For the moment, let’s all pretend that we live in a fantasy land where Florida is actually the #3 team in the country. Things will be more interesting that way. Then we can talk about how this plucky upstart took the nation by storm instead of talking about how the obviously most talented team acted like itself and achieved the #1 ranking. Regardless of how the season finishes, because no one can ever predict what kind of horrors and wonders will take place in Super Six, I do expect the Gators to be ranked #1 for the majority of the season. They are too grand and talented not to be.
In direct contrast to Oklahoma, where success will be cobbled together from every member of the group pitching in a little bit, Florida is a team of stars. While we will likely see one or two routines from outside the galaxy, the Gators in 2013 will be a small, familiar cast of seven all-arounders, each of whom would be the one star on another team: Marissa King, Ashanee Dickerson, Alaina Johnson, Mackenzie Caquatto, Kytra Hunter, Bridget Sloan, and Bridgette Caquatto. Put any combination of six of those seven gymnasts on any event and a 49.500 would not be a surprise. That’s how good this team can be. A 198 (at least one) is attainable.
It’s important, however, not to anoint too early. There are cracks. Small cracks, but cracks nonetheless. Say crack again. Crack. More than a few of these gymnasts have been felled by beam inconsistency before. We need only think back to 2011. More worrisome, though, is injury. This is largely a fragile bunch of elites, and it will be vital that the likes of Randy Stageberg, Kiersten Wang, and Rachel Spicer are ready to compete at the drop of a fibula. If these stars align properly, though, anything less than greatness would be a disappointment.
The Gators don’t have an event that can be considered anything near a weakness, but their success will be measured relative to their closest competitor, Alabama. If Alabama is getting regular 9.9s from every spot in the vault lineup as I expect, Florida needs to be able to match that (or come within a tenth that can be made up on bars). The opening 9.850s from Wang and Spicer that served the team well last postseason will make for comfortable backups but probably shouldn’t be used in an ideal lineup. The goal should be a 49.500.
King always gets underscored with some nonsense 9.850, but her Tsuk 1.5 is made from clouds and liberty and hope for a better future, so I’d love to see her remain in the 5th spot out of spite, sending a little message that her vault is worthy of a 9.9+ every time. Hunter will surely anchor again, and I would not be surprised to see a 10 or two for her this season.
Sloan gets tremendous amplitude on her Yurchenko vaults (one of the main factors that stoked those perennial Amanar rumors), so the full should be quite easy for her and should become a regularly stuck vault for big scores. Dickerson and Johnson likewise will frequently reach 9.9 if they vault the way that they have the past couple of years. The sixth vaulter could very easily be Wang or Spicer without causing much problem for the scores, but Caquatto the Elder has higher scoring potential and can be that sixth 9.9 score. If there is any kind of concern about her leg health, however, I’d prefer to see her saved for bars and beam. It’s not worth the risk.
The single biggest weapon in Florida’s orange arsenal is this bars rotation. All of the other contending teams are going to struggle to put together six high scoring routines, while the Gators will be spoiled for choice. If the most recent intrasquad is any indication, M. Caquatto, Sloan, and Johnson are already performing at a 9.9 level. These three can make for the most formidable back-half trio that we have seen on this event in recent years, now featuring two-thirds of the US lineup from 2010 Worlds.
It’s a bit surprising that, even with Gainesville scoring, we haven’t seen any 10s on bars over the past two seasons. With three potential nominees to bump up the scores now, a 10 becomes even more likely for the anchor, probably Johnson but potentially Sloan.
This is also the event where I see Caquatto the Younger having the most influence, and she should not be discounted from joining that 9.9 party. She is, however, still recovering from injury and so likely won’t be a factor right away.
