From the time K.J. Kindler took over as head coach in 2006, Oklahoma has transformed from a team that occasionally made nationals and finished 12th, first into a perennial nationals qualifier (placing somewhere between 8th and 10th each year), then into a title contender (three top 3 finishes from 2010–2013), and finally last year into a champion. Well, co-champion, but I found it difficult to muster my usual abhorrence for ties (everyone’s a winner!) because Oklahoma’s first title was so well deserved as a reward for the tremendous progress made over the last decade. Plus, that means six teams have now won national championships, which is almost a normal amount of teams! Almost. Still work to do.
Oklahoma actually managed to win the title a year earlier than I thought they would be able to. Back when we first started hearing about the 2015 incoming class (at that point Wofford was also part of this class), it seemed like 2015 would be the season Oklahoma finally broke through. They jumped the gun a little bit last year, but 2015 remains a pretty good bet for the Sooners to insanely-exaggerated-salute their way to another title. While a few significant scores are gone, last year’s team remains largely intact, with four or five lineup routines returning on each event including thirteen of the seventeen 9.9s from that impressive Super Six performance.
The Sooners will most certainly be back in 2015 with their usual batch of ninja Level 10s who all excel on three events, plus the boost from the standout freshman class that we’ve been waiting for, featuring Brenna Dowell. It’s a slight breach of Oklahoma etiquette that Dowell is a well-known elite instead of an obscure and suddenly amazing Level 10, but I think we’ll all get past it somehow. We did for Hollie Vise and Natasha Kelley. The key to Dowell’s success as an NCAA gymnast? Be less injured than Natasha Kelley.
Oklahoma is going to be good this season (analysis!), but the path to winning these days is slightly different than we have come to expect for Oklahoma. They’re in the midst of an identity transition. In years past, Oklahoma’s success would come from staying close enough on vault and floor and then destroying everyone on bars and beam, but lately the Sooners have recruited gymnasts specifically to beef up those perceived weaknesses. Vault and floor were their highest scoring events in 2014, and this year’s powerful freshman class makes Oklahoma’s new status as a vault and floor team even more entrenched. Well, I shouldn’t say vault and floor team. They’re an every event team. Beam, obviously. But, they should be winning vault at the very least, and in 2015, the road to repeat likely includes being #1 in the country on the power events.
Returning lineup — Haley Scaman (9.940), Maile Kanewa (9.915), Keeley Kmieciak (9.905), Chayse Capps (9.900), Kara Lovan (9.870)
The reason for my bullishness about Oklahoma’s vault should be pretty clear. They were exceptional already last year, finishing the regular season ranked #2 in the country, and the vault corps will be even better this season with the additions of Dowell and Ali Jackson. Dowell, of course, had a 2.5 as an elite and is currently working a 1.5 that is altogether too easy for her. Jackson also has a big-power 1.5 with impressive height and distance that has the makings of a high score. Remember when we used to worry about Oklahoma’s difficulty and explosiveness on vault? Not so much anymore.
Those two would lead most lineup, but they’re just the newbies joining an already strong group that contains at least a couple returning 9.950s. Haley Scaman has been the vault leader for this team, especially since downgrading to that beautiful full, which she can open out of and stick for the occasional 10. Maile Kanewa brings impressive power for consistent 9.900-9.950s, and while Chayse Capps has received attention mostly for her work on beam and floor, her distance and stickitude for yet more 9.9s on vault is just as essential to the team. Capps’ best score often comes on vault. Just to add to the supply, Keeley Kmieciak recorded an RQS over 9.9 last year, Kara Lovan was an unexpected addition to the lineup who was usually clean for 9.850s, and even Hunter Price’s front pike half is finally coming along. Depending on the injury status of Charity Jones, she’s another one to watch. Jones seemed like an easy choice for the vault lineup before her injury last year considering that she competed a DTY in JO. You know it’s a strong vault lineup when someone who used to have a DTY is almost an afterthought among the options. There will be 9.9s who fail to make the lineup this year, and 49.500s seem much more realistic than they ought to be. The other top vaulting teams will provide tough competition, but if Dowell and Jackson develop the kinds of landings they’re capable of on their 1.5s, Oklahoma should be the best vault team in 2015. Not to oversell it or anything.
Returning lineup — Haley Scaman (9.905), Keeley Kmieciak (9.885), McKenzie Wofford (9.880), Rebecca Clark (9.880), Erica Brewer (no RQS)
Interestingly, of all the Sooners’ events, bars may provide the most cause for concern, which is new for Oklahoma and is also a trend among many of the top teams this season. Watch out for bars. Huge scores in the 49.5+ range may be rarer here than on the other events, and therefore more valuable. That’s not to say I’m actually worried about Oklahoma’s bars. I’m not. It’s going to be a good rotation, but keep in mind that bars was Oklahoma’s lowest-scoring event in 50% of regular season meets last year as well as regionals and both days of nationals. And that was with Taylor Spears getting all those 9.9s. It’s their most likely event on which to take a weird step and get a 9.850.
