Athens, GA Regional Preview

Now here we are old friends, the final regional. It feels like a long road already, and the meets haven’t started yet. Georgia will host a regional for the second time in the last four years, and once again it’s the 6/7/18 group (and the third time in four years that Georgia has been in the 6/7/18 regional). The Gym Dogs will welcome Michigan to town to engage in a possible head-to-head nationals preview in one of the earlier starts (4 ET/1 PT).

Competing teams (starting event)
[6] Georgia (bye before bars)
[7] Michigan (bye before floor)
[18] Central Michigan (vault)
[22] Ohio State (floor)
[28] NC State (bars)
[32] Rutgers (beam)

The individuals in this regional are from West Virginia (Hope Sloanhoffer, Nicolette Swoboda, Alexa Goldberg – bars, Beth Deal – beam), North Carolina (Haley Watts), William & Mary (Brittany Stover), and George Washington (Kayla Carto, Chelsea Raineri – vault, floor).

The Favorites

Of all the regionals, I would deem this the least likely to see an upset, which means it will definitely happen. Georgia and Michigan have performed several steps above the other teams in this competition all year, and the season averages for both teams are higher than the season highs for any of the other schools competing. It would take a confluence of disaster from one end and unexpected greatness from the other to make this one interesting as an upset affair.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. If everything goes to form, we can expect Georgia and Michigan to advance from this competition and meet again in two weeks with a spot in Super Six on the line, so the performances will have significant implications heading into nationals. And it’s too close to call right now as to which team is better. Georgia has been more consistent this season and is competing at home, but Michigan has the higher peak score and put in a stronger performance at conference championships. If they’re both hitting, they should be fighting it out right to the final rotation.

Unfortunately, injuries are going to be a talking point for both teams. Georgia had to sit Brittany Rogers on vault and floor at SECs after an ankle injury (edit: and she’ll miss those events at regionals as well – thanks for the confirmation), and reaching their highest scoring potential requires her at 100% in the AA. While her injury allowed for the emergence of Lauren Johnson on vault with her sudden 9.975 (making lineup order a bit more challenging), they’re not as strong without Rogers’ 1.5 on an event where they need to squeeze out as much of an advantage as possible. Floor, however, may be Rogers’ most important routine this season because of her difficulty and because the Gym Dogs don’t have the depth without her. Having to drop Broussard’s 9.4 made it impossible for them to keep pace at SECs because they were counting two other 9.7s. In this meet, floor is already an event where Michigan looks to have a solid edge, so Georgia can’t count those same 9.7s or they’ll be giving up too many tenths to the Wolverines. 

Things are more dire in the ankle department for Michigan. Austin Sheppard broke her ankle in training last week and is confirmed out for the season, forcing some reshuffling in the bars and vault lineups. We can expect Lindsay Williams to come in on bars. She has managed 9.800-quality routines this year, so the loss shouldn’t be too dramatic there, but it will be dramatic on vault. Sheppard has an argument as the best vaulter in the country – certainly top 5 – and can be relied upon for 9.950s every time. Reema Zakharia probably comes into the lineup for her, but she tends to vault in the 9.750-9.850 range, so Michigan will be losing tenths. Sugiyama, Beilstein, and Sampson will need to sticky sticky stick to make up for it.

The Gym Dogs are stellar on bars as we know (I had them more like at 49.550 at SECs, not 49.700, but that’s still excellent), and while vault could definitely use an in-form Rogers, there’s still a ton of talent on that event as well. If Lindsey Cheek and Brandie Jay are getting sticks, the score will be huge. As has been the case throughout the Durante era so far, Georgia’s Super Six chances will be decided by how competitive they are on beam and floor. Georgia hasn’t been poor on floor this year, but because it’s such a high-scoring event, their 49.250s have put them down at #10 in the country. The event is coming along – Brandie Jay seems to have found her consistency, which is a boost – but even a 49.3 might see them lose a couple tenths to Michigan, a team with five people capable of scoring a 9.9, ending with the defending floor champion Joanna Sampson. Michigan starts on floor in this meet, so if they’re going to win it, they’ll need to be hitting solidly from the first routine to wake the judges up because they may lose a few tenths on vault and bars (even though those should still be solid events).

