Two weeks have already passed since National Championships. How did that happen?
Florida wins the title after being the best team all year. At this point, I have enough distance from the event to thank them for counting a fall on beam because it made everything much more interesting. We can safely (and finally) declare the era of the Big Four over, which has been the unofficial case for years now anyway. Oklahoma is now the best team never to have won a title. Will the call for more teams winning championships drop off now that Florida has won, or will it continue with Oklahoma as the new standard bearer? Five teams is still not that many.
At nationals, a number of the scores were wackadoo, but in general I would classify them as normal wackadoo. Original recipe wackadoo. A couple of the floor scores in Super Six were hyperwackadoo, but they were the exceptions. Slightly more troubling were some of the ranges on scores (primarily scores that ended up being fine because the extreme scores were dropped). There is always going to be crazy scoring in a subjective sport, especially in NCAA gymnastics where the subjectivity is compounded by a somewhat amorphous code of expectations as to which factors get evaluated and which don’t. (“What’s a flexed foot?” they asked innocently.) I’ve always argued that efforts in any level of gymnastics to make skill and routine evaluation more objective and straightforward do more harm than good, like Nellie Kim’s decision that awkward, pointed-toe running = a satisfactory level of artistry. The judges do, however, need to be on the same page. I don’t care if you’re crazy, but you all need to be crazy at the same rate.
Also of note in the scoring department, we saw several floor lineups where the anchor performer was clearly not the strongest worker on the team, and these gymnasts received a notable bounce in the scoring that appeared to be a direct result of being in that last position. This brings up a few issues: (1) The judges need to be more aware of this and refrain from getting overexcited for the last routine simply because it is last, but (2) if the judges don’t do this, the coaches might as well go ahead and exploit it. Artful lineup construction in NCAA can help boost scores. Not enough teams experiment often enough to provide useful comparisons or conclusive evidence, but there are certainly many worthy lineup strategies beyond “order of ascending quality” or “burying the best routine at the beginning for no reason (Alabama).”
I would love to see more teams experiment with how to squeeze the most out of the scoring. I, for one, am a big proponent of opening with a showpiece routine containing major difficulty that isn’t necessarily the cleanest or stuckiest. Respect for difficulty (or even a name) may cause the judges to go a touch higher than they normally would, which then forces them to bump up the scores for the cleaner routines that follow.
But there will be plenty of time to moan about that next season. Speaking of next season, here is a haphazard and way-too-early look at some of the story lines the top teams will be facing now that we can close the 2013 edition:
It will be harder next year. I have to think Florida remains the title favorite since it is difficult to argue against a core of Sloan, Hunter, Johnson, and Caquattuses, but for the first time in several years, the Gators are losing a significant number of top routines and not necessarily replacing them with equivalent freshmen. They will become more reliant on a core of oft-injured elites. Bridgey Caquatto will have to stay healthy and contribute more routines next year, and it will not be as easy for the team to afford losing a gymnast like Johnson for a big chunk of the year or be as conservative with Macko on the leg events. There will be less wiggle room on beam and floor.
Looking toward next season, it may end up being helpful that Sledge and Gutierrez missed time this year in that those injuries prepared people who will be needed next season, like Sims and Jacob on vault. I say they’ll be needed because, comparing the routines graduated versus the routines coming in next year, Alabama will experience a net loss in total routines and scoring potential. This year, the Tide was essentially a Geralen Stack-Eaton away from winning again, but those scores were never replaced after 2012. Will that situation be compounded with the losses of Priess, Gutierrez, Sledge, and Alexin? I think it will. Helpfully, Amanda Jetter is coming in. Health? She will be vital on bars at least after the loss of half that lineup.
The final transition has begun for the Sooners. Next season should confirm that this team has moved from being the best of the second group (perennial preseason #4) to being a full member of the top tier of contenders, one that decides its own fate a little bit more and isn’t as beholden to needing mistakes from the likes of Florida and Alabama. Losing Brie Olson will be a hit, but Charity Jones and McKenzie Wofford are top, 9.9-capable gymnasts on multiple events. I expect the Sooners to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013 and continue to improve on those weaker events.
This will be the unrecognizable team next year. The Bruins are losing half of their routines from Super Six. Usually, that would be cause to expect a plummet, but while it is difficult to project any team to improve that loses a gymnast like Zamarripa, this team is gaining so much next year that improvement is absolutely possible as long as the injury spirits have moved on to another team. Twelve routines will go, but Peszek, Lee, Larson, Mossett, Gerber, and Cipra should contribute far more than twelve as a group. The team shouldn’t have to dig as deep into the routine pool next year and pretend like they are OK with 9.750s.
I have to stop myself from creating potential lineups already. We have many months to go.
Of the others, LSU is young and loses few routines, so expect improvement on this past season. There is still work to do on bars, and watch out for beam where the Tigers are losing the most. That event still looks to be a challenge. Georgia is likewise on the way up but is losing many more major contributors than LSU is. It will be more difficult for the Gymdogs to stay even. Both teams have capable L10 talent coming in, but they aren’t the big-name, AA contributors who will blow up lineups and significantly increase scoring potential.
Utah isn’t bringing in the big recruits next year either, but not losing any seniors mitigates that lack of talent infusion. The Utes can get more out of Hughes and Allex in the coming years and will be praising the return of Corrie Lothrop. She will be the most important force in stabilizing that beamtastrophe and trying to help avert another struggle season. Nebraska is another team hoping to avoid a struggle season in 2014, but the events of 2013 regionals may be a portent. The Huskers are losing some vital routines on multiple events and are not getting those big Gedderts’ recruits for another year. Wong and DeZiel can lead the way with the best of the country, but otherwise the health of several potential young contributors will define the team’s quality.
I expect Michigan to stay on the same path of improvement after that disaster 2012, but it may not be an entirely smooth path. The Wolverines are losing a bunch of important routines from Zurales and Martinez and therefore cannot afford to be without the likes of Morgan Smith again. I expect Casanova to be incorporated more next year, and the addition of Talia Chiarelli’s Brestyan’s gymnastics should help minimize losses on vault and floor.
So that’s where we will stand for the next, oh, eight months, but there will be many more developments to discuss as we get closer. In the short term, watch for next weekend’s JO Nationals results. This is the last opportunity for many of next year’s newcomers to show what they can contribute to their teams. Remember last year that Randii Wyrick won Senior D and appeared on many radars because of her strong bars and beam performances (more valuable, rarer commodities than vault and floor from the JO lot). That bars routine proved critical for LSU this year (and I think that beam routine will be critical in years to come if she is worked into the lineup as she should be).
Also coming soon is the Pro Gymnastics Challenge, which will take place next weekend and will be broadcast on ESPN2 from May 20-22. (Why does it take three days?) I’m very much in favor of the idea of pro gymnastics and the existence of this event but am skeptical as to how this will go. Let’s play wait and see. I anticipate having a lot of constructive criticism. Also, try not to think about how this event gets better TV coverage than NCAA Championships.