My favorite for the title is Kytra Hunter because she has exceptionally clean tumbling, and everyone has been looking for a chance to reward her insanely high tumbling since about 2009. She never got the recognition for it in elite because she wasn’t relevant enough on other events to make major international competitions, but this is the chance to do reward it now.
After the tension of Super Six, Event Finals day is a chance to cool down, smile, and allow everyone to pretend that they are best friends again. For fans, it serves as an effective coping mechanism so that we can say goodbye to the season slowly, sort of like a coma.
In some cases, there is a clearly deserving winner based on the performance that day, but usually event finals are a way for judges to reward an exceptional season, respectable career, or superior display of difficulty. Sometimes, it’s a way to recognize an individual gymnast whose team was unworthy of her during the championship season, as we saw in 2010 when the judges tried really hard to give McCool the beam title even though her routine was poor that day (ultimately, Susan Jackson’s [thanks for the catch] clearly stronger performance won out). A lot of the discussion surrounding Event Finals involves the word deserves, so it’s always fun and nonsensical.
Unfortunately, the dark side of Event Finals is that they are endless. Vault in particular has the potential to be a nightmare, with a steady stream of gymnasts performing their grating and unnecessary layout Yurchenkos for 9.600. On Semifinals day, root for the cutoff score on vault to get up to 9.925 in both sessions so that we may see just the minimum 4 qualifiers instead of 12 people tied at 9.900 all advancing to finals.
We always see a ton of random qualifiers, especially when the cutoff score dips to 9.875 in a session so that any sort of relevant routine with a stuck dismount can get through, so my preview will not be comprehensive about anyone with a chance to advance. Instead, I’ll take a moment to highlight a few gymnasts that I see as the most likely title contenders.
As we all know, the stupidest rule in all of NCAA gymnastics requires gymnasts to suddenly perform two vaults in event finals. Either they need to do away with the second vault and just have them perform the same vault twice, or they need to require potential qualifiers to perform a second vault in Semifinals, like we currently see in elite. Both of those solutions would eliminate the insufferable parade on non-10.0 vaults in finals.
Because the rules stand as they do, the vault title often depends on the quality of the second vault, and the result is notoriously difficult to predict because we don’t see that second vault during the season.
However, one of the favorites has to be defending champion Marissa King. We know she can perform a Tsuk full as a second vault, which could very well be the most impressive second vault in the competition and bring her another title. The biggest question is actually her qualification to finals. She’s been getting a few 9.850-9.875s this year, and that score will not be enough to advance.
Beyond King, things get a little questionable. UCLA, Florida, and Alabama all have four gymnasts who can advance to finals, but we don’t know a lot about how prepared they are for a second vault. Obviously, Vanessa Zamarripa would be a clear favorite under fully healthy circumstances, but coming back from the Achilles injury, I wonder how much time she has spent training her RO 1/2 entry. I’m sure she’d go for it in finals, but I doubt it’s up to the level we saw when she won in 2010.
I’m going to assume that Kytra Hunter could easily crank out a Yurchenko full as a second vault, so the title may be hers for the taking since her Y1.5 will score very well. Tauny Frattone can make finals on the strength of her Omelianchik, and we know that she has trained a RO 1/2 tuck 1/2 in the past, so she may be planning for a second vault as well.
Look for Jessie DeZiel and potentially Diandra Milliner to have second vaults that start from 10s as well, so don’t discount them in the hunt for the title. DeZiel in particular should have no problem bringing in two vaults that can score 9.850, which has been enough to win in years past.
Beyond this group we have some former elites like Peszek and Courtney who competed harder vaults years ago but are unlikely to be training anything other than their usual competition vaults at this point. Hopefully we see some impromptu Y1.5s a la Anna Li in 2010 as long as it is safe. Katherine Grable may have been in this conversation at one point, but I doubt she’s ready coming back from injury. We also know that Corrie Lothrop has several vaults, but she would have to make finals first, and I don’t see it happening.
There are probably 20 people in this competition who could make a 9.900 on bars, and I’m predicting that we will have many ties in Semifinals to make this a packed final. Winning the title is going to take an extremely clean routine (people who routinely miss a handstand but still make 9.875-9.900 will not be relevant in finals) with either notable difficulty or reputation.
As we did with vault, let’s begin with the defending champion, Kat Ding of Georgia. At her best, she is still the best bars worker in NCAA, so don’t be surprised to see her win again, especially since we’re in Georgia and it’s her senior year. It’s a true shame that she hasn’t received a 10 this year (and don’t expect it to come at Nationals), but a second consecutive title here would help make things right.