While Georgia has to show competitive scoring on floor in this meet to begin making their Super Six argument, Michigan has to do the same on beam. As with several of the teams in the middle of the top 10, we’re still a little too happy to see a hit rotation from them. It was the downfall event last year in semifinals, and the loss of Sheppard’s scores on vault and bars make it that much more important that the Wolverines pick up a few tenths somewhere. There’s still the opportunity for them to be better than 49.0s on beam if they can cut out the constant wobbles, so we need to see that.

Be sure to watch the second rotation, when both teams will be on their strong events (Georgia on bars and Michigan on floor). You’ll see some exceptional gymnastics, and whichever team is able to dominate early and take the most advantage of their best event could determine the outcome.

The Contenders
By just sneaking in as the final regionals seed, Central Michigan proved that last year’s strong performance to get into the top 25 was not a one-off. They improved on that significantly this season and have shown themselves to be a very capable team, recording five 196s this season, three of which were on the road. I don’t see them challenging Georgia or Michigan, but wouldn’t it be fun to suddenly see Central Michigan at nationals? No one would have picked that going into the season, and everyone loves an underdog. Last year at regionals, when they were also grouped with Ohio State and NC State, they underperformed on bars and beam to finish last, so they’ll look to put in a more consistent showing this time.

Floor is generally the strongest event for this team, with Taylor Bolender and Halle Moraw consistently scoring in the 9.9s. If it’s a good day, that’s where we will see the evidence. They might even have a chance to outscore Georgia there depending on how the day and lineup goes, which would be an accomplishment.

Ohio State has also popped in here as the #22 team in the country, and because they made nationals two years ago, they have earned the right to be thought of as somewhat dangerous, even though the scores over the last two seasons haven’t given the impression that they’re remotely that same team. The Buckeyes do, however, appear to be rounding into form and finding their 49 rotations now that we’ve moved into the end of the season, so a 196 from them and a third-place finish should be the expectation. Throughout the season, the scoring has been led by Melanie Shaffer and Sarah Miller, and as they go, so goes the team. If they’re not getting a couple 9.9s apiece, it’s going to be difficult for Ohio State to post any challenging scores. Like Central Michigan, the area of highest scoring potential is floor, where Shaffer, Miller, and Alex DeLuca can all get 9.9s. On the downer side, one of the biggest differences between this Ohio State team and the one that made nationals two years ago is the lack of competitive vaults. Miller is still there, but they don’t have the 9.850s to support her this year. They cannot afford to be counting 9.7s on vault if they want to stay anywhere close, Since the team starting on floor and then moving to vault, we’ll have a good grasp on the Ohio State story by the halfway point.

Individuals/The Others
NC State is one of those teams I always think are better than they are, so my instinct was to put them in the same section as CMU and OSU because they have some name recognition. But the results this season have not really justified thinking of them as a serious contender. They have reached into the 196s twice, both at home, but have more often found themselves rumbling around the mid 195s. It’s going to take counting multiple falls for either of the top seeds to get down into the 195s. Bars has been the destroyer for NC State this year. They don’t have the routines, and it puts them at a significant disadvantage every time. They will, however, have a realistic shot at advancing someone to nationals as an AAer. I would expect Shaffer of Ohio State to go through, but there are a few options for the second spot, of which both Brittni Watkins and Stephanie Ouellette are excellent contenders. Ouellette can be a solid 9.850 on each event, and Watkins is actually ranked all the way up at #16 in the country with a 39.380 RQS, higher than people like Jessie DeZiel and Chelsea Tang, so watch out for her.

I haven’t looked at any of the individuals who aren’t competing at regionals with teams so far because the large majority of them won’t score competitively, but if someone without a team does make a challenge as an AAer, it could be Hope Sloanhoffer of West Virginia, who has also performed very well in the all-around this year with consistent 39.3s. Don’t forget about her.

The final team in this regional is Rutgers, and they are another for whom making regionals is a huge deal in itself. I never expect Rutgers to be even a remote consideration for the postseason. I usually think of them as being ranked in the 50s, not the 30s, so like UC Davis, it’s nice to see another new team that we’ll have to pay attention to in the future. They started off the year well with some 195s that made a stir, but that’s probably the peak score we’re looking at from them. They won’t contend with the rest of the teams, but Alexis Gunzelman is another who could be a relevant AAer on her day. 

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