And so we arrive at the top with the defending champions.
In contrast to Florida, which has received an influx of major talent, and UCLA, which has lost so many routines, Alabama should remain the most intact from last season. Geralen Stack-Eaton leaves a void that will need to be filled on each event, but that’s just one routine per apparatus. There are plenty of other 9.9s sticking around, and I would not be surprised at all to see the other five workers on each event remain the same. That’s a strong group, a championship-winning group, and there’s little need to rearrange things and little evidence that there are better options.
The two new freshmen, Lauren Beers and Carley Sims, are both possible contributors. Beers could come in on any event and Sims could compete on vault and floor, but neither will be an automatic replacement for Stack-Eaton in the later positions on all the events. I expect Sims to compete a few routines and potentially make a lineup, and Beers will dabble on most events and make a couple lineups.
Alabama is not suddenly going to be a different team or even a better team than last year, but matching the 2012 performance is possible. The concern for Alabama is that simply staying as good is often not enough to win the title. The championship team from 2011 would not have come close to winning the title in 2012. The team improved, most notably in those first and second spots on most events. Florida is going to be a more formidable opponent, so where does that improvement lie this year?
Surpassing Florida’s scoring potential is going to be a rough task, but the landings on vault will be one of the most important areas where Alabama can establish an edge. This team is somewhat more capable of producing a lineup that sticks every time, and those will be valuable .05s come the postseason.
I see very little danger of an Alabama vaulting team that scores below 49.400. There are too many powerful Yurchenkos in this group so that even those who don’t land precisely can still score 9.850. Even when Diandra Milliner vaults poorly by her standards, her only deductions are .050 for bent knees and .100 for the landing. She should anchor again, supported by Gutierrez who has my favorite full on the team now and who will also only very rarely go below 9.900.
There will be options for the rest of the spots, but Kayla Williams needs to be deep in that lineup. I’d love to see the 1.5 manifest in competition, but regardless of which vault she performs, she is too talented and powerful to be settling for a perfectly fine vault that maxes out at 9.900 in the leadoff spot. Someone who has done this should be contending for 10s.
Ashley Sledge is a good bet for one of the earlier spots, but she does have a bit more trouble controlling her vault and ventures down to 9.850 more often than the others, so keep an eye on that. Depending on her sturdiness at this point, Priess should also be vaulting with a proven 9.875. The team does have enough depth that, if it becomes necessary to save Priess for bars and beam, they can do so without losing much. Kaitlyn Clark is another option, but keep an eye on both Beers and Sims for spots in this lineup. Beers has a 1.5, and both have strong potential for 9.9s. They will contend fiercely for spots, likely over some of the supporting 9.850 sisters. I expect multiple scores over 49.500 this year, both at home and away.
This rotation is the single biggest reason that Florida is the favorite over Alabama for the title this year. Stack-Eaton was crucial to this lineup, and without her, Alabama has only two proven 9.9s, Priess and Sledge. Both Priess and Sledge should score well, but they are not guaranteed those 9.9s every week. Both have been known to have moments where they dip into the 9.8 territory, and both are unlikely to come up with 9.950s that can save a weaker performance from an earlier gymnast.
The rest of the team is a perfectly acceptable but ultimately pedestrian 9.850 parade, and it’s quite likely that without another standout emerging, this rotation will frequently score in that dreaded 49.250–49.300 level that provokes adjectives like good, fine, regular, and solid. I’m not convinced by any of the returners who didn’t make the lineup last season, so I expect the group to remain the same with everyone jumping up a peg to replace Stack-Eaton and with Beers coming in somewhere in the beginning. Apparently, some of these early 9.850s are adding difficulty this year, which is commendable, but I am yet to be sold on any increased scoring potential. When Florida has Sloan or Mackenzie Caquatto in the 4th position and Alabama is countering with Clark or Beers, a definite scoring disparity emerges.