Also, look for the Florida duo of Alaina Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto to be competitive frontrunners. Like Ding, I think they were both a little bit cleaner last season, but nonetheless Johnson has wonderful presentation, notably her excellent flight and form on the Ray, and Caquatto has the reputation and is very comfortable with her routine. In the future, when she’s healthy, I’d like to see Caquatto increase the difficulty from what we’ve seen at the end of this season so that she can meet her potential on this event. She should be better than solid.
Kat Ding’s teammates Gina Nuccio and Chelsea Davis also both have fair shots to make finals with their solid 9.900 routines. Nuccio probably peaks out at that score and would struggle to win the title, but everyone loves Chelsea Davis and the impressive amplitude on her Tkatchev will help her stand out and contend for the win.
Megan Ferguson of Oklahoma always scores well on bars because she doesn’t give anything away on handstands or the dismount. If it comes down to being clean, she can win, but she may not have that standout quality it takes to win the final otherwise.
From the Pac-12, Nicole Pechanec and Leslie Mak both have clean, 9.9-level routines with creative composition that will help them make an impression in the final as well, but with those composition choices comes more risk, especially for Mak, so both would have to be perfect to win.
There are a host of other people I’ve left out who can score 9.900 on bars, such as the Alabama duo of Stack-Eaton and Priess or the Nebraska duo of Giblin and Evenstad, but I think those gymnasts will be lost in the shuffle of finals a little bit and, while they could contend, are much more likely to be bunched in with a lot of others in a 5th-10th place range.
Unlike bars, I expect the balance beam final to be a pretty simple affair with 9 to 11 competitors. Because there are always some falls from expected qualifiers in prelims, we don’t see the same number of people reaching that 9.900 plateau that usually ensures qualification.
Last year in finals, Sam Peszek had a couple deductions in her routine, but won over her teammate Aisha Gerber because she performed a standing full to open and numbed the judges to later deductions, an effective strategy that could work again this year. Also, don’t count out Peszek’s other teammate Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, who never seems to bring her best gymnastics to NCAAs but could very well make finals if she is on this year.
Outside of UCLA, Florida’s Marissa King and Oklahoma’s Megan Ferguson are fair bets to make this final and contend. King is having her best beam season, and her acrobatic skills are right on every time with no deductions. Ferguson is the most impressive part of a beam lineup that should score well from top to bottom, so scores of 9.950 are conceivable for both.
The Arkansas duo of Jaime Pisani and Katherine Grable have excelled all season to keep that rotation afloat for the Razorbacks, and their consistency could be rewarded in finals as well, though I would peg Pisani as more likely to contend on floor than on beam.
On any given day, Alabama has several gymnasts who could make this final and be in the hunt, but because Stack-Eaton has been struggling lately and Jacob is leading off, I’m going to put my money on Sarah Demeo and Ashley Priess as the most likely to factor here. Demeo’s double pike dismount stands out, and Priess is usually very clean (and we may see her get some career recognition at some point at these championships).
Leslie Mak of Oregon State has a beautiful routine that could have won last year had she not fallen, but I wonder if the gainer full dismount could work to her disadvantage compared to people with much more risk. And speaking of gainer full dismounts, I would be remiss to forget Shayla Worley in this preview, but she has to hit in prelims first. The judges always love her, though, so don’t be surprised.
Stanford also has a few gymnasts who can advance to finals with 9.9s, but they will be unlikely to stand out from the group mentioned above.
Floor should be good fun this year. I hope Lloimincia Hall qualifies to finals because I am fascinated to see what the judges make of her routine.
Our defending champion Geralen Stack-Eaton should be in the race as she’s come along nicely this season since she added floor back, but I don’t see her repeating because the field is much deeper this year.
Hunter’s teammates Ashanee Dickerson and Marissa King can also score well enough to hang around the top of the standings, but both need to work out controlling those landings if they are even to make finals.
If Hunter doesn’t win, though, I’m putting my bet on Jaime Pisani, especially if she doesn’t take the AA title. She is a beloved senior who always comes just short of winning major things, so don’t expect her to walk away from Duluth totally empty-handed.
Interesting fact of the day: Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs has never made a floor final at Championships. I expect this will be the year she qualifies, and count on her to pull out the pike full in as a mount so that she has competitive difficulty. Most people are discounting her because this has not been her best year, but she’s my sleeper pick in this event. Sam Peszek has been controlling her landings a bit better lately and also could make finals here.
Rheagan Courville, Jessie DeZiel, Megan Ferguson, Ashley Morgan, and Noel Couch are other potential qualifiers, but I don’t think any of them quite have the whole package of complete leaps, difficult tumbling (throughout the routine, not just a mount and filler), and upright landings to win the title.