The Georgia Bulldogs will begin the 2013 season ranked at a historic low of #11, but of all the teams, Georgia has the most potential to rise above its station given the depth of talent. Even though the Jay Clark tenure will be remembered as a disaster, the team was improving and the much-needed new blood had begun to liven up the lineups. Let’s all remember that, crazy scoring aside, Georgia was a few more experienced beam workers away from making Super Six in 2012.
There is, however, much work to be done to put the team in a similar or stronger position. The graduations of Kat Ding and Gina Nuccio are significant not only because Ding and Nuccio were excellent gymnastics but because they were the last links to the Suzanne era. Those two performed with a sureness and an attitude (and a stickability) that none of the rest of the team can match.
All eyes will be on Danna Durante to see if she can produce more Dings and Nuccios and fewer of the sturdy, but uninspiring, 9.850 types that marked Clark’s leadership of the team. She needs to make a point of cultivating risk over safety to get out of these doldrums. I don’t expect some magical change in the upperclassmen (and the risk of a new coach is that the team dynamic changes for the worse, a la 2010), but I do believe that the right coaching still might squeeze some quality out of the potential (be it squandered or yet unfulfilled) that litters this team roster. Is Durante the one to do that? It remains to be seen.
All the best vaulting teams have an anchor that can score 9.950 regardless of the charity of the judging panel. Georgia will need to find that person this year in the absence of Kat Ding, but I don’t anticipate a major struggle to do so as there are several valid nominees.
Lindsay Cheek should return to the end of the lineup and consistently knock on the door of 9.9s, and while Cat Hires probably isn’t an anchor, she can be a strong 9.875 like she was last year. Brandie Jay is training a workable Y1.5 with some bent legs that can be 9.900 with some refinement, and we will probably see big amplitude and/or difficulty from Brittany Rogers as well. Expect those four to occupy the 3-6 spots and consistently keep the team somewhere in the +.300 territory.
For the other two spots, there are options. I have been pleasantly surprised by Chelsea Davis’s vaulting, and she is a perfect stick-worthy leadoff. Sarah Persinger and Kaylan Earls have the potential to be better than the 9.800s they showed last year, but they are more likely to act as comforting backups rather than lineup competitors. Noel Couch will almost certainly be in the lineup and has been training a 1.5, but I’d prefer to see her go back to the full, which at least was a stick. The 1.5 won’t be doing her any form or landing favors. It will be a tough ask to compete with Florida and Alabama on vault, but Georgia won’t be losing too much ground on this event.
For several years now, we’ve been looking at Georgia on bars and fearing what the team would do after losing Ding and Nuccio. Without those two auto-9.9s, Georgia will take a hit, especially early in the season, but this team is not a sudden lost cause on bars and could return at least to somewhere near previous levels by the end of the season.
I say it won’t happen right away because the scoring onus will be on new ones, and it may take some time for them to adjust. Davis showed last season that she is ready to take on that Ding responsibility (and even posted a higher RQS than Nuccio), but she has to become more consistent. The random 9.800-9.850s won’t cut it. Rogers should be a sturdy highish score, and Jay is retaining her Shushunova, which should help keep her scores up because the judges love a showpiece element, even one as perennially awkward as the Shushunova.
With Shayla on bars, where do we even begin? On the one hand, she was occasionally overpraised on bars as an elite where her routine was basically a Tkatchev rolodex + filler that fit the code well. On the other hand, she is way more talented than a consistent 9.800 and is a tolerable dismount away from 9.900-9.950. Unfortunately, she is retaining her whipped DLO, so don’t expect those 9.9s much.
In the intrasquad, Cheek looke pretty strong on bars, and I’d love to see her and Persinger fill out the lineup. No one has quite yet recovered from Jay Clark’s decision to put Tanella in for Persinger at Championships. 8.600.
Let’s just forget what happened on beam last April because Georgia was a good beam team for most of the season and that nerve-burger of a performance was not reflective of talent. This lineup, however, could be in a severe state of flux. I still think Persinger and Earls are good choices in the mid-9.8 range, but they are far from lineup locks.
Really, the only certainty in this lineup is Shayla because, even for all her inconsistency, the team needs her potential 9.900-9.950. She is the best beamer on the team and has fewer areas for mistakes now with the gainer full dismount. Noel Couch is still a reliable leadoff, but we’ll have to watch how the rest of the team reacts to competing beam. I don’t know what Durante’s lineup style is, but I’d love to see some early-season experimentation, even it if means falls, rather than sticking to one group. I feel more comfortable about Jay and Rogers on vault and bars, but they both have elite skills sets and could gain consistency with a stripped-down NCAA routine. Davis’s routine composition has been impeded by her back problems, making it harder for her to be consistent, but we should see routines from her when she returns to full health. I’m not sure what is happening with Unick right now because we haven’t seen her, but I do like her on beam.
I expect more counting falls than we saw last year, but through that process there is a very good chance that six reliable workers will eventually emerge to form a comfortable lineup. All the possibilities will need to be explored.
There should not be a shortage of options on floor, but how many of those options are desirable? I’m sure Durante will work to get Shayla in the lineup, but that body probably won’t be able to handle too much tumbling at this point. There are similar constant-injury concerns with Chelsea Davis, and Christa Tanella is more of a “she can go against NC State while the others rest” type. Rogers and Jay should be in the lineup, but cleanliness and landing position are concerns.
Noel Couch is not a floor anchor. She received high scores last year, enough to record RQS over 9.900, but her form is not ideal for that position. She should be third up, but is there anyone else who has proven 9.900 capabilities? The Star Wars routine for 2013 is potentially even more gimmicky than the Jaws routine. Familiar music is not usually desirable on floor because it says, “Look at this music!” instead of “Look at this routine!” If she mimes a lightsaber, I’m out.
This event won’t make fans nervous in the way that beam might, but I can see 9.850 becoming the expectation throughout the lineup to the point where the team finds it difficult to get out of that 49.200-49.250 area.
For the level of talent on the team, Georgia is under-ranked, which primarily reflects the uncertainty about what Durante can do to turn around the Clark descent. Going solely on the quality of gymnasts, there is little between Georgia and a school like Utah, even though the ranking difference is large.
Making Super Six is going to be a challenge, but if this group is cultivated properly, I see no reason why they couldn’t. The determining factor will be whether Durante is content with some of the 9.800s that she already has from upperclassmen or whether she can bring some of the underclassmen into the realm of 9.9s that their potential suggests. Right now, I would put Georgia at a close 4th in a National Semifinal. Combine a new coach with a group of untested or injury-prone gymnasts, and it’s difficult to have certainty, but becoming the 5th or 6th best team in the country is attainable.