Every refrain about the Oklahoma Sooners after last season began with “If they had been healthy,” and so it was for previews of this season. If they stay healthy, they’re easily a Super Six team and probably the most likely to challenge the top three. Well, that’s all gone out the window already. Kayla Nowak is done for the season, and with her go at least three solid 9.850-9.875 routines.
There is a perception that the Sooners are a bit like a hydra. Cut off a 9.850, and the team will be fine because three more will grow from nothing in its place. Ergo, Kayla Nowak’s scores are replaceable. Like many perceptions, this one is about 75% true. This coaching staff does have the commendable capability to create depth, not just routines but real depth, where it seemed none existed. Expect the team to go on as if no one missed a beat. At the same time, the losses to injury and graduation are starting to pile up without heirs making themselves apparent. A team does not need stars to be successful, but it does need more than lineups full of commendable replacements. It needs 9.9s. Oklahoma is returning just three RQSs of 9.875 or better, fewer than Utah, Stanford, Nebraska, LSU, Georgia, and Oregon State. The Sooners are a better team than that statistic indicates, but there is work to be done to show it.
A significant factor in building up those high-scoring routines will be the freshman class. Powerful Level 10 standouts Keeley Kmieciak and Haley Scaman lead the group, and both will be expected to contribute on at least vault and floor from the start. These two are capable of bringing that RQS total from three to seven on their own. As for the other freshmen, we have seen little from Maile’ana Kanewa recently and nothing at all from Hunter Price, so expect less of them. The return of Lauren Alexander will be more influential.
If Oklahoma is to match the successes of 2010 and 2011, it will be earned largely through improvement on vault. While that makeshift postseason lineup didn’t do the team any favors, vault was the weakest event throughout 2012, often languishing in the 49.2s while bars and beam were in the 49.4s. On vault, anything less than a 49.350 becomes a disability when the best teams are in the 49.5s and 49.6s.
The Sooners will miss Sara Stone’s 9.9s, certainly, but the additions of Scaman and Kmieciak will more than make up for it, bringing both a quality and a level of difficulty that the team couldn’t always boast in the past. Both freshmen competed strong 1.5s in JO, and Scaman’s has been excellent in the preseason. Kmieciak has been training just a full instead of the 1.5, at least for now, but it will be worthy of the late lineup nonetheless. Expect the 4th, 5th, and 6th vaults to be Kmieciak, Olson, and Scaman, all capable of 9.9s.
Taylor Spears and Madison Mooring will be good for 9.850s in the opening half of the lineup, and the Sooners will be pleased that they can now treat 9.850s as establishing scores for the big guns (as they should be) rather than desirable routines for the 5th position. There will be some degree of choice for the final vaulter, with Clark the most likely and Brewer another option.
In a bit of a change, I’m much more concerned about Oklahoma’s bars than I am about vault, mostly because of the uncertainty of the lineup. There was always going to be a little Megan Ferguson-shaped hole under the low bar, but the losses of Nowak and reliable backups Sara Stone and Candace Cindell really smack the depth in the face to the point where I can’t even come up with six likely competitors. It’s Oklahoma, so they will hydra some 9.800s, but expect experimentation and growing pains in this rotation.
Brie Olson will be the anchor for 9.9s (but will need to cut out those mistakes and random 9.825s if she’s to have that responsibility), and Spears, Clark, and Brewer can all come in for something in the 9.850 territory. That’s a respectable group of four who will get the job done. It won’t be amazing, but it will get the team by. For the other two routines, who is there? The freshmen are unproven on bars, but will likely need to become proven soon.
I have no idea as to the current status of Hayden Ward. She suffered a serious injury at Regionals last year and then disappeared into the ether. She hasn’t featured in any preseason videos, so it’s impossible to make a judgment about her. If she materializes, she will be a very helpful addition to the depth of this lineup.
It’s a tough category, but I would probably rank beam as Megan Ferguson’s best event. Combine no Ferguson with the losses of Stone and Nowak and Oklahoma would seem to be in line for a disaster on this event in 2013, but I anticipate the 49.3s to flow just as readily this year as last year. There may be fewer 9.950s, but the Sooners will have enough routines that are capable of going as high as 9.900 on a good day.
Spears, Mooring, Olson, Clark, and maybe Brewer in a variety of orders should figure in most meets. Lauren Alexander was exceptional at the intrasquad, and if that’s going to be her norm, then she should absolutely be in the lineup. Also expect the unexpected here, like Lara Albright jumping in and getting a 12.950 or something. There are a lot of routines with very similar scoring potentials in that 9.875 area in this group, so one of the challenges here will be finding a lineup order that adequately takes advantage of score building to get certain gymnasts bumped up to those needed 9.925s.
The group of tested competitors on floor includes a bunch of 9.850s who will occasionally make a 9.900 of things, namely Olson, Albright, Brewer, and Spears. While Mooring doesn’t often compete floor, I can see her being added to the group quite easily and performing to the same level. The tumbling isn’t going to compete with the most powerful schools, so those 9.900s will have to be won through absolute precision in landings.
That bunch alone would probably account for a solid 49.200-49.300 on most days, but I am more enthusiastic about this lineup than I normally would be about that kind of scoring because of the tumbling abilities of the freshmen, who should help here nearly as much as they will on vault. I expect to see a lot of Kmieciak and Scaman, both of whom show appropriate difficulty, large amplitude, and confident landings that can score exceptionally well.
The injuries and graduations of the last couple of years are blows but not decisive ones. This is still a 197 team, but the degree of national competitiveness is now even more dependent on the freshmen, Scaman and Kmieciak, showing at least 9.875s on two events and potentially more. I have no doubt in this group’s ability to put together a whole season of high 196s, but without proven stars (though Brie Olson needs to be one) and without the stalwart Kayla Nowak, this season will be a major test of Oklahoma’s hydra capabilities. To be a team that can show as many as three 9.9s on an event the way the Sooners could manage occasionally with that Vise/Kelley/Ferguson triple play, new routines will have to grow.
I have enough confidence in the coaching staff and the gymnasts themselves that I’m comfortable predicting Oklahoma into Super Six. I can’t put together a realistic argument for six other teams being more likely to make it than Oklahoma. There is going to be some great gymnastics on this team, and if there is enough stability in the bars lineup and more than just a single 9.900 on each event, the Sooners can finish very close to their preseason ranking.