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.