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.