Any list of the top five NCAA gymnastics cliches must include “It’s all about the team,” otherwise either you’re not trying hard enough or you’re trying too hard to be unique. I see right through that. For now, let’s spend a moment making it not about the team. I hope you can handle it.
The main event of semifinals day is always the actual qualification to Super Six, but tracking the individual all-around standings can be a fun little side story. The 2012 AA competition was rather unique in how many legitimate contenders there were, with what felt like a million at least fairly realistic title pursuers. While there are a bunch hanging around again this year, I don’t see this competition as quite so inclusive. There are just a couple clear frontrunners this season, and I have broken them down (emotionally) below.
I considered previewing the event finals alongside the AA, but the event qualification is such a crapshoot that I’m holding off until we know who has advanced. I could go through all the favorites for each event, and then none of them could qualify to finals. This is especially true for vault where I can count literally thirty people who could advance to finals. As discussed last December, gymnasts will perform only one vault in event finals instead of the usual two. This will serve to eliminate the Yurchenko layout parade, but it also probably ensures that the most boring Yfull will win over vaults with more difficulty and originality. One hundred points to any gymnast that goes for difficulty (safely) even if it costs her the title.
In the all-around, Kytra Hunter won the title last year with a 39.725. I think it is going to take at least that and probably higher to win this year, so gymnasts should be evaluated on their potential to reach that level. While there are many strong AAers, there are far fewer who can realistically break into the 39.650-39.700 plateau.
The most dangerous competitors in the first session will be from (shock!) Florida, and defending champion Kytra Hunter is the best bet. On vault and floor, she has gone beyond being 9.950-capable to being 9.950-likely. This season, she has also improved her form and landing consistency on bars to make that event less of a weakness. Beam is still a little susceptible to wobbles, but if she hits it, she will be in the 39.7s again. Her 39.800 is the highest AA score recorded in this season. I wouldn’t bet against her to repeat.
Bridget Sloan is not far behind Hunter at all in terms of scoring potential, and if she stays healthy, she will have to be a favorite to win an AA title at some point in her career. This year, I think she is hampered a little too much by her early positions in lineups. Other than bars, where she has the edge on Hunter, she competes in the early half of the lineup, so she won’t have the benefit of the team to build her up. She’s a bit more likely to get 9.900s to Hunter’s 9.950s.
Now that Johnson has returned on bars, Dickerson is out of the AA. However, after Stageberg’s injury, Marissa King has pranced through the revolving door of lineups right into the position of all-around contender even though she has been back on all four events for approximately eleven seconds. If she hits beam and floor to capability, those will be her starring scores. Her bars routine can be very nice but perhaps a little too 9.850y too often, and even though it seems crazy, her amazing vault may her biggest AA obstacle for reasons already discussed in the Florida preview. I would be the happiest little gentleman in gymnastics-dom if she won the title, but if she is actually scoring in the 39.7s at this meet, it probably means Sloan and Hunter will be closing in on 39.8.
Also contending in this session is LSU’s Rheagan Courville, and she is not one to be overlooked. She received a 10 on vault at SECs, and is certainly an event finals candidate on floor, where her strong tumbling mixed with a very 9.9y preceding lineup can bring her some big numbers. The beam routine is an interesting creature. It’s amazing, a perfect mix of difficult acro and hit dance elements, but is still risky enough to be a wobble concern. Remember, this is NCAA. A balance check is enough to lose the AA title. She had a bars fall at regionals, but she has fixed her shoot to high bar after problems early in the year, so if she gets through the routine, it may not bring her down to the degree it might have earlier.
Ivana Hong‘s gymnastics makes everything better, and she makes it very difficult for the judges to take anything from her routines. Both of the last postseasons, she has gotten that Yfull down to a science, so expect another 9.950. And beam, I mean . . . come on. The troubles for her winning the title will be bars and floor. With that compact little form of hers, I thought floor would be a crowning achievement for her in NCAA, but injury concerns have kept her from excelling or gaining consistency. Bars can certainly be great as well (and the coaching staff has done wonders with her DLO), but that damn tkatchev will be the death of me. She’s worth so much more than that skill that I wish it would just go away.
This year, there are a number of individual competitors who would have been major contenders for the AA title had they qualified with teams. Chief among them are Emily Wong and Jessie DeZiel of Nebraska and Sharaya Musser of Penn State. All three have reached at least 39.650 this season, but the odds are against them now. They will be competing in the first session and have the added challenge of doing so without their teams, which can be a problem both because of the absence of team scoring and because of the fundamental change in environment in competition and training. It must have been difficult to stay motivated this past week and a half now that the rest of the team has nothing to train for. Occasionally, seniors in this position become sentimental favorites (see McCool on beam in 2010), but with a number of other big scorers around, it will be difficult for these three to beat everyone.
