Freshman Notes: Oklahoma and Georgia

Why does every team have a hundred thousand freshmen this year? Cool it, people. They’re not going out of style. Today, we look at Oklahoma and Georgia.

Boomer. The problem with winning a national championship for the first time is that now anything less than a national championship is a disappointment. No more of this “we’re really proud of how much we went through to finish third” business. It’s an every-year thing now, and Oklahoma will face some challenges to repeat in 2015 without Spears, Mooring, and Albright, who contributed 6 routines across three events last postseason, most significantly the late-lineup 9.9-athon that was Taylor Spears on bars and beam.

On the bright side, the Sooners have several new freshmen who can believably fill those scoring gaps, bringing with them way more than 6 lineup-ready routines. The first thing to be said about this class is that it officially signals the end of the “Oklahoma doesn’t have the power/difficulty on the leg events” narrative era. That comment didn’t really apply last year either, but it’s definitely dead now. You can’t use it anymore. This freshman class is power city.

Let’s start with the most well-known of the newcomers, Brenna Dowell, who will be joining the team officially in January and made the smart choice to start this year instead of trying to stick it out in elite with the hope of making an Olympic team that was never going to happen. Not even getting the alternate spot for Worlds this year was the flashing neon sign she needed saying GET TO OKLAHOMA.

Anyone who has watched elite lately is familiar with Dowell’s gymnastics, and she’s another of those who can conceivably slot in anywhere in any lineup and be a rare AAer for this Oklahoma team. The only thing that would potentially hold her back is consistency, but I expect to see a lot of Dowell this year.





I said in the last preview that Elizabeth Price is the first gymnast with an Amanar to do college gymnastics, which isn’t wrong, but I should have mentioned that she’s co-first with Dowell. We know Dowell will bring powerful vaulting and should fill in any difficulty gaps in that lineup now that Scaman has gone back to the full, which ended up making good scoring sense last season.

On bars, Dowell is the best option to step into that vacated Spears position and has about 7 million different skill options from which to devise a routine. While she’s most known for doing the tkatchev 1/2, I’m not sure that’s the most prudent or cleanest option for an NCAA routine. The brief training video Oklahoma posted of her on instagram showed a Church and a Ray, and both of those seem like more realistic options that still showcase her amplitude and difficulty.

Beam was clearly Dowell’s fourth-best event as an elite, without the same level of difficulty or original skill composition as the other events and with a few consistency and form questions, but it can still easily be refined into a quality NCAA routine. As for floor, I’m hoping that either the double front or the double front pike sticks around because we don’t see those much anymore, but even if not, she has a very strong DLO. The tumbling is more than sufficient on floor and the elements themselves are there on beam as well, but on both events, I’m most interested in where her presentation goes because Oklahoma is so conscious of presentation, which has always been Dowell’s weakness. At GAGE, they’ve clearly worked hard on it the last couple years, but floor is still very “This is the part where I smile, right?” Her performance quality will be a fascinating evolution to watch, and one I expect to be a multi-year project since she’s entering in January.

Dowell is joined by Ali Jackson, who at various times is Alyssa, Ali, and/or A.J., and I don’t really know what we’re supposed to call her. NCAA gymnastics should put out an official nicknames guide. Jackson is another who brings the power power power, and we can expect to see the most from her on vault and floor.

On vault, she has a powerful and comfortably completed 1.5 that scored like crazy in the JO ranks (as high as 9.950), which should help make the fight for the vault lineup a good one. We’re going to see at least one 9.9-level gymnast not make the lineup this year. While her vaulting is strong, floor may be Jackson’s showcase event with tumbling options like a humongous piked full in, a double arabian, and a whip to double pike. She’s not lacking for big passes. As for the dance elements, I could see them going the Kytra route with her and sticking solely to the switch side+straddle half because those straddle elements are stronger than her splits.

Jackson is possibly believable on bars as well. She shows a comfortable piked jaeger and is learning a DLO that appears to be coming along quite nicely, but there are details to clean. The legs, the toes, and the angles are not as crisp as many of her teammates, and that’s going to make it difficult to break into this competitive lineup. Beam is more of a struggle, especially with the dance elements, which makes it hardest to envision her in the 6 there.

Moving on, the freshman behind door #3 is Stefani Catour. Catour competed elite for a while in her junior days but has been consistently in L10 for a few years now. This year, she qualified for JO Nationals for the second straight year. She had mistakes on multiple events, but she did finish top 10 on floor, which also happens to be her best event and the one where I expect her biggest influence on the team.



Like Jackson, Catour has a piked full in (it’s the season of the piked full in) and a high double pike and has regularly placed toward the top of the standings in JO competitions. As with most of the others, they’ll have to be smart about the dance elements they choose for her, but she’s another option who can bring even more power gymnastics to the floor lineup. This is the year where Oklahoma gets to rattle on about E passes.

Catour is also powerful enough on vault to be in the picture, though form breaks tend to creep in, and has potential on beam as well. The tools are there on beam, but that lineup is so tough to break into. McKenzie Wofford is a great example of that. Last year, I was all about how great she was going to be on beam (and I still think she will be), but she couldn’t make the lineup.

