If the 4, 5, and 6 seeds in the first semifinal have to manage the pressure of producing a season-best performance while also hoping for a little bit of help, the 1, 2, and 3 seeds have to manage the pressure of a sparkling Super Six opportunity, which may be even more difficult. For these three seeds, given this draw and what they have done so far, anything less than Super Six will make this a disappointing season.
Viewing the twelve nationals competitors as a whole, Georgia and LSU would not necessarily have seemed destined to make Super Six or have had their names associated with the word “lock,” but the draw has thrust both into the position of being top teams, and it has been several years since either has confidently claimed that status. Georgia found itself in a similar position last year, a clear favorite to advance out of the softer semifinal, and crumbled on beam. This semifinal this year will largely hinge on how well Georgia and LSU avoid the crumble.
But first, the team everyone agrees should make it out of the first day rather comfortably.
For the Gators, perhaps alone in this semifinal, the focus must be on winning the title instead of simply advancing. Making Super Six should be routine for this team and would not be considered an accomplishment. As with any team, the possibility of missing still remains, but it would take an implosion, not just an off meet. This Gator team has little recent precedent for implosion, so “what Florida must do to advance” is not a topic interesting enough to be worth addressing.
What Florida must do to win the championship is much more relevant. Even though this team is more talented than last year’s team, the scenario is, in many ways, similar. The Gators must land perfectly to win the title, especially on vault and floor. While the attention from Super Six last year often goes to Florida’s landings on floor in that last rotation, which did not match Alabama’s beam performance, vault was the single biggest deficit for the Gators, not floor. They did not vault poorly, but they opened with two 9.850s and finished with an uncharacteristic 9.850 from Hunter. Hunter’s normal vault is a tenth better than that, which made the difference between first and second.
This year’s Florida team has improved on vault because of the introduction of Sloan and the reintroduction of Macko to the lineup, now boasting five clear 9.9-capable routines. No one other than Kytra, however, can hope to go higher than a 9.900 without a stick, so control on the landings is paramount for winning a championship. Few teams vaulted up to potential on regionals day, when Florida posted the nation’s highest score on the event, but we can expect the standard to be much higher at nationals. Because of the advantage on bars, where no one has nearly as many 9.9s as Florida, staying even with the other top teams will be good enough on vault, but doing so will likely require three out of four stuck landings from the middle pack of Johnson, Sloan, King, and Dickerson.
Detour: Marissa King’s vault is in interesting case. It’s stellar, obviously, and ranks among my favorite pieces of gymnastics being done in NCAA right now, but the scoring is tricky. In the press conference, Gymcastic asked a good question about the vault that elicited a detailed and thoughtful response (In gymnastics? Well, I never!) from Rhonda. I agree with Rhonda here. King’s amplitude is lower than what we would see for the best Yfulls, but hers is not a disproportionately low vault. If it were, she wouldn’t be able to complete the 1.5 twists so comfortably. I will add, though, that because of the complexity of the vault, the comparative lack of amplitude, and the forward landing, it lends itself to larger landing faults. When she doesn’t quite stick the vault, she is often hopping forward/sideward with both legs, incurring larger deductions than a dainty, controlled step out of a Yfull would receive. It’s a challenge for her to keep the vault in the 9.9 range when she doesn’t stick, even when the judges are happy with everything else.
While there is reason to be concerned about every team on beam because it’s beam, Florida has among the fewest built-in deductions in the country and should feel rather comfortable after some early-season issues. King came in flawlessly for Stageberg at regionals and has actually upgraded the scoring potential for the team. Ideally, both would have been in the lineup, but I was a bit surprised that the team gave up on King’s potential score so early in the season. She must really have been struggling with consistency in training. They are better for having her in the lineup. I’ll also be paying close attention to Sloan, especially on the first day. In her younger days, Bridget Sloan had a bit of a history of falling on the first day of a two-day competition and hitting on the second day. Is the curse gone?
So far this postseason, the floor landings are a world better than they were last year when the Gators were getting all those 49.2s leading up to championships, which meant that the 49.400 from Super Six seemed like an improvement even though it was still well under potential. There are fewer reasons to be concerned about those landings given the parade of 49.500+ scores coming in over recent weeks. Having to use Bridgey Caquatto is a tad nerve-wracking since she has barely competed any hit routines this year, but it worked at regionals. They buried her at the back of the lineup because of that concern, but that’s not the ideal rotation order for nationals. Hunter needs to be anchoring and contending for 10s.
This is the Gators’ year to win the title. That’s not to say they can’t win in the coming years as well, but it’s going to get much harder. King and Dickerson have been hugely influential by being able to put up late-lineup routines on every event every week. They have been the constants. After this year, Florida will become more reliant on former US international elites with medical files that are veritable page-turners. Will they be able to absorb an injury like Johnson’s again or be so conservative with Macko’s legs next year without the stalwart King and Dickerson?
For a team that hasn’t made Super Six since 2009, it’s impossible to look past this stage with any confidence. There have been too many recent collapses. If Durante can get the team to Super Six in her first year, she will be hailed as the savior of the program and should buy herself a few years of “things are back on track” goodwill.