That’s why, as we kept saying all summer during the elite season, bars is Brenna Dowell’s most important apparatus. We know she has the difficulty with her panoply of possible tkatchev variations and overall high-flying skills, so if she’s also maintaining the necessary precision on every handstand and sticking dismounts, she’s the best nominee to step into that Spears spot and deliver weekly 9.9s. It’s interesting that, so far, they have her performing the DLO 1/1 dismount because it’s so much more challenging to maintain a straight body position on that dismount, not to mention stick it, but it worked for Brie Olson. I do also appreciate the commitment to difficulty for a gymnast who is clearly capable of it. Other teams take note.
In addition to Dowell, it will also be important for McKenzie Wofford to continue developing as a bars worker. She has tremendous potential on bars with her beautiful jaeger and toe point, and while she showed glimpses of that excellence last season for big scores, there were also occasional issues. Wofford can be a much bigger factor this year if she finds a little more execution consistency in that bail handstand and the dismount landing. She has the qualities to be a 9.950 bars worker when it’s going well. Expect the rest of the gang, Scaman, Kmieciak, Clark, and Brewer to remain the most likely nominees for the rest of the spots, all of whom can do pretty work for either 9.850 or 9.900 depending on the landing. Stick like Brewer in the video above, and it will all be fine.
Returning lineup — Chayse Capps (9.905), Rebecca Clark (9.895), Erica Brewer (9.865), Kara Lovan (no RQS)
If you’re wondering why people go crazy over Oklahoma’s beam routines, let me explain. The Sooners display a comprehensive understanding that beam choreography isn’t simply about finding different ways to flap your arms around like a deranged pelican. Beam choreography is about posture and presence. It’s about variations in levels, from all the way down on the beam up to your highest toe (then up to the toe higher than your highest toe), and variations in tempo, quick movements followed by slow movements, scurrying to a pause. It’s about confident fluidity. It’s about creating interesting and original angles and visuals and presenting unique ways to finish skills we see every day that make them suddenly special. Oklahoma does all that better than any other team.
Of the current members of the team, Chayse Capps best exemplifies those qualities, which is why her beam routines have drawn so much attention both from fans and from judges, who are more than happy to give her all the 9.9s in the world. Especially now that beam champion Taylor Spears isn’t around, Capps should lead the way on this event, with the rest of the usual suspects not far behind. Many, many gymnasts on this team can hit a beam routine for at least 9.850. Oklahoma creates beam routines, it’s what they do, so there will always be serious competition for this lineup. In addition to last season’s competitors, I’d love to see Wofford make a splash this season. She competed twice last year, and once it went great, while the other time it went . . . not great. She can be as lovely on beam as on bars, so I hope she earns the spot this time around. Also keep in mind that senior Haley Sorensen performed an exquisitely executed routine at Oklahoma’s intrasquad, and it would be so Oklahoma for a gymnast who barely ever competed except as a last-minute replacement on vault one year suddenly to make the beam lineup and be amazing in her senior year. That’s what I mean about Oklahoma. Basically everyone could contribute a competitive beam routine. One of these days, Lou is going to get up there and score a 9.875.
Returning lineup — Haley Scaman (9.970), Chayse Capps (9.890), Maile Kanewa (9.890), Kara Lovan (9.765)
As much as Oklahoma has developed into a big-gymnastics team on vault, they have done the exact same thing on floor. Just as importantly, they have cut down significantly on the use of miming. No more Sara Stone scooting along the floor weaving a basket or whatever was happening in that routine. Now, the lineup is led by Scaman and her exceptional DLO and Kanewa with her big piked full in, both of whom score regular 9.950s, which should help Oklahoma stay close enough when LSU is putting up Courville and Hall and Florida is putting up Sloan and Hunter. That’s no easy feat.
There was some potential for Oklahoma to experience a drop on floor this year without the routines from Lara Albright, Taylor Spears, and Madison Mooring (who was an option but didn’t end up making the lineup last year after the Kelly Garrison “Oh boogers!” incident, and the two are definitely linked). But, the freshmen excel on floor, with Dowell, Jackson, and Stefani Catour all counting it as a major strength. Jackson has huge tumbling, and Dowell’s double fronts would be an uncommon look for NCAA floor routines. Getting these freshmen into the lineup and developing their routines would offset the scoring loss from last year’s seniors. Floor is another event where a healthy Charity Jones would be an option with her piked full in, and let’s not forget Chayse Capps and her “I’m late for work/First scene of every romantic comedy” themed routine, to which she has added a DLO this season. She too will be in the hunt for 9.9s in a lineup that received straight 9.9s in Super Six last year for a 49.600 and could do so again at times this season.