Freshman Orientation: UCLA

I had been holding off on previewing the UCLA freshmen because there is still a degree of doubt as to what the Peng plan is. Peng Peng Lee is in the recovery phase from her summer ACL tear, and at this point it is unclear if UCLA will push to get her back by the end of the season on any event, or if this will simply be a redshirt year. It’s a crucial decision because, aside from being every NCAA fan’s favorite elite, Lee was going to be the integral part of Operation Enduring Canada. UCLA lost two stellar northerners in Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs and Aisha Gerber, and Lee seemed like the only freshman who could fill Gerber’s leotard on bars and beam, at least until Gerber Part Deux arrives in 2013-2014.

In addition to Gerber’s bars and beam, UCLA will need to find people to bring in the 9.9s that EHH was delivering on beam and floor and that Tauny Frattone was consistently posting on vault. (I’m less concerned about EHH’s vault and Frattone’s floor because those should be competently replaced by any number of gymnasts.) Lee would have been tasked with the major part of that assignment, but without her, the other freshmen tasked with keeping UCLA competitive with Alabama and Florida are Danusia Francis, Sophina DeJesus, and Asi Peko, each of whom will be expected to contribute multiple routines to the Zamarripa/Peszek/(Larson?) show in 2013.

Peng Peng Lee 

Even though she may not compete this year, let’s use this excuse to watch Lee’s routines. When fully healthy, she is an all-arounder for this team. Bars has been a standout event for her in the past, and it always seemed like she should be able to pull together something more than a 5.7 difficulty, but that won’t be a relevant issue in NCAA. A simply constructed routine that showcases her Bhardwaj and toe point (and not her toe-on technique) should be late-lineup worthy.

Beam, however, is my favorite event of hers. In the above video, her starting pose is more artistic than most people’s whole routines. She used to struggle with consistency, but as she’s gotten older, those issues have lessened. Her split positions are almost always excellent, and I look forward to seeing her compete regularly. She can sell beam choreography better than most. 

While vaulting only a Yurchenko full held her back as an elite in terms of difficulty, she is still a surprisingly good vaulter for a Commonwealth gymnast. Usually, there is something about recognizing the sovereignty of the queen that makes one’s shoulder angle terrible. Maybe it’s all that bowing. People don’t talk about her vault and floor work as much, but she can be just as successful in NCAA on those events. Floor, in particular, has great presentation and more than sufficient difficulty and should be just as successful for her as beam.

Of all the incoming freshmen this year on all the teams, I am most excited about Lee. So, of course, she’s injured.

Danusia Francis

Danusia Francis made multiple international teams for Great Britain based largely on her ability to stay on the beam, a skill few others in the country have mastered. For a team like UCLA that tends to go for the land-speed record for beam falls each January, that skill will be valuable, and I expect her to make that lineup in a “reliable 3rd up” kind of role. She also surely stood out to the UCLA coaching staff because of her performance quality on floor, and I anticipate a concerted attempt to get her into that lineup as well. She doesn’t show notable difficulty or consistency in tumbling, so working to get the landings pristine will be the paramount job for the preseason.

Vault and bars are not nearly as strong, and for a team that has a lot of 9.825-9.850s floating around on vault, I don’t expect to see Francis there. On bars, there are some OK individual skills, but everything is just too much of a struggle to consider it one of her events. She doesn’t have a top-level dismount and doesn’t get a lot of flight on releases.

Sophina DeJesus

Because she was an elite for several years, DeJesus shouldn’t be as foreign to me as many of the other incoming gymnasts around the country who competed only JO, but I realize that I don’t have many strong impressions about her beyond “hip hop dancer.” That seems to be the extent of her narrative, and I’m sure that dance background was UCLA catnip and that Val is thrilled to choreograph a routine for her and get her into the floor lineup.

On the other events, though, I have doubts. I haven’t seen a vault from her since she was a junior and performed a, frankly, quite Commonwealth Yurchenko full. Bars has always had some form breaks and beam some consistency issues. That isn’t to say she can’t make those events; she certainly can and has the difficulty, but I still wonder, will she be any more than just a dancer?

 Asi Peko

When she was a day old, Asi Peko was in that same junior conversation as Samantha Shapiro and Cassie Whitcomb. She had a Yurchenko double full and big difficulty with strong execution on floor. She’s a different gymnast now, so those accomplishments are largely irrelevant to her potential NCAA success.

Still, Peko had a very successful 2011 JO campaign and still has some of that elite flair. She shows a tuck full on floor with confident overall tumbling, so combine her floor skills with those of other incomers, and we could see a great fight for those six floor spots this year. Like most of the other incomers, though, bars is more of a question mark than the other events, and it won’t necessarily be a standout for her. Overall, I do see a fit and healthy Peko competing regularly on multiple events in the middle of the lineup in a similar role to what we have seen from Syd Sawa. 

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