Seattle, WA Regional Preview

Usually we have at least a couple unseeded teams hosting a regional or two, but this year Washington is the only one, having managed to just outstrip the regionals cutoff and make it in. They’ll invite Alabama and Nebraska to their humble abode to do battle with plucky challengers Boise State and Denver, beginning at 7 ET/4 PT. This is the west coast regional, so couldn’t we have started it a bit later to spread out the competitions a little more? How do they expect us to watch six meets in a day if they’re all at the same time?

Competing teams (staring event)
[4] Alabama (bye before bars)
[9] Nebraska (bye before floor)
[16] Boise State (vault)
[20] Denver (floor)
[25] BYU (bars)
[33] Washington (beam)

The individuals in this regional are from Sacramento State (Jesse Williams, Kalliah McCartney, Kailey Hansen – vault, beam, and floor, Julia Konner – vault, Kaila Kilwien – bars, Kayla Wonderly – beam, Dallas Smith – floor), Alaska (Stefany Bryan), and Seattle Pacific (Maria Hundley – vault, bars, and beam, Tracie Villanueva – bars, Kailee Tindall – floor). Sacramento State has a Kayla, a Kailey, a Kaila, and a Kalliah. The end.

The Favorites

This regional sets up a little differently from the previous ones in that there’s a bit more separation between the top seeds and the contending seeds, with Alabama and Nebraska both looking like safe bets to advance. That’s not to say the other teams can’t manage something interesting (we’ll get to them in a moment), but Alabama is on a roll and Nebraska is situated much better in this regional to avenge last year’s misery than their colleague Oregon State is over in the Penn State group. Both Alabama and Nebraska should be able to perform normally in this meet and advance by a healthy margin.

For much of the season, Alabama has been running a step behind the lead pack, so winning SECs continued the dissolution of that gap between them and the top teams and allowed them to jump comfortably into the group of favorites once we get to nationals. They’re now starting to look like a team that can win a championship without help. The SEC win wasn’t without questions, with the Tide finishing just a small margin ahead of Florida and receiving some scores that I would deem extra friendly here and there (9.900 for Sims on beam and 9.950 on bars? Two judges giving Milliner a 10 for a non-stick?). But no other team looked definitively better, and Florida made more than its share of errors on a couple events. That tends to diffuse any righteous outrage. Alabama had several highlight routines during SECs, one of the most important being Kim Jacob on vault continuing the progression of her 1.5 with a stick. She has been a borderline member of the vault lineup for years, showing a full that wasn’t as big as the usual Alabama fulls and a 1.5 that never had enough landing control to get a big score. If she can continue vaulting like this, it gives Alabama another asset that we didn’t necessarily expect coming into the season on an event that needs to be a best-in-the-meet strength come Super Six.

The Tide scored a 49.650 on bars at SECs, and the big question is whether that’s for real. There was a lot going into that score, being in Birmingham and finishing on bars, and I did think Florida and Georgia looked a clear step better on the event based on the routines we saw in the broadcast. But if that’s how these routines are going to be evaluated as we progress, there isn’t much of a limit to what Alabama can accomplish this season. Interestingly, beam was the clear weak event for Alabama at SECs, with some stepping and shakiness that we haven’t seen very often this season, but as with some of Florida’s mistakes, it’s not a trend yet. Still, watch the bars at regionals. They’ll tell us stories. 

Nebraska has been resolutely hanging around the top 10 this year and has carved out a nice little niche in that high 196/low 197 territory, which should be enough to advance from this regional. There are some other regionals where the Huskers might have been in a bit more trouble, but here that score should be solid enough to move on. Nebraska’s regional-plosion last year was a bit of a rare bird because usually such upsets involve one-event disasters, but theirs was more of a three-event, slightly-poor situation, with the lackluster floor rotation being the most problematic because the team should have excelled there. Beam was always going to be beam, but floor should have been a big score for them. This year, floor went quite well at Big Tens, with Emily Wong’s starring senior 10, so the potential is there to recover from last year’s showing and display the floor routines this crop of gymnasts has been capable of for the last several seasons. 

