From the time I first put together the season schedule and registered who the regional hosts were, Arkansas’s meet has stood out as a potentially treacherous one, and now here we are. Arkansas is currently 17th in the country and will play host to a bunch of teams from the west (because regionals make so much sense) – two from Utah, two from California, and one from Arizona. This transplanted regional will begin at 5 ET/2 PT, so it will overlap all the other competitions at some point or another. Be sure to set aside some time to spend with this one.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Utah (bye before bars)
 UCLA (bye before floor)
 Arkansas (vault)
 Arizona State (floor)
 Utah State (bars)
 UC Davis (beam)
The individual competitions are from Illinois-Chicago (Catherine Dion, Gabrille May), Northern Illinois (Kim Gotlund, Amanda Stepp – floor), SEMO (Alyssa Tucker, Taryn Vanderpool), Missouri (Rachel Updike – vault), Texas Woman’s (Brittainy Johnson – bars), and Illinois State (Samantha King – beam).
Utah comes into this regional as the favorite, but the Utes’ favorite status is not as clear-cut as the other top teams previewed so far. Utah is 2-1 against UCLA this season and has had some struggles throughout the year, so it would be foolhardy to assume any kind of dominance simply based on their #1 seeding.
One of the reasons Utah has steadied as a fairly believable choice to make it back to Super Six is the progress on beam. It’s still not a big event for them, and will not be a big event, but they have hit six-for-six in enough meets recently that we can upgrade the rotation to serious-but-stable condition. We’ll be monitoring its vital signs throughout the meet, but the prognosis is positive. The Utes are still probably looking at 9.8s for a 49.2 or so, but that should be enough for the moment. Of course, if things take a turn for the dire, the meet is close enough that it will become very interesting for everyone involved. Utah is not one of the top seeds that can count a fall and assume they’ll still advance.
Attack of the Beam Monster Part 2: The Revengening is really the only way I see making it out of this group becoming a challenge for Utah because they have been scoring consistently well on the other events throughout the year. In terms of continuing to improve their quality as we head toward nationals, though, there are still a few things I’ll be watching out for. Last season was all about the beam troubles for Utah, but at the end of the year, we also began to see some deterioration in the early floor routines (all these 9.6s started to pop up) and the vault landings. Keep an eye out to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the same gymnasts this season. At Pac 12s, Utah performed well enough on vault, but the landings can certainly improve given that they showed just one stuck vault out of six (from Dabritz on her downgraded full – which helped justify the decision to downgrade). As I’ve said all year, the end of Utah’s vault lineup can compete with any team in the country, but Delaney, Wilson, and Dabritz all need to stick for 9.950s for that to happen.
I’m putting UCLA and Arkansas in the same category for this preview, as the clashing contenders for the second spot for nationals, but I don’t think I’m quite as sold on the upset potential in this meet as some other people seem to be. Of course, Arkansas is one of the most dangerous lower-ranked teams and can potentially pull off the upset without needing a total UCLA implosion to do it (another Pac 12s would probably be sufficient to open the door), but I don’t think this meet is as close as some of the other third-seed-host regionals. If UCLA actually hits, they should go through regardless of any home boost that Arkansas might receive. The Bruins were pretty poor at Pac 12s and still managed a mid 196, so performing even somewhat better than that should put them out of reach and closer to challenging Utah than being challenged by Arkansas. There’s not all that much between UCLA and Utah, but UCLA’s lack of consistent scoring this year does not afford them the status of favorite. But as tough as Arkansas can be, UCLA does control its own fate in this meet.
Arkansas’s trump card will be Katherine Grable, obviously. At the back of the vault, beam, and floor lineups, she can get 9.950+, so if things get close, Arkansas will feel pretty good about their ability to bridge any gaps with that one huge final routine. The Razorbacks will end on floor with Grable’s final home floor routine of her career. She got a 9.975 on senior night in that position, so Utah and UCLA will look to be well clear of Arkansas before that routine so that she can’t do anything dramatic. Arkansas has the luxury of Grable Power and regular high 9.8s from Amanda Wellick toward the back of rotations, but it’s the early routines in each of the lineups that have seen them drop to #17 in the country. I expect the first few counting scores to be a decisive issue in this meet.
