In the preseason poll, coaches usually are not too sensitive to individual changes in team rosters, but they certainly have taken Jaime Pisani’s departure into account this year, dropping Arkansas all the way down to #12 after a Super Six performance in 2012. This is the lowest ranking for a team that made Super Six the previous season since Iowa State was ranked #13 in the 2007 preseason poll. It is, however, warranted.
While Arkansas had, in many respects, the best season in the school history last year, recording program-best totals and ascending to #1 for a short period, the Razorbacks fell off toward the end of the season and needed a Georgia implosion to qualify to Super Six. Without Pisani’s scoring leadership, it will be difficult for the team to put itself in the same position this year, relying on Katherine Grable as the only proven 9.900 gymnast on the team.
Fortunately for Arkansas, important AAer Jordan Salsberg will be returning from her knee injury. However, she’s still wearing a brace in intrasquad videos, so it remains to be seen how much she will be able to contribute right now and on which events. In the unfortunate department, Scarlett Williams is out for the season, which puts more pressure on the vault and beam lineups with only eleven possible gymnasts, some of whom should not be allowed near the events. Let’s take a look at the team’s prospects event by event.
The showpiece of this lineup will be Katherine Grable’s excellent round-off 1/2 on, pike 1/2, which is occasionally underscored compared to Yurchenko fulls of similar quality but should still manage enough 9.9+ scores to keep Arkansas above water here.
Beyond Grable, I have concerns about depth. Expect Jordan Salsberg, Amy Borsellino, and Kelci Lewis to return to the lineup with vaults somewhere in the 9.800-9.850 territory. Bailee Zumwalde will probably also go here, but her ventures above 9.800 will be rarer. Stephani Canizaro can be used in a pinch, but the team would prefer not to. Of the new crop, Heather Elswick shows a nice Yfull with good distance, and Erin Freier has upgraded to a layout Yfull from a tuck in the past year or so, so they could both see action with Elswick the more likely to do so. Still, it’s just eight options for six spots, some of which are not ideal choices.
There’s enough talent at the end of the lineup that a good day can still be 49.350, but I expect more 49.1s than 49.3s.
Concern should abound here because bars is Grable’s weakest piece, and as goes Grable, so goes Arkansas. Without Howdeshell and Pisani, Grable will still have to lead the team here, but her routine has not been the solid 9.900 it has been on other events. This season she will be attempting to add a Comaneci, an upgrade I commend that could help bump her into the scoring territory expected of an anchor.
The supporting cast should be able to bring in relevant scores that will keep the team above 49. Shelby Salmon has a solid routine with a nice DLO dismount, Amy Borsellino has an enjoyable Tkatchev, and Salsberg and Canizaro will contribute as well. Problematically, this lineup has the potential to get stuck in 9.800 land because of handstanditis. Erin Freier could come in here; she has a lovely line and sufficient difficulty, but hers is still a work-in-progress routine.
Though the scores didn’t always reflect it, I thought this was Arkansas’s weakest event in 2012. Grable and Pisani were excellent, which gave the impression of quality, but the rest of the lineup was afflicted by lack of amplitude, sloppiness, sluggishness and sometimes all of the above.
The return of Salsberg will help, and Borsellino and Salmon will probably compete here again (though 9.850 should really be the absolute ceiling for those routines), but otherwise this event needs the most turnover and could use an infusion of freshmen. Erin Freier’s work makes me a little nervous, but her height gives her a elegant impression with strong form and presence that needs to be sculpted into a lineup-ready routine. Sydnie Dillard has better positions and dance elements than much of the current group, so I’d like to see her make this event as well.
Floor was the downfall several times for Arkansas last season, and this is where Pisani will be missed the most. Grable will be a consistent 9.900, and Borsellino and Lewis have strong double arabians and can be the supporting 9.8s. I expect Zumwalde to lead off again, but the rest are nail biters. Canizaro was too frequently below 9.800 last year, and Salsberg’s quality coming off that knee injury is still a question (though she did tumble in the last intrasquad). There is talent here, but is there enough of it?
Elswick doesn’t have a ton of difficulty on floor, but she is a proficient tumbler who could be useful early in the lineup. WOGA gymnast Lily Hardin is also a little spark plug who has the difficulty and form to compete here (and perhaps on beam).
Overall, I think Arkansas is ranked appropriately. If I were to pick the twelve teams qualifying to Nationals this year, the Razorbacks would be in the group right now, but I would have them as a fifth or sixth finisher in a Semifinal and would not have them among the Super Six contenders, even if a favorite is counting a mistake. It is less likely that they will score in the 197s this season or pull off some of those SEC upsets we’ve come to expect (at least without help) until someone emerges to be to Katherine Grable what she was to Jaime Pisani.