Repping the walk-ons for Oklahoma are Samantha Craus and Natalie Brown. Watch out for Craus on bars. She has been injured for eleven thousand years, but she has potential, which I put in italics to emphasize that it is just potential that still needs to be realized. She has performed a HUGE tkatchev in the past with great rhythm and swing, but the form is all over the place and needs to be reined in if she’s to contribute. Brown is a Wogette who doesn’t have the power of her incoming classmates, but has does have some elegant qualities and qualified for JOs last year, which is unusual for a walk-on. She has that WOGA extension and presentation on beam and a high, clean double pike on floor and gets a gold star for her leg form.

Before we get into the Gymdogs 2015 edition, make sure you’re paying attention to Elizabeth Grimsley, who is once again covering the Georgia team and giving us the most comprehensive preseason information (Articles! And videos!) of any of the teams.

Georgia has some urgent and significant holes to fill heading into the 2015 season, having lost not only the wonder of Lindsey Cheek’s standout 2014 season but also Kaylan Earls and Cat Hires, amounting to 8 total postseason routines, 2 on each event. As the team continues to forge a new identity for a new era (one I’m finding it increasingly easy to get behind – I enjoy the style and attitude of the Danna Age), they can’t rely on the US elite path as in days of old and will instead be going for the tried-and-true Canadians and L10s strategy. Many have succeeded down that road. In particular, there are a couple emergency Canadians who have been brought in to fill the gaps left after the post-Jay Clark verbal exodus and do what emergency Canadians always do, which is be wonderful.

Natalie Vaculik, younger sister of Kristina, ultimately decided to join UGA on time instead of continuing to pursue an elite career as one of the second-tier Canadians, although given some of the performances at Worlds this year, which one’s the first tier and which one’s the second tier? Natalie has not had the career her older sister has, but she should continue to prove the theorem that we always need a Vaculik in our lives. Vaculik is a competitive AAer and possesses the necessary skills on all events, but I’m looking at her bars and beam as the most important routines and the most likely to fill the Cheek hole on those events. Yes, I said “fill the Cheek hole.”



Beam. Love it. Ignore that fall. Love it anyway. Vaculik has lifty lift in those beautiful leaps, and her form is quite nice throughout. I’m really hoping this routine becomes a thing. It should. I’m also impressed that (for now) they’re keeping her double pike dismount instead of downgrading to something less deductiony. Let’s see if that continues to be worth it as we go.

Bars is another strong event for Vaculik, but Danna and company are getting a pretty severe dose of poison-eye from me for not using the gienger in her routine. Major faux pas. When you have a Vaculik gienger on your team, you don’t choose a jaeger over it. Even if the jaeger is really good, which it is. It’s just not done. I’ll try to get past it, but it will be a burden. I’m like a martyr. Still, she swings a good bars, with excellent rhythm and a great shape on her stalders as well if they choose to use them. But they probably won’t.

Vaculik Part Deux is not a slouch on the other events, showing a pretty acceptable 1.5 on vault, with just a soupcon of crazy legs, that could become a workable full, along with the usual tumbling on floor—double pike, double tuck, 2.5. The passes are cleanly completed but her work is not as explosive as the true floor standouts that we will see.

GiGi Marino appears more likely to be that explosive option on vault and floor, finishing 5th on floor in Senior D this year. Georgia had too many weeks of medium-range D passes last year that were asking for 9.825s, so it will be worth it to continue working Marino’s DLO and the rest of her compact and effective tumbling on floor to make sure she can step up with Jay and Broussard to give this lineup some more apparent and consistent difficulty and amplitude.

Pumpkin Peek highlights:

Outside of floor, Marino also showed a very comfortable and consistent 1.5 as an L10 gymnast, and even when downgrading to a full, which they appear to be doing, she should be in solid contention for the vault lineup. She may also be a possibility on beam, but it’s more of an issue. She’s missing the overall amplitude, leap extension, and consistency of a true beamer, but it’s a routine worth having in mind.

Hayley Sanders is another of the Wogettes entering college this season, and she’s one to keep an eye on primarily on bars, where she shows a lovely line and refined style with extension right through the toes. She falls on the dismount in this video, but Laurent’s reaction more than makes up for it.

Sanders also has some admirable qualities on beam and floor, showing that same refined style and largely clean gymnastics, but her low difficulty will be more of an obstacle there.

Heading back to the emergency Canadian front, the Gymdogs are also bringing in Vivi Babalis (we have a GiGi and a Vivi—I feel like it’s UF with these nicknames), and there is possible lineup potential in her work on both beam and floor. She shows decent power on both events, including a double arabian on floor and a full complement of the usual D acro elements on beam. Of note, I also highly approve of her L turns.

Rounding out the walk-on parade (I told you all these freshman classes have a thousand members), we have Jasmine Arnold, mostly a vault and floor gymnast with a yfull on vault and a double pike on floor, but I wouldn’t expect her to contend for lineups. Also in January, Angelina Giancroce is supposed to be joining the team, and while she doesn’t have a lot of difficulty either, some pretty qualities stand out in her work, particularly her leg form on bars and on twisting elements in general, so that’s something to look out for once she’s officially training with the team.

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