust to hit (even Larson) who can all show 9.900 gymnastics. Gerber, Larson, and Zamarripa show pleasant, controlled, elegant routines. It seems strange to describe gymnastics as “thoughtful,” but their routines are. At the end of the lineup, Hopfner-Hibbs and Peszek have confident, aggressive routines that give away little in deductions. A beam rotation hit to potential from this team could be the surprise of Nationals.

Floor is the only event that went really well for the Bruins at Regionals, and I am interested to see how the judges treat it at Nationals. I think they’ll respond quite well. It is UCLA on floor after all. The keys will be whether the judges are impressed by Alyssa Pritchett’s mount+filler routine and, more importantly, how they respond to the composition for Zamarripa and Hopfner-Hibbs. Because of recovery from the Achilles injury, Zamarripa’s floor tumbling is unexciting and far less difficult than her capability, and the judges may be unimpressed. Hopfner-Hibbs will be mounting with her double tuck, and I would not count on seeing her piked full in unless she makes event finals. Judges have been eager to give this routine a 9.950 so far, but the only decision that matters is the one at Nationals.

I anticipate Peszek and Zamarripa being on form in the AA during Championships weekend, so the success of UCLA will depend on the seniors. Gerber, Frattone, and Hopfner-Hibbs can’t be giving away too many 9.825-9.850 routines on any of their events, and Baer has to show why she is in these lineups. If they all do their jobs, we may see a very exciting Super Six indeed.

The Nationals Scene: The Challenging Horde

[Scratch that rant. It’s still not good for the sport that the Championships will not be broadcast on network TV, but we will now have streaming of semifinals.]
I will be here live blogging the scoring for each Semifinal and complaining about [everything, regardless], so we’ll make this a safe space for communal whining. We’re all in this together. It’s all about the team.
In the midst of our Friday complaining, I expect to see Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia all safely advance to Super Six. Am I overestimating Georgia by putting the Gymdogs in this group? Probably. However, it would be an unexpected disappointment for Georgia to fail to make Super Six for the third year in a row, so I’m placing them among the teams that should at this point realistically look forward to Saturday. Of course, no team will say that they are thinking about Super Six yet because they have to fall over themselves to mention that they’re approaching it one meet/rotation/routine at a time and not taking anything for granted at Championships, but that’s one of those sports lies that we can just ignore. All three of these teams should expect to advance and should not entertain the thought of a situation where that doesn’t happen.


What do we do with the Tide? Ever since the preseason, we’ve been mentioning them in the same breath as Florida and UCLA as title contenders, but something has happened in the last few weeks. It’s not that they aren’t performing well (breaking 197 at Regionals is no problem), but the quality on Alabama’s go-to events, vault and floor, has noticeably deteriorated. The floor performance at Regionals could be chalked up to an off meet, and we can be sure they will work on making those landings less uncertain at Nationals, but the full tenth landing deductions on vault have been building for weeks and have not been solved yet. At Regionals, Alabama had just four routines score equal to or better than RQS, none of which were on vault. By contrast, UCLA and Florida each had twelve routines do so. The difference in score between the teams may have been only a few tenths, but the disparity between performance and expectation was actually much greater.

This is a crucial year for Alabama. They are losing their two top AAers in Stack-Eaton and Priess after this season and will likely not be able to replace that quality until the 2014 and 2015 classes become comfortable. Unlike Florida, they are not looking at a net gain in talent for next season, so this year takes on added urgency to win another title. As such, it will be down to those seniors, particularly Stack-Eaton, to make sure they can compete. Geralen has been unexpectedly inconsistent this season, throwing in the odd scores in the 9.7s far too often for the team to tolerate. On Friday, watch to make sure she is going 9.875 on every event. Alabama is very 9.800-9.825 in the first three positions on most events, so Stack-Eaton needs to be going much higher every time out and putting herself in the AA hunt for Alabama to have a chance. The Tide starts on beam in Semifinals, and if Stack-Eaton goes in the 9.7s again, they will already be scoring under potential. While it shouldn’t be a problem for advancing, it’s an area to watch for Saturday.

Though she doesn’t have the same high profile, my other gymnast to watch for Alabama’s success is Diandra Milliner. Milliner always makes me nervous on beam because she looks so uncertain of herself. She doesn’t work with the aggressive nature that her style of gymnastics necessitates, and therefore I’m always concerned that she’ll fall. On both beam and floor, she can’t just be the 9.775 they hope to drop (as she has been lately), and on vault, she has to be worthy of the anchor position. It has to be the best vault in the lineup. Because of her bent knees, she must stick so she can get 9.950. A 9.900 in that position isn’t enough this year (let’s cc Vanessa Zamarripa on that memo).

