It’s the last weekend of normal meets, people. Fortunately, we’ve been presented with a worthy slate of action and a few top-10 clashes to mark this not-very-momentous-but-whatever occasion. There’s still a lot of jockeying for Regionals placements to do this week, in addition to a couple meets where the winner is actually sort of in doubt (!), but one of the most interesting side stories this weekend will be the solidifying of final lineups. It’s like an extreme sport, expect with a lot fewer motorcycles and a lot more columns drawn on pieces of paper. My kind of extreme sport.
While there may still be some pre-championships strategic resting going on, especially for teams that have been loading in the big meets this month, most teams prefer to get their final lineups set by the time championship season arrives. That way, all the competitors have time to develop some level of comfort in their positions before it really matters. So, some of the lineups in which we’ve seen quite a bit of flux (Alabama’s bars and floor, LSU’s vault, UCLA’s everything, a couple of the Florida lineups where Bridget Sloan has returned to shake things up) will be worth watching this weekend to see who’s really in favor and who isn’t. (I MEAN EVERYONE’S IN FAVOR BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL A TEAM OF SISTERS.)
In the rankings, Oklahoma is sitting pretty at #1, but Florida, LSU, and Utah are all extremely tightly bunched in the race for #2. Florida is currently in the lead position, but the Gators also have the highest score to drop with a 197.600, meaning they can gain the least. LSU is right behind with a 197.350 to drop, while Utah is in fourth but still has a 196.900 to drop. What this means is, for instance, if all three teams were to score a 198.000 this weekend (not outside the realm of possibility), Florida would come out with a 197.770 RQS, to LSU’s 197.760, to Utah’s 197.750. Couldn’t really be much closer. Though all these teams are quite safe in the ever-important top-6 race to clinch a #1 seed at Regionals.
The current top 6 (Oklahoma, Florida, LSU, Utah, Alabama, Michigan) are probably safe this weekend, though UCLA does have a shot at supplanting Michigan if the Wolverines score under 196.975 and the Bruins go 197.450+ at Arkansas. Possible. Of course, if Michigan does break 197 in Minnesota, then the required score for UCLA increases.
Because when you think of UCLA scoring a 197.450, you think of Peng.
In the hunt for those crucial top-18 seeded spots, all the teams from 17-20 (Arizona, Denver, Cal, Minnesota) are fairly close together and all have a mid-195 to get rid of this weekend. They’re all more than capable of that score, so be on 196-watch for all those teams. Those who do it will be on the inside track to seedhood.
Now, let’s talk meets. Friday’s action begins with Florida hosting Texas Woman’s University on senior night, so get your 10 banners out. It’s Kytra Hunter’s senior night. If she doesn’t get at least two 10s, she will burn the vaulting table to the ground. Later on, UCLA heads to Arkansas. Doesn’t it seem like UCLA is perpetually in Arkansas? Whenever Arkansas hosts a Regional, UCLA is in it, and now they’re back. The Bruins should be able to win this one comfortably given their current form, but as was the case in Arkansas’s face-off with Georgia last weekend, this meet will be within a fall of becoming a thing, especially since we’re in Arkansas. The Bruins do appear to have finally hit upon a bars lineup that won’t need to count 9.6s and a fairly trustworthy beam lineup, as far as UCLA beam goes, helped by the discovery of Sonya Meraz’s sturdiness in the leadoff spot. As long as they have Sam Peszek’s leap series worked out now (hint: switch leap + switch leap = no me gusta).
But the real star of Friday will be Oklahoma heading to Alabama. I’m all about this meet. Delectable. We’ve got Alabama, eager to recover from the streak-breaking home loss to LSU, going up against the undefeated #1 Sooners. While Oklahoma comes in as the definite favorite, the luster isn’t completely off Alabama at home. It’s not suddenly an easy win. Oklahoma is ranked better on every event, though unsurprisingly their biggest margin comes on beam. The Sooners were basically tripping over all the 9.9s they got on beam at their last meet, while Alabama has too often become stuck in 9.850 land. I was pleased to see Kayla Williams restored to the #3 spot in the lineup last weekend because she is one of their most likely 9.9ers. Williams was moved to the leadoff spot after the early-season troubles, but that position was inhibiting her scoring and keeping her stuck at 9.825. They need more from her, along with Clark and Aja Sims, this time around. If Alabama is going to pull this off, they’ll also need to get the full, real, best floor six into the lineup (that includes Katie Bailey if possible and I think Aja Sims as well). They’ll also need to be able to use Clark on bars and stick some more vaults. They haven’t done all of those things in the same meet yet, but that’s what it will take.
As for the Sooners, they need to continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing. Though as I mentioned last week, perfect landings from Dowell and Jackson on vault are going to be essential if they want to be the best vault school in addition to the best school at every other event. This team has done pretty well overall absorbing the parade of injuries that Maile Kanewa has suffered this year, but they do still look like they’re missing 2014 Kanewa on vault and floor. To make up for her absence, they need those landings from Dowell and Jackson, and they need Chayse Capps to hit her floor tumbling with the level of perfection she brings to her every move.
Now, let’s talk about Saturday. Here’s the deal with the Big Ten Five Meets (can we not call them that please?). These meets will be used to determine the session placement at Big Ten Championships, with the top three teams from each meet this weekend competing in the later session (which will have two bye rotations just like Super Six) and the bottom two teams from each meet competing in the earlier session (which will have a normal quad meet format). Michigan, Penn State, and Minnesota will be expected to emerge from their meet and make it to the big-girl session, though be warned that Iowa could challenge if Minnesota is having one of their “we only have five bars workers and one of them got a 3” kind of days.
In the other Big Ten meet, the seeds tell us that Nebraska, Illinois, and Michigan State should take the three evening spots, but I would say it’s just as likely that Maryland or Ohio State could get in. The fight for that third spot will be something to watch. It’s strange seeing Ohio State as the lowest-ranked team of those five. It wasn’t that long ago that Ohio State was the upstart new contender making it to Nationals, but the Buckeyes lost a ton of vital talent after last season. Freshman Taylor Harrison is supposed to be their new standout, and she’s starting to put things together now (39.300 AA in the most recent meet with a 9.875 on BB).
But that’s not all! Highlighting Saturday action is Utah’s trip to Georgia, and you better believe I’ll be here to blog that one. It’s going to be a treat.
Georgia has lost to so many peer teams this year, that one last win over Utah before we head into the various championships would go a long way toward righting the ship. As in the Oklahoma/Alabama clash, Utah is ranked better on every event, though Georgia should be the stronger bars team if everyone hits. That will be key. The Gym Dogs have plenty of people who are capable of getting Dabritz-level scores. Rogers, certainly. Brown, ideally. Davis, absolutely. Chelsea Davis does not have a 10 on bars in her career, peaking at multiple dozens of 9.9+ scores, and it’s senior day. Is it her time? If Georgia is going to win this meet, winning bars is a must. Utah is the stronger team on vault, and we know Georgia’s history of problems in the second half of meets, so if the Gym Dogs don’t use bars to keep things close at halfway, they’re in trouble. They need to be near enough to Utah going to the last rotation that they can use a big, final shower of senior day 9.9s on floor to take it.
Top 25 Schedule
Friday, March 13
9:00 ET/6:00 PT –  Boise State,  Cal @  Southern Utah
4:00 ET/1:00 PT –  Utah @  Georgia
6:00 ET/3:00 PT –  Denver @  Arizona
10:00 ET/7:00 PT – San Jose State, Lindenwood, Seattle Pacific @  Oregon State
Sunday, March 15