For the remaining two spots, Florida has a whole slew of other positive-scoring routines in that 9.850-9.875 territory. King looked a little ragged in the intrasquad video, but she is a proven talent here who can be excellent and was clearly the third-strongest worker last season. I expect her in the lineup for most meets along with Hunter. It would be a little silly to keep the reigning AA champion out of the all-around, so Hunter should take that leadoff spot with a perfectly strong 9.850.
The popular pick seems to be to keep Dickerson out of the lineup for now, and I mostly support that since I have been quite hard on her routine in the past. Well, not so much her routine but the scoring of it. When it has the issues with toes, elbows, and handstands and yet gets a 9.950 (a 9.950), that undermines the legitimacy of the judging as well as the quality of the routines later in the lineup. I’m a 9.950, you’re a 9.950, everyone’s a 9.950! And yet, how can a team bench a proven 9.950 (however suspect) in favor of Hunter, who has never received even a 9.900? Will King be the odd woman out? Or Bridgette Caquatto? Someone has to be.
Spoiled for choice is a bit of a theme for Florida this year, and it continues on beam where I see nine legitimate options, each of whom would be a difficult choice to argue against. There should be no question about putting King and Hunter in those final spots, and 9.900 will be the norm for both of them. Mackenzie Caquatto didn’t compete beam in 2012, but she was the best worker on the team in 2011 (with a high score of 9.975) and should easily return to the lineup to support the top two.
The rest of the group is a bit of a hodgepodge, and I think it would be a shame if Rhonda competes only six gymnasts the whole season again because we would be denied some excellent routines. However, the biggest competition hurdle standing between Florida and a title is the threat of counting a fall in Super Six, so while I would prefer the six biggest, most interesting routines, the Gators need to go for the six most consistent routines, even if it means leaving out a big name. That is the most likely reason for us to see routines from Stageberg or Spicer this season.
Bridget Sloan should be the obvious choice for another high scorer at the end of this lineup, but I still need to be sold on her consistency. She is the queen of falling on the first day of a competition and then hitting on the second day, but there is no room for that in NCAA. Bridgette Caquatto is no rock here either. Johnson and Dickerson would probably join Sloan in my lineup, but it hasn’t always been a smooth journey for them on beam. They both had consistent 2012s, but if the horrors of the 2011 postseason come calling again, the 9.850 sisters, Stageberg and Spicer, might be better choices. I’d love to see the riskier lineup, but Rhonda likely wouldn’t. If all hit, though, the Dickerson, Johnson, M. Caquatto, Sloan, Hunter, King lineup can be 49.500 kinds of amazing.
I’m perhaps the least comfortable about Florida on floor. The tumbling prowess and talent level are not questions, but the Gators are probably still kicking themselves for some of those landings in the final rotation of Super Six. They also rather underperformed on floor in the semifinal round and at Regionals. Will the coaching staff try to course correct by training hard landings more often and earlier, and will that increase the injury risk and bring back the peaking conversation that was so famous before last season?
The reality is that, with the injury history of these elites, a Johnson, M. Caquatto, Dickerson, King, Sloan, Hunter lineup is a pipe dream. It would be amazing, but it’s unlikely and not necessarily ideal. In fact, it may be smarter to keep both Caquattuses off this event entirely if the health of the rest of the team allows it. They are much more valuable on bars and beam, and the likelihood of keeping them both healthy for multiple years while also having them regularly compete floor is low. While I’d keep Stageberg out of my beam lineup, she will be a nice leadoff on floor that can protect the rest of the team without losing much in scoring potential.
Last year, after Alabama opened the door with a sloppy bars rotation, the Gators should have walked through it to a title. They couldn’t capitalize. No matter, though. We all knew that they would be more talented in 2013 and would totally win a championship. Now, that time has arrived. If Florida is going to win a title, this is the year. After this season, the team will start bleeding dominant routines from King and Dickerson and start relying more on broken American elites. It will get harder.
The Gators are my pick to win the title this year, and I’m not alone. No matter how it plays out, though, it’s going to be fascinating watching them try to get there. Expectation is a dangerous thing.