UCLA is a tough one this year. Peszek was a rock, Hopfner-Hibbs was a beam and floor star, Gerber was a beauty on the weaker events, and Frattone was a dominant vaulter. Losing those eleven routines (which include seven of the twelve back-half routines from last season) is almost impossible to endure while maintaining the same quality. The Bruins will have a difficult road to repeat the accomplishments of the last three years, but a strong class of freshman specialists and the lure of unfulfilled potential mean that it is still a possibility.
The Bruins are less secure in success than many of the other top teams because any projected triumph is going to be based on what athletes will need to do rather than what they have already proven they can do. It’s not about continuing on the same worn path; it’s about finding a new one full of terrible, trite metaphors about tangled branches and overgrown cottages and a single rose. It is imperative that Mattie Larson become an all-around threat who can contribute in the 4th and 5th positions of every rotation. She needs to be the plucky sidekick stenographer to Vanessa Zamarripa’s pants-wearing, cigarette holder-clutching leading lady. A repeat of the 2012 performance will see the team suffer in a way it didn’t last year.
Danusia Francis seems to be a perfect fit for this team, and she will be expected to star on beam and contribute on floor right away, which will lessen the blow of the Hopfner-Hibbs/Peszek losses. Sophina DeJesus is a wonderful dancer, but the jury is out on commendations more emphatic than that. Asi Peko had success as a junior elite and a Level 10, but it’s been a while, and her level is still a mystery.
Most of all, though, the freshman class is about Peng Peng Lee, and if she were healthy, it would be a lot easier to be emphatic about this team. It’s a real shame that Lee and Zamarripa will never get to compete the AA together, though I suppose the idea is that Lee becomes the new Zamarripa. She can be that good. There was some discussion about whether Lee would be pushed to come back for the end of the year, but the injury to Peszek all but guarantees that as long as her health allows it, Lee will be back on bars and beam for the postseason.
Looking through these potential lineups, there is no guarantee against this team becoming a catastrophe. We have no mental giants in Westwood. But if if if everyone, Mattie, does what she is capable of doing, Mattie, this team could be a sight to see.
The Bruins had a tremendous punch at the end of this lineup last year that helped them easily keep pace with the massive scores posted by Alabama and Florida. They’ve lost two significant cogs in Frattone and Peszek, but Olivia Courtney should still be vaulting for 9.9s every week, and Zamarripa is Zamarripa. Those 5th and 6th routines will help the event from being a problem, even if they are receiving just supporting 9.850s from the rest of the team (though I think they’ll get a bit more than that).
At the Meet the Bruins event, Zamarripa showed the RO 1/2 on, layout 1/2 instead of the Yurchenko full, and I’m of multiple minds about her actually competing it. On the one hand, I’m in favor of the RO 1/2 because otherwise this will lineup will be a snoozer with six Yfulls, and we’ll all die of boredom. On the other hand, without Frattone and Peszek, the Bruins needs to squeeze every possible tenth out of this lineup, and the Yfull is a proven 10 with fewer opportunities for deductions. The boring path may be the smarter one.
I have to assume that Mattie Larson struggled on vault in training at the end of last season because otherwise it was ludicrous to compete Kaelie Baer’s 9.800 over Larson’s 9.875. While the DTY was always a struggle for Larson as an elite, she is a strong vaulter with commendable amplitude, and it will be unacceptable for her miss the lineup or compete for 9.825s. She needs to be vaulting fourth for 9.9s.
As for the rest of the lineup, there will be no shortage of vaults in the low-mid 9.8 range from which to choose (Baer, Sawa, Wong, De La Torre, McDonald), but competing more than one of those vaults is going to help the team right to a 49.350. Fine, but already allowing a deficit to Alabama and Florida. Sawa has a bit more potential to stick for a higher score, so I expect to see some of her. Wong can be graceful but lacks distance and a solid landing. A few of these vaulters will need to prove worthy of more than they have in the past, especially away from Pauley.
Asi Peko is the big question mark here. She showed promise on vault sixteen decades ago, and she can be a major boost to the lineup if she’s the same gymnast that she was then. The other healthy freshmen are unlikely to factor here. Danusia Francis has a whippy little British Yurchenko with no lift, and Sophina DeJesus shouldn’t be allowed to look at the vaulting table.
I’m forecasting this as the year of bad bars. Florida is the only team that appears strong enough on this event to garner massive scores. UCLA lost its anchor in Gerber and its stalwart mid-lineup 9.875–9.900 in Peszek. Zamarripa will need to be her 9.925 self in the anchor position every week, but I do hope she ends up adding a same-bar release this season because otherwise her routine comes across as too easy and risk-free for her. Her Deltchev in 2010 was wonderful. What happened to that?
Zamarripa is the reliable big score, but the most important bar routines for the Bruins this year will be from Larson and De La Torre. They both recorded far too many scores in the 9.7s last year (the acceptable number was none, by the way). The team managed last year but cannot get by this year without positive scores from both of them every time out. There aren’t other 9.9s that can save them anymore.