Because they don’t boast the same scoring potential, it will be even more challenging for other individuals in both sessions like Aubree Cristello, Caitlin Atkinson, Bri Guy, and Chelsea Tang to make a dent.
A few other prominent AAers from the first session will probably peck around the 39.500 mark, but they either have one weak event or enough 9.850s in their repertoire that it seems very unlikely that they will suddenly outscore a crop of other 39.7ers. Among them are Brittany Rogers of Georgia, Jessie Jordan of LSU, Ashley Morgan of Stanford and Alina Weinstein of Illinois. Top-ten finishes are possible for all, but the title will be too far.
If you’re looking for an underdog to support in this session, might I offer Lindsay Mable of Minnesota? She is ranked 14th in the country in the AA and scored a (granted, friendly) season-high 39.600 at regionals. Her vault was spectacular, and her beam and floor work is probably the strongest on the team. Breaks on bars will keep her down in the rankings, but she is certainly one to watch.
If the first session feels like it begins and ends with Florida, the second session may begin and end with Vanessa Zamarripa. She’s a fifth-year senior competing at a home nationals, and she also just happens to be Vanessa Zamarripa. That’s enough to make her a favorite for the title. A lot will depend on the foot and the ability to stick. If she’s getting her landings, vault and bars can realistically be assumed as a 10 and a 9.950. Beam started well this season but had begun to deteriorate even before the regionals fall, so that will be the key routine. She often has to steady herself out of the onodi for what becomes an unexpectedly notable wobble, so watch that skill in particular. Zamarripa and Hunter are the only ones in this competition who can go 39.650+ on a blah day, which makes them very dangerous for the title even when just mostly hitting.
If Zamarripa doesn’t get it done, the next most likely gymnasts to take advantage of being in the second session are Joanna Sampson and Katherine Grable. Even though regionals didn’t go exactly to plan, Sampson has been excellent all year on vault and floor, and until the last few weeks, she was among the most reliable floor 9.950s in the country. If that routine isn’t back on, she won’t be in the conversation, but if it is, she could be one stellar beam routine away from a major finish. I still think she is a bit too 9.825 on beam too often to win, but it just takes one wobble-free routine at the right time to make that concern go away. Also, don’t count out Sampson’s teammate Katie Zurales. She’s just coming back from injury but is very 9.900 on three events. A 9.850 on floor probably takes her out of it, but she is one to root for if some of the favorites are out of sorts.
For much of the season, it appeared that Katherine Grable was not having the same kind of season she did last year, but she blew that concern away with her 9.950 parade at regionals. Like the majority of people contending in this competition, vault and floor look to be the booster scores. Those routines are both creative and spectacular and completely deserving of those 9.950s. Beam is also quite strong but buried in the leadoff position, and bars is unlikely to get the 9.900+ she would need to win.
Other than those three, the second session is much sparser in terms of viable AA candidates, largely because Oklahoma and Alabama are still undergoing some shifting lineups and are not particularly reliant on AAers this season. For Oklahoma, Keeley Kmieciak is capable of doing the AA but is still coming back from the tonsillectomy and is unlikely to compete floor. Brie Olson has also scored very well this year, but has been removed from beam. That leaves Taylor Spears as Oklahoma’s lone viable candidate. Spears should have no trouble bringing in a big score for her stellar beam work, and bars and floor aren’t too shabby either (though the early spot in the floor lineup could hurt). Vault is not as much her event, and even her best ones are probably going to get 9.850-9.875s, which is very difficult to recover from in a title context. I’m fairly comfortable with her top-ten potential, but the title will be too tough.
Alabama had two AAers at regionals in Kim Jacob and Ashley Priess, but it’s entirely possible that neither will compete AA at nationals. If Gutierrez and Sledge are able to go on vault, both Jacob and Priess may come out. Priess, however, might have earned her vault spot with a 9.900 at regionals, the second-highest score of the rotation. Even if Jacob competes AA, she is a two-event standout on beam and floor and likely won’t keep up on vault and bars. Priess has the talent, certainly, but may find it difficult to eke out big numbers on vault and floor from early lineup positions. I think a lot of people will be rooting for Priess if she does end up competing AA, but she’ll need help to win.
A couple mostly two-event gymnasts, Olivia Courtney for UCLA and Tory Wilson for Utah, will stick around much like the crop of 39.500ers from the first semifinal. Georgia Dabritz is also not one to be overlooked in this meet. With three potential 9.900 events, she can be right in it with many of the favorites, but it’s too hard to get past that beam consistency to consider her one of the major AA contenders.