Arkansas has some sub-9.800 routines in these lineups in varying degrees (16 of 24 at SECs – a struggle meet – but usually 6 or so at the good meets as well), and their depth is tenuous, which we saw evidence of when Wellick had to come out on beam and floor at SECs before returning for vault. The Razorbacks don’t have enough 9.800s to make up six routines on several of the events, let alone provide comfortable replacement routines. UCLA will need to take advantage of those early 9.7s by putting up 9.8s of their own, but the early routines haven’t always been a comfort for the Bruins this season either. We’ve seen a lot of low scores early on vault and occasionally floor, and beam has been the UCLA beam that we know and love and fear. The freshmen Pinches and Mossett will be counted on to create a margin and put up strong foundation scores at the beginning of the lineups, particularly on vault where both teams have found their first couple workers landing short and giving up tenths too often this season.
Val has discussed her displeasure with starting on floor many times in the past, but UCLA can’t afford the sluggish, mistaken-ridden start they often seem to have when beginning meets on floor (that EHH OOB at Super Six 2012 the most recent example). Because of the rotation order, Arkansas is likely to finish up with an advantage on floor – we’ve seen them end with multiple 9.9s at home before – while UCLA is competing on beam. Beam should be a major strength for the Bruins with Francis and Peszek, but we’ve seen too many problems this year to have any confidence in it. That’s why UCLA needs to build up a margin early and not suffer from a slow start, so that none of that beam history comes into play and they can allow themselves a smaller break or two if it comes without giving up the season.
The most likely event for UCLA to build up that necessary margin is bars. It’s the critical event for a big score to make this meet as uninteresting as they would like it to be. UCLA’s RQS on bars is better than Arkansas’s season high, so if they can get back to their 49.3+ ways and recover from the hiccup at Pac 12s, they can pull away. Even though bars did not go well at Pac 12s with a lot of tight handstand trouble after the Mossett fall, we can normally expect a big score from Peszek and 9.9s from Courtney and DeJesus when they stick. That’s scoring potential Arkansas cannot match, especially because it’s on the one event where Grable isn’t always a lock for 9.9s. It exceptionally difficult for Arkansas to make up tenths there.
UCLA won’t go to bars until the second half of the meet, but if they can build up a lead of about .500 at the halfway point (which is what RQS predicts), that should be comfortable. Their own bars problem at SECs notwithstanding, The Razorbacks’ asset this season has been their unexpected consistency. They were all about consecutive low 196s for two straight months at the beginning of the year, which can’t be done without consistency. Even though they haven’t always been able to manage six people on each event, they’ve had only a couple counting falls this year and none on beam, which is rather impressive. Arkansas’s path to the upset looks to involve banking on that consistency for solid lowish 49s through three events and then breaking out on floor. It would probably also take a major mistake from a team above (or a Pac 12s repeat from UCLA) for that to work, but that’s the path.
I don’t see any of the bottom three seeds making much of a run at a qualification spot. Last year, Arizona State came into regionals in a similar position to this year and overperformed to finish third, but I don’t anticipate them challenging this time. They had a fairly rough performance at Pac 12s, counting a fall on bars and looking pretty sloppy on beam, so definitely expect this to be Spini’s final meet as head coach. If anyone pulls off the upset at this regional, it will be Arkansas.
ASU will have freshman Beka Conrad as their AA contributor hoping to make it as an individual, but the three lower seeds in this regional also don’t boast the major AA contenders. With Arkansas sporting Grable and Wellick in the AA, those two should qualify if the team doesn’t advance, and the same with UCLA having Peszek and Courtney. The others would need one of these top individuals to have a mistake in order to get in.
It has been a very strong end to the season for Utah State, finishing with three straight scores in the 196.0s and a flood of 49 rotations. It is going to take much more than that to advance from this competition since we have several teams who can count falls and still score better than a low 196, but getting the 5th seed at a regional and sitting on a top 30 ranking is a solid finish to the season. I saw Utah State once this year, against UCLA, and I was impressed by the level of gymnastics. They merit those 196s. And if there is an AA upset, look to USU’s Sarah Landes, who is a likely 9.800 on each event, as a possibility.
Most of the #6 seeds we see at regionals can count 2014 as successful season because they made it this far, and that is especially true of Davis. They won’t remotely challenge, but they’ve qualified to regionals for the first time since 1998, so it’s a win. It’s always exciting to see new teams contend, just to spruce up these old haggard faces we always see, and hopefully they can continue making things a little more unexpected in the years to come.