Olivia Courtney will compete for 9.850-9.875s (though she is another one who needs her same-bar release back), and her ability to stick the tuck full dismount almost every time is a useful tool that can bump up her score. If we’re going solely based on talent, Lichelle Wong should also be in this lineup, but she has never had a routine composition that allows her to score well. Something has to be done about that dismount.
There will be options to fill the remaining spot or spots (again there are many capable 9.800s on this team), but I anticipate a lineup spot going to a rather random choice like Ellette Craddock or whoever has the most compelling narrative. Really, all of this is just about holding the fort until Peng Peng Lee can come back. The lineup is looking awfully 49.275 without her, and her potential brilliance can save it from mediocrity.
If this beam rotation were an insufferable indie movie about LA-based twentysomething artists with substance abuse problems who learn that a family can be made anywhere, it would be called terr1fy1ng/g0rge0us.
Regardless of the problems in Super Six, Gerber and Hopfner-Hibbs were this beam lineup. Cut them out along with the Sturdiest Little Hoosier (that’s the children’s book I’m writing about Sam Peszek where she stops a runaway train by doing a tuck full in front of it), and this rotation is teetering on the brink of one of those seasons with thirty-five falls per meet. That’s the terrifying part. When Mattie Larson is “the reliable one” . . .
And yet, this rotation can be absolutely beautiful. Imagine a lineup that includes Wong, Francis, Larson, Lee, and Zamarripa. That’s one of the more graceful, exciting groups that could occupy a beam rotation. We know what Larson and Zamarripa can do, and Peng Peng Lee is total elegance from head to toe. Add to that Danusia Francis who, even if she doesn’t compete her spiffy aerial cartwheel in side position, has the difficulty, amplitude, and consistency to make her a star on this event and Lichelle Wong, who was finally becoming a little beamer when she tore her Achilles last year. It’s a heart disease of a group, yes, but it can be stellar.
For the other spot (or the other two spots pre-Peng), Baer is an obvious choice who scored well most of the time last year, and Courtney can come in as well if you feel lineup wasn’t nerve-racking enough already. In all, I expect the usual scores of 48.300 here and there in January and February, but it would be a real shame if this rotation isn’t scoring among the best in the country by the end.
Just like on beam, the team has lost three routines from the 2012 rotation, but I have far fewer concerns about how this lineup will fare. While floor is by far Zamarripa’s worst event, it’s not a disaster. For someone who is never not dancing and smiling, it’s a bit strange how self-conscious she suddenly becomes when performing choreography. Nonetheless, she floats wonderfully through her tumbling elements and hits her dance skills. I expect better routine composition this year along with a fair few 9.9s, especially if she’s throwing the DLO. Olivia Courtney should also be a consistent high scorer. I love how compact she gets on the double Arabian, but occasionally she struggles to control the landing. That skill will determine her overall scoring potential.
Alyssa Pritchett will surely make an appearance as well. It was a mistake to put her 4th up last season as her routine (which was never going to get more than a 9.850 with even scoring) stunted the scores between Courtney and Peszek. The narrative became more important than reality. She has been training a tucked double double, but that is probably just one of those preseason injury chasers that won’t manifest. If it does appear it competition, it will make her a great leadoff because the judges will want to reward the elite-level difficulty with a higher score, which will effectively bump up the rest of the lineup. If Val makes her the anchor (she wouldn’t, right?), then the story really has become more important than reality.
Sure, Sawa and Wong have both scored well in the past and can make appearances here, but Larson must make the lineup. She has been one of the best floor elites in recent years and made a Worlds team solely for her strength on floor. It’s preposterous that she’s not even competing it in NCAA, and that must change.
Both Danusia Francis and Sophina DeJesus need to be in this lineup as well. They have been given the best choreography on the team; it’s just a matter of the tumbling. I’m not confident in DeJesus’s tumbling at all, but she can probably be a strong enough dancer to make up for it even if there are breaks in skills. More so than on any other event, these freshmen will help UCLA remain near the top of the rankings.
It was always going to be a struggle for UCLA to win the title this season against such formidable opposition. The loss of Lee made it less likely, and the loss of Peszek made it unlikely. The Bruins are still a Super Six team, but they are going to need help to win a title. If they perform to their absolute best at Super Six, they can still be defeated by a couple of teams.
Bringing Lee back on two events will be crucial, but getting Mattie Larson to arrive will be even more crucial. Even with the graduations and injuries, this team has enough gymnasts that can be absolutely thrilling to make it an entertaining season, one that will still surely be packed with more than a few 197s. If we’re hearing a lot about Courtney and Sawa and Pritchett, then this will probably be a 5th-place season, but if we’re hearing about Larson, Francis, Wong, and Lee, the streak of top-three finishes can and should continue.