Right now, Nebraska looks to be just on the outside of the Super Six conversation with the uphill battle of going into (what looks like it will be) the Florida, Alabama, Utah, UCLA semifinal. Nebraska actually has a lower RQS on every event this year compared to last year in a year that has seen predominately higher scoring, so if they’re going to play the spoiler, they’ll have to step up the scoring on a few events. The loss of Jennifer Lauer has slowed them a bit on beam, and while they’re not falling with critical frequency, they have counted 9.5s and 9.6s several times lately, which can’t continue. I don’t see Nebraska getting a huge beam number, but if they can stay solid for 9.825s and 9.850s and then let Wong get a big score at the end, they should get by.

For Nebraska at regionals, I’m most of all interested in vault. As I’ve mentioned, teams need asset events where they can blow others away in order to succeed at nationals (being regular and good for 49.250s across four events will be a recipe for 7th place this year), and Nebraska’s event should be vault. This team is known for vaulting, and last season was no exception, finishing the year with three consecutive vault scores of 49.650+. They have lost a little bit of scoring potential without Brittany Skinner, but they still returned four of six vaulters from last year and should be able to come close to those scores again. They’ve hit 49.5 once this year at home so far, and it needs to come back. The 49.325 from Big Tens was OK, but it was third-best in the conference and not enough to be that asset event, yet. 

The Contenders

Boise State bucked expectations and got up to #16 in the country on the strength of a 196.900 at their conference championship, the second time they have reached that plateau this year. They haven’t been scoring at that level consistently enough this year to make it seem a likely outcome at regionals, but the precedent is at least there for the kind of score that can challenge Nebraska.

Whether Boise State gets to the level of challenging Nebraska will largely be dictated by the middle events, bars and beam. One of the reasons Nebraska’s occasional 9.6ing on beam may not be such an issue at this competition is that Boise State has much more reason to be concerned about beam than Nebraska does. The Broncos are #32 in the country on the event right now, tied with 5th seed BYU, and have peaked at a 49.000 this season. A lower seed can never expect to advance to nationals with a 48 on any event without a bushel of help. Beam will be about avoiding disaster, but bars is where this team shines. They are in the top 10 on the event, ranked ahead of Nebraska, and have reached 49.350+ in three of the last five meets. If they’re going to put up a challenge, bars is the whole competition. It’s BSU’s second event, so we should know by the halfway point whether they are keeping this thing interesting.

I would put the 4th seed Denver on a similar level to Boise State in terms of upset potential. There’s not a whole lot of difference between the two teams (just two tenths in RQS and season average), and Denver also went up to the 196.9s in their most recent meet – only they didn’t get to count it for RQS as a season high. The two teams can basically flip the arguments when it comes to bars and beam, with Denver much more likely to get a 49 on beam but much less likely to record a strong score on bars. Denver doesn’t have that one huge-scoring event that will keep them in contention, but they managed healthy number on vault and floor in the last couple meets and have put together a team where the stars excel on power events. Moriah Martin is probably the most recognizable gymnast on the Denver team, with a tremendous potential score on vault, and the other AAer Nina McGee’s best event is definitely floor. If I were to envision a way that Denver advances to nationals, though, it involves being resolutely consistent for a 196 with hit 49.1ish-49.3ish rotations and 9.8s throughout the meet and then getting some help from the teams above.

Individuals/The Others
The most likely individuals to advance to nationals as AAers come from Boise State and Denver. As mentioned, Denver has Martin and McGee who are both ranked in the top 25, and Boise State has Kelsey Morris who is ranked just behind them. All three of these gymnasts have reached the 49.4s this year and could be in a compelling three-way battle for the two spots if the team competition plays out as I expect it to.

This is a very deep regional in terms of AA talent, and BYU also has Raquel Willman Hatch and Mackenzie Johnson who can score into the 49.3 territory, which I expect to be good enough to advance in several regionals, but probably not this one. This was a solid season for BYU, finishing in the top 25 and recording four scores in the 196s. They just haven’t shown the scoring potential to play the spoiler role that Boise State or Denver could play.

Sixth seed Washington will host the meet, and it was unfortunate that this team came as close as it did to missing out on its home regional. The Huskies just lack the depth this season to be competitive within the conference or nationally. Bars and beam are OK – they can hover around 49s there – but they don’t have six vaulters this season, and floor is a lot of round-off-and-hope. There are some individually great routines from Aliza Vaccher, Janae Janik, and Allison Northey, but they lack the full lineups. In this deep AA regional, it’s going to be very tough to get those two spots, but Vaccher and Northey are two more to put into the conversation if they put up a strong meet.