Last year, the Gymdogs found themselves in a comfortable position in semifinals and could have even counted one beam fall and still contended for Super Six (it was the second counting fall that did it). Couple those memories with the early-season disasters on beam this year, and it’s hard to look anywhere past beam in evaluating Georgia’s chances. Georgia fans will have “please not again” face during the whole rotation. However, “fear the beam monster” is an overly simplistic evaluation of Georgia’s semifinal status. Those early beam issues were a strong, easy narrative that has been difficult to break down, but if you haven’t been paying attention, you might not know that beam has been Georgia’s best event for about a month now. The composition issues for Brittany Rogers are a distant memory (and Shayla is competing 9.9 routines every week now), but the unsung hero of that turnaround has been Sarah Persinger. She was a bundle of 9.7y nerves most of the early season, but now she is competing calm, clean, elegant gymnastics in the leadoff position and earned that 9.900 from regionals. That L turn of hers, you could serve it in a French restaurant. It’s beautiful.
In fact, after a stellar opening to the year on the event, vault may now be the biggest scoring concern for Georgia. The performances at both SECs and regionals were marred by lackluster 49.2s on the event. If this semifinal gets tight, another 49.200 would be problematic given the strength of Florida, LSU, and Minnesota there. Georgia is a little too susceptible to finishing fourth or even fifth on vault and cannot afford a deficit that could be exploited if they have another slightly off rotation. The key vaults come from Rogers and Jay. Like Marissa King, they are a bit too likely to incur large landing deductions for their 1.5s when they don’t stick, and too often we have seen 9.850s from them. An anchor 9.850 is deadly when it comes down to the best teams. Both Jay and Rogers are capable of sticking and need to do so to keep the meet comfortable. If Noel Couch is able to go, an early stick from her would also do wonders in bumping up the scores for the rest of the rotation.
If the Gymdogs are to advance out of this semifinal, as I expect them to do, they will look to have something close to a 98.700-98.800 after the opening two events, bars and beam. If so, they should be home free. Minnesota also opens on bars and beam and is highly unlikely to match that number, which should give Georgia a little bit of a buffer if the Gophers close the gap on vault. A lead of .400 or so at the halfway point over Minnesota and Stanford will probably be unassailable. In order to achieve that, the bars landings must be in place. Georgia got the sticks from Rogers and Davis at the end of the lineup at regionals, but they need them earlier to avoid a 9.825 parade. Cheek and Tanella are very capable of sticking those dismounts and need to do so to keep the scores up.
Before the season began, I had LSU at #9 in my preseason rankings, and I thought I was being all cavalier and generous to this team that had been on the periphery of the conversation for several years. As it turns out, I probably underestimated them. At the time, I also said they were an acceptable bars rotation away from contending for Super Six. If regionals serves as any indication, that continues to be the case.
One of the reasons I feel more comfortable about LSU advancing to Super Six than I would have been even a few weeks ago (aside from the draw) is the beam performance from regionals. That was as well as LSU can do on beam, and if they have somehow figured out the event just in time, it takes so much pressure off the vault and floor rotations that have had to be phenomenal every time out to keep the scores high. However, a solid meet does not a trend make. I was very surprised that Garcia returned to the leadoff position after her struggles, and hers is still among several uncomfortable routines in this lineup. Of the top seeds in this session, LSU is the most likely to have to count a fall, so watch this rotation very carefully. The Tigers begin on beam, and this rotation more than any other will set the tone for the whole semifinal. A counting fall would blow everything open. Even a low 49 is probably workable because of vault and floor, but no team, regardless of two-event strength, should feel comfortable with two 49.000 rotations.
That’s the major concern for LSU because, at regionals, bars was the much greater problem. The Tigers were done a disservice with some disproportionately high scores on bars early in the season, which masked issues. These were not masked at regionals. Aside from Courville’s fall, these weren’t uncharacteristic or unusual performances. It’s what they’re doing every week. Standing alone, it’s a problem that will keep them from contending for the title, but coupled with a weak beam rotation, it’s a problem that could keep them from advancing. If beam is only OK, it will put a significant amount of pressure on bars to be more than 9.800y. If beam and bars are both 9.800 parades, LSU will be in danger of getting passed by a slow and steady 49.250 of a performance from the likes of Stanford. If LSU arrives at bars in the final rotation with work to do, that work will be done by Courville and Morrison. They are the 9.9 contenders in the bunch, and both need to achieve those scores to make up for the leg form breaks and missed handstands we will see at other points in the rotation.
I haven’t spent much time on LSU’s vault and floor rotations this season because they have been such consistent high scorers. We just expect them both to be 49.500 and carry the team. That is the most likely outcome again, but LSU has more pressure on those landings than any other team because they cannot make up for a lower score on other events. If they are tight and not landing comfortably, even to the tune of a 49.375, the Tigers may be in danger. OK landings and 9.875s will in no way cut it on those events. They need probably seven or eight combined 9.9s on those two events to be safely safe.