Alabama absolutely won the beam award at Championships last year (recovering from that trauma at SECs) on the strength of 9.900s from everyone who has ever lived. Even more than on bars, I expect this lineup to stay intact because it worked last year and because the freshmen are not stellar enough on this event to change things. Someone has to come in and replace Stack-Eaton, and there is discussion that it will be Kaitlyn Clark, though she rarely competed last year.
I would prefer to see Ashley Sledge and Marissa Gutierrez compete on this event because they are my favorite gymnasts on the team, but I also recognize how misguided that is. There are enough Alabama beamers who feel comfortable up there and would require some kind of gale force wind to be removed from the apparatus that there is no need to put up any heart attack routines. My one concern is perhaps Milliner because she always works beam with a facial expression somewhere in the realm of nervous collapse/possessed by a ghoul, but it seems to work for her because she doesn’t really fall.
The lineup order should change, though, since it won’t be necessary to bury Kim Jacob in that leadoff position and stunt her score. Yes, we know she can hit, but they all can hit. Anyone could take that leadoff spot and do well after some experience. Jacob can be a 9.950 and should probably be performing in the 5th position right behind Priess. Demeo will probably be in the later part of the lineup as well, but I’d actually consider putting her earlier. Because it’s so difficult to stick a double pike, Demeo has a lower scoring ceiling than does someone like Jacob, so it’s less likely that she would be the beneficiary of score building. Plus, I love starting out a rotation with a showpiece skill.
It’s Alabama and floor. We know there will be power. We know there will be big scores. Success here is not, however, a given. I’d like to see a bit more turnover in this rotation than on some of the other events because there is no need to settle for scores below 9.900. Kayla Williams needs to be in this lineup. There is no way she isn’t one of the best tumblers on the team, so the coaches need to wrench a competition-worthy performance out of her somehow. Going on talent, she should score up there with the best in the country
Gutierrez has an excellent routine and will be deep in this lineup, and Milliner is strong enough to get those 9.9s consistently. I don’t think any other position is certain. Ashley Priess could be here, but her tumbling doesn’t match that of some of her teammates. It’s only going to get more difficult for her. Just like on beam, I think Kim Jacob’s score gets stunted by going first. She’s one of the better floor performers on the team, and I would prefer her here over even Priess if that’s the choice. Ideally, I’d have both of them in the lineup along with Lauren Beers (I’ve almost written Cortni Beers every single time), but that does oust Ashley Sledge. It’s sort of crazy that she doesn’t have more impressive tumbling, but her routine has not been 9.9-worthy in the past. Until she gets to that level, she’s not one of my top six.
Floor is the other strong event for Carley Sims. She may not be needed this year but likely will be next year, so I’d expect to see her get some competition time early in the season. Lora Leigh Frost is another possibility, but her consistency didn’t convince me at all last year. She’s sort of the Becca Alexin of floor, the one who has the skills and positive qualities but probably shouldn’t be in the lineup in an ideal situation. This is another potentially 49.400-49.500 event, but the gymnast selection will be key. Who are the judges going to be willing to crown with 9.9s?
It would be quite remarkable if this Alabama team were to win three consecutive championships. As of now, it’s possible but not the most likely scenario. As I mentioned on vault, if everything remains in its current state of health, Alabama’s best route to beating Florida is by being better stickers. It’s been two championships in a row now that Alabama has won on the strength of superior landings. If Florida can’t get them together, the Gators may find themselves falling short again. As we get into March, compare the landings. It will tell us a great deal.
I think there are enough 9.9s on this team that the disappeared scoring potential of Stack-Eaton won’t feel like a major loss. There should still be gymnasts to come into that 5th position on each event and get a 9.900. I don’t anticipate that Alabama will be in need of a star to save the day, but if the routines that are coming in to each event to replace GSE are the dropped scores, then there could be a problem in overall scoring potential. Watch out for that as well as the scores of the 9.850 brigade on bars. If they become even the 9.875 brigade this season, bars might be a survivable rotation.