You can smell it, can’t you? The session of weird. The fact that I deeming the night semifinal the session of weird probably confirms that it will be everything but weird, yet what makes this semifinal so interesting is that it has no normal, no expectation. In the first semifinal, it’s quite possible that the bottom three seeds will fall away early on and Florida, Georgia, and LSU will slide through by heaps of tenths, but if the top three seeds advance from the second session, that would still be strange and interesting. What happened to Michigan, then?
There is much less order and safety in this session, so previewing the action is less about what one certain team needs to do to pass one other certain team. They could all fall in so many different arrangements that, for every team, it will come down to getting those borderline 9.9 routines up into the secure 9.9s and avoiding counting any 9.7s. All six teams have at least a couple concerns in both of those categories.
The Wolverines, perhaps alone among the title non-favorites, have not suffered a meltdown this year. Tellingly, they would be the #4 seed at these nationals if we were going solely by season average because they have so consistently hovered around 197 this year. And yet without huge 198s propping them up, they have continued to drop slowly down the actual rankings to this lowly 7th position. It seems a strange place since this team is too mid-197 capable to be considered an underdog.
Michigan will be encouraged by the fact that they had an overall sluggish regional performance and yet still scored within range of the closest competition, .225 behind UCLA and Arkansas. With the Zamarripa foot questions, Michigan should feel that Super Six is a very attainable possibility this year with a hit meet. At regionals, vault received underscores across the rotation by about .025-.050 per routine, so expect some larger numbers at nationals. This team is very capable of sticking for a rash of 9.9s. I would pick Alabama to win vault in this session, but Michigan lands well enough and has enough talent early in the lineup from Zurales and Beilstein to take that second spot, which would be a tremendous boost, one that may be necessary because of beam and, now apparently, floor.
Michigan didn’t floor to the best of their floorability at Big 10s, and I dismissed it as uncharacteristic and therefore irrelevant, but the same thing happened at regionals. There’s a bit of a question mark in that second spot with Colbert/Casanova. Neither is too reliable, so more pressure is put on the other five. Sampson had a near-fall at regionals as well, and there goes the rotation score. Sampson is too delightfully 9.950 to be anything but for this team, and they all will need to channel their performances from last time they were at UCLA. It may potentially hurt scoring potential to have Beilstein buried in that opening position, but she still has been scoring well most weeks. This is a strong floor session overall, and Michigan absolutely cannot afford another low 49 when others are going 49.500.
Speaking of low 49s, the Wolverines squeaked through beam again at regionals. The opening fall from Gies opened up a couple counting 9.7s, but Miele came through in a big way for 9.875 and Zurales scored 9.900. Everyone in that lineup makes me nervous except Sampson and Zurales. Casanova anchored at regionals, which is always a risky game for a question-mark routine. The Michigan and UCLA beam performances in the first two rotations will define the session. UCLA probably needs to beat Michigan by multiple tenths. Michigan’s victory would be counting nothing below a 9.800.
Before beam, the Wolverines open on bars, which can be a great event for them. This team has mastered the art of powerful but clean. Often, powerful bars workers are all over the place with the form, but this team is not. Zurales should be back in the lineup, which can only help the scoring potential. This bars rotation has the potential to win the session but should certainly be in the top three regardless of sticks. It is much, much more reliable than UCLA or Utah’s, especially in the landings, and a lead can be established here. If Michigan is even at 98.650 after bars and beam, they will probably need to be just regular on the remaining events.
The importance of this happening cannot be overestimated.
Because of the depth of this session, most have written off the Utes in favor of constructing this as a Michigan/UCLA showdown, but this is Utah. In spite of the drop off in quality over the last four seasons in the post-Baskett era, they have still managed to trundle into Super Six every time, often when picked to be eliminated. This semifinal will be an even bigger test.
Utah isn’t expected to contend with the other teams largely because this team lacks the heartiness of past Utah squads, much less depth than usual, and because of the rough regionals score of 196.400. Some brush off that low score because of harsh judging on the beam the level of which Utah has not seen this season, but it cannot be so easily dismissed. To my eye, the Utah beam routines ended up being underscored by about .075 (some more .050, others more .100). Add it up, and that’s still not a great score. In a session where beam questions can be asked about nearly every team, that usual Utah sturdiness could have been an asset to take advantage of others’ mistakes, but not this team, not this year. The Utes will end on beam, meaning Dabritz, with all her consistency issues, could be the deciding performance for Utah’s 2013 fate. It’s not one to be missed, I’ll say that.
There are many teams in both sessions that just have to get through beam, and if Utah can do that to the same level as the likes of Michigan, they will still be in contention. The Utes, however, do not have the potential bars scores that the Wolverines do, so that does put a bit more pressure on the beam. In many ways, Utah will have to adopt that LSU/Minnesota strategy of building up an advantage on vault and floor and riding it through the other events. Utah begins on those better events, so expect them to be very competitive early. They will need an advantage to help them through beam, probably something around 98.800 after two events to feel competitive.
That strategy is dependent on hitting floor exceptionally well, so the regionals performance on floor may be even more troubling than the performance on beam, especially because there was no observable underscoring on floor. The routines that received the lower scores had clear mistakes, and even Tutka missed her mount landing to bring her down to a 9.850. Every single team in this rotation is capable of anchoring floor with a 9.950, so anchor 9.850s no longer cut it. In fact, that goes for every team on nearly every event. Who is getting your 9.950s? It has to be someone.
The regionals score of 196.950 for the Razorbacks was rather unexpected. They were always going to be in the meet if one of the top seeds broke down and ran the wagon into a gully as OSU did, but the score itself was the surprising part. It tied UCLA for the third highest regional score from this semifinal session, but that hasn’t translated into more buzz for Arkansas because it more or less reflected the best possible outcome. It’s hard to imagine them doing much better, and it will take 197s to advance here.
Katherine Grable had a total blinder for 39.650, and she will obviously have to do the same again for Arkansas to have a shot at challenging. It’s still going to take another gully affair, but that’s what Arkansas has to play for. Grable gets many more 9.8s from the rest of her team than Alina Weinstein does at Illinois, which makes Arkansas more likely to contend, but everything still rides a bit too much on her shoulders. Last year, it took Best Actress Jaime Pisani and Best Supporting Actress Katherine Grable to push this team into Super Six after pouncing on Georgia’s mistakes, and while Grable has certainly earned her promotion to the lead category, she still doesn’t have that brassy, wise-cracking assistant to play off. There are some potential 9.850-9.875s here and there, but nothing else significant.
At regionals, Arkansas got through what we would have expected to be rough routines very well. Freier’s 9.800 on vault helped that event become a legitimate six-gymnast rotation, and the team was able to drop Glover’s early disaster on bars. Beam was a get-through, and I wouldn’t expect the same kind of scoring at nationals. Of the three lower seeds, Arkansas does have the best routine in Grable’s, but the middle of the lineup will get hit for form in addition to balance issues, which makes it unlikely that they will gain an advantage there. The Razorbacks begin on vault, which has been a struggle this year. Given the 49.400+ scores I expect there in this session, they desperately need another 49.250 or greater to stay in the conversation. Anything lower and it’s hard to envision them staying in without a basket of other falls.
Grable’s individual exploits may be the most interesting facet of Arkansas’s semifinal performance. She could realistically contend for a title everywhere except bars. If Zamarripa isn’t landing well because of the foot, Grable may also utilize that advantageous evening AA position to challenge for the win, but watch for Sampson as well.