This team will contend with Florida and UCLA if they bring the kind of big, sturdy gymnastics that won the Championship last year, but the performances at SECs and Regionals were very 4th place. We know Alabama will bring a wealth of 9.875s to the table, but the stuck landings for 9.9s have to show up at Nationals for a title to be realistic.


Natasha Kelley, Rebecca Clark, Kayla Nowak, Hayden Ward. It’s been a rough season for the Sooners with injuries. However, this team is so well trained that they have been able to find a seemingly endless supply of 9.825s waiting offstage to help them avoid any noticeable valleys, just as they did after the graduation of Hollie Vise. While Ward is out for the postseason, Kayla Nowak will be back in the lineup at Nationals, which should help them remain on the same level once again as long as she is back in form. The question is whether that level is enough for a Championship, and I’m not convinced yet.

That being said, Oklahoma is serially underestimated. They are often included as a second-tier team with the likes of Nebraska and Stanford even though their postseason results have trailed only UCLA and Alabama over the last two seasons, once they announced themselves as a Super Six team. More than anything else, the Sooners have become known for their consistency on the beam. Not only do they not fall, they don’t suffer major wobbles. Once again, they recorded the highest beam score in the country during Regionals, and no one was surprised. I expect this to carry on through Nationals, and if they are still reeling from injuries, it could just be the event to get them into Super Six.

However, I have to wonder about vault. The weakest lineup for this team to begin with, it may not be able to withstand the loss of Ward. Ferguson doesn’t vault and Nowak does only rarely, which means finding six postseason-level routines will be a struggle. If they have to throw up two 9.7 routines at the beginning, they will be at a severe disadvantage to every other team in Super Six on the most lucrative event.

At this point, we have come to expect Megan Ferguson to go 9.9 on all her events (seriously, if she vaulted she would be the AA favorite), so Oklahoma’s success is going to hinge more on the performances of those mid-lineup workers like Spears, Olson, and Brewer. If we look back to Oklahoma’s bad meet, the loss to UCLA, those three gymnasts put up no scores higher than 9.850 and had a number of falls and 9.7s, which was the main contributor to the poor result. They have to be going at least 9.825 on each event with some 9.875s thrown in. They have the luxury of counting on Ferguson’s big scores to save rotations, but she can’t do all the work. If they’re going to go 49.350 on multiple events, the middle of the lineup can’t be a 9.775-9.800 type of burden.


Georgia is inhabiting a strange sort of middle ground this year. In many ways, they are over-performing based on their talent level and our expectations. Aside from Kat Ding, they have only two name gymnasts, one a freshman (Chelsea Davis) and the other a saga (Shayla Worley). And yet, any of us who followed through the Suzanne dynasty will always have the vague sense that Georgia should be better because they always were better. It’s an unfair expectation, but it nonetheless exists.

I’m placing Georgia as a safe bet to make Super Six because they really should be scoring in the low 197s and would have to have an off meet to drop into Arkansas’s realistic range. However, the Gymdogs have very little chance of winning the title because their scoring ceiling is just too low. If the Championships score goes into the mid-high 197s, as I expect it will, Georgia will not be able to keep up. They will have to hope that the judges keep the scores within a closer range and that their excellent bar work keeps them above the likes of Alabama and UCLA, who may have issues on the event.

The key performances for Georgia this weekend will be Noel Couch and Shayla Worley. Unlike most of the people I’m featuring, we have no doubts about how Couch will perform. She is exactly the same every week. What changes is how the judges interpret her routines. She’s been going over 9.900 regularly on floor, but those exact routines could receive 9.825-9.850 and no one could accuse the judges of mis-scoring the routine. The deductions are there to be taken if the judges decide to do so. Georgia should hope they’re feeling some home-state pride.

And then there’s Shayla. The team has done a pretty good job this year of making Shayla’s topsy-turvy performance history mostly irrelevant to the team score. It usually hasn’t mattered much how she performs her bars dismount or, in the case of Regionals, if she falls on a gainer full. The rest of the team has picked up the slack with enough 9.850s to manage through the regular season in fine form. At Championships, however, we do not accept throw-away routines. On bars, that piked double layout is not getting any better and is little more than a prayer and a sizable deduction. Beam has to be 9.900. Anything else is not acceptable on an event where the rest of the team is consistent but unremarkable.

Because Georgia is unlikely to make a major splash in Super Six, they must take risks. So those calling for Shayla to be removed from bars are off base. Sure, she hay be a disaster, but there’s still a chance that her name could get her a 9.850-9.900, and Georgia has to bank on that. Christa Tanella’s 9.775s don’t win Championships.