[Yes, I originally wrote “Normal Regional Preview” because I am amazing.]
Oklahoma hosts the second regional, which features Stanford and Penn State as the seeded contenders and Washington, Iowa, and Southern Utah as the whippersnappers. This will be first meet to begin (5 ET/2 PT), so we should all get a good look at these teams before the madness begins.
Rotation order (starting event):
 Oklahoma (vault)
 Stanford (bye before bars)
 Penn State (bye before floor)
 Washington (floor)
 Iowa (bars)
 Southern Utah (beam)
The Oklahoma Sooners enter regionals as the #2 seed for the second consecutive year but boast a much healthier crop of gymnasts this time. Last year, Oklahoma was forced to hobble to the finish with a slapped together roster (I’m pretty sure at least one member of the vault lineup was just a roll of masking tape), but the harrowing injury to Kayla Nowak during preseason appears to have scared off whatever Babylonian trickster god was plaguing the team. The only major issue since has been Keeley Kmieciak’s tonsillectomy, and she is expected to return shortly.
The Sooners spent a large part of the regular season trading the #1 ranking with Florida, but for the last few weeks they have not garnered the same attention as Florida or Alabama because that’s just how fickle we can be. Oklahoma fell tamely to Alabama in the final meet of the regular season after a barrage of landing steps and followed that performance by counting a beam fall at a noncompetitive conference championship. That’s part of the trouble of being a big fish in a three-team pond: the Sooners can only meet expectations. Even if they had managed a 198, it still would have been “only Big 12s.”
It’s difficult to know what to make of Oklahoma’s recent beam issues, but while the Big 12s saw the first counting fall of the season, this had been building for quite some time and may qualify as a trend. People, me included, have spent the last few seasons singing the praises of KJ and company and how confident, creative, and secure these beam routines are. It’s therefore easy to adhere to that narrative and discount any beam situation as a random passing complaint that will be taken care of by the time things matter. That may very well be the case, but the team must rebound at regionals to prove it. They cannot arrive at nationals with one hit beam rotation in the last six and still claim to be the beam team.
Like Florida, it would take an upset of extreme severity for Oklahoma to finish out of the money at a home regional. They’re far too talented for that. The team could likely count a fall and still advance, but watch those beam routines, particularly the one from Olson who has struggled lately (3 falls in 5). She has the most difficult routine on the team and is not a natural beamer like some of the rest.
The other question for the Sooners is how the much-improved vault and floor routines will compare with those of the most powerful teams, especially if the landings aren’t pristine (as we saw at Alabama). However, they are quite clearly the strongest team on both vault and floor at this meet and will be competing at home, so I don’t anticipate a helpful answer to that question until nationals.
Oh Stanford, what are we going to do with you? You have so many routines that promise to be stellar, and yet the lack of depth and consistency make you much more troubling than you should be. The team is coming off two consecutive ragged showings that were brought down by a flurry of 9.6s and 9.7s. If Stanford is to go out in this round, which I’m not predicting, it will be because of 9.6s not necessarily 9.3s.
Stanford isn’t flush with routines at the best of times, and the promise of a new Hong, Shapiro, and Vaculik triumvirate to replace the scoring potential of Pechanec and Brown has not been fulfilled. Shapiro has been essentially a one-event gymnast, and the consistency problems that plagued Vaculik’s first year have returned. Without these three carrying a large load, the team is stretched too thin to afford losses of 9.8ers like Chuang and Hanset, which accounted for the variant performance at Pac-12s.
Stanford has enough talent and enough 9.9s in Hong and Ashley Morgan and supporting routines like Spinner’s beam and Dayton’s vault that the rest of the team doesn’t have to be magnificent. Just give me a hits bars routine from Vaculik and six competition-ready, 10.0 routines on vault and floor, and I like this team to finish a comfortable second. The way things have been going, however, that isn’t a given.
Still, Stanford should be encouraged that an off meet at Pac-12s earned a 196.6, while Penn State has to be in fine form to match that number. Penn State has been capable of reaching that level at home, though, so I expect this to be a rather compelling meet. To make it so, the Nittany Lions must display that same home scoring capability on the road. At Big 10s, Penn State showed 10 routines that scored under 9.8, and that cannot be the case again.
This is a bit of a last gasp season for Penn State because, well, what are they going to do next year without Musser and Merriam? If they’re going to make nationals, this is the year, and it cannot be done without Merriam going 9.875 on three events and Musser going at least 39.500 in the AA. If that doesn’t happen, Stanford should feel very comfortable in its position. If it does, however, the meet should come down to the weaker routines in the power rotations, where Penn State may find a door swinging open.
If Stanford is forced to show those 9.650s that have been creeping into the early halves of the vault and floor rotations, then Penn State may be able to cultivate an advantage even with 9.800s in matching positions. PSU begins on floor and vault while Stanford begins on bars and beam. Stanford has enough 9.9s throughout the bars and beam lineups that they should have the lead halfway through, but if Penn State records some countable 9.800s instead of dropable 9.750s in the first three routines on vault and floor, they will have a chance to make up ground when Stanford arrives there.
It’s a bit unfair to Washington to relegate them to this section because they’re not completely out of this, but I don’t see it happening this year. The Huskies were the only team that actually showed up in the first session of Pac-12s, and even they had a miserable vault rotation. Beam was quite delightful, however, and success there could help them prey on the inconsistency of others. Lauren Rogers is a gem, so even if Washington doesn’t contend, watch for her to advance to nationals as an AAer. I like Musser and Rogers to take those individual spots in a walk if things go otherwise as seeded.
Iowa is not a poor team at all on three events and has enough 9.8s to keep things within reason on vault, bars, and floor. In fact, they are ranked higher than Washington on all three of those pieces and would be a clear 196 team contending for a third seed if they could just vault twice instead of having to do beam. Unfortunately, beam is a thing and appears likely to push Iowa out of the meet after the second rotation. The Hawkeyes have not reached 48.800 on the apparatus this year.
Like most bottom seeds, Southern Utah is happy to advance this far. The Thunderbirds are unlikely to qualify an individual competitor but can overtake one of the lower teams like Iowa with four hit rotations in the high 48s, which will be the goal here.