Onward! So many regionals, so little time. Or so it will be on April 4th. The action begins that day with the Morgantown Regional, starting at 4:00 ET/1:00 PT. None of the other meets will be starting until an hour later, so our attention spans will have some solid quality time to spend with what should be one of the most interesting competitions on the day. This is not a cut-and-dry regional.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Florida (bars)
 Stanford (bye before bars)
 Illinois (beam)
 Arkansas (bye before floor)
 New Hampshire (vault)
 West Virginia (floor)
Competing individuals are from Bridgeport (Sasha Tsikhanovich – AA; Caitlin Perry – floor), Rutgers (Elizabeth Groden – AA; Luisa Leal – vault; Jenna Williams – bars), Brown (Diana Walters – AA; Jorden Mitchell – AA), West Chester (Majesta Valentine – AA), Pittsburgh (Lindsay Offutt – beam).
Florida is in the same boat as Oklahoma, a would-be easy qualifier that we can get into dissecting in true detail once nationals roll around, but considering the strength of this regional and Florida’s performance at SECs this year, there are just a few more things I’m interested in keeping an eye on as the competition proceeds. That’s not to say Florida is in danger, or anything. The Gators have no business making this meet even remotely interesting for themselves, but all eyes will be on beam in the second rotation. I really want to see that lineup, and I really want to see how they manage to recover. This performance will tell us whether SECs was a fluke or whether this is something we should be worried about going into nationals, a la 2011 with the beam meltdown heard round the world.
My instinct is certainly on the fluke side more than the problem side. We should see a recovery at regionals, but more than the hitting, the quality of the hit will be important to watch because there are several routines in that lineup that can get stuck in the 9.850s even when hit. That will not keep pace with Oklahoma, boasting what is apparently a whole lineup of 9.975s depending on whether you’re a judge at Big 12s or not. We need to see more than just hits, we need to see 9.9s from people who aren’t Bridget Sloan. At SECs, Florida put together three rotations that are on track to be national-title quality (not there yet, but on track), but if that’s actually going to happen, they can’t give away .050-.075 per beam routine to Oklahoma. It’s too close for that.
Stanford, Illinois, Arkansas
Here’s the thing. Stanford should qualify. Stanford is the most talented team of this contending group, but my confidence in that happening is wisps if anything at all. Not after the solid 197 that Illinois enjoyed at Big Tens and not with how generally nervous Stanford makes me at every moment, how variable their performances are, and how fleeting amazingness has tended to be. That’s why Stanford never gets to be a sure bet. There’s always that doubt. Which isn’t helped by Arkansas’s presence as a wildly dangerous 4th seed. I’m including Arkansas in this group because Arkansas is the quintessential spoiler. That’s what this team does. I do think that if Stanford or Illinois hit to potential, Arkansas cannot match that score. But if both teams are a little tight in these high-pressure circumstances (it doesn’t even have to be a fall, just a couple landings and a couple tenths here and there), then Arkansas is right in this.
Stanford and Illinois actually profile quite similarly, and it’s a pretty rare profile when it comes to US gymnastics. Both teams would much rather be on bars than any other event and don’t so much care for all that vault and floor nonsense. It makes their showdown pretty interesting. Which team has done better to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses? Stanford’s bars is absolutely a strength and, to me, the most enjoyable bars rotation to watch of any team this year. There’s some serious toe point and attention to detail happening in there, and when those landings are on track, 49.5s are real. Illinois can keep relative pace with Stanford’s bars, especially because of stellar routines from Kato and Horth. Taking into account the full 1-6 in the lineup, Illinois probably doesn’t have the quality to match Stanford, but if they bring the sticks like they did at regionals last year, they do have a chance to make up that gap in the scores. But bars is more important for Stanford than it is for Illinois. Because it’s so clearly Stanford’s best event and a realistic 49.500, it’s still the best opportunity for Stanford to establish an edge in this meet, in spite of Illinois’s quality.
Bars and beam are Stanford’s first two events, so it’s critical that they have a huge score at the halfway point. Absolutely essential. At Pac-12s, the bars/beam score was 98.625, but I’m thinking they’re going to need a bit more than that to feel comfortable this time around. 98.7s or 98.8s would be nice, which is doable if they get a few more beam scores to support Hong. Stanford’s beam should be a bigger strength than it has been this year. A bunch of disappointing 49.1s in there. Same for Illinois, really. With Horth and Kato there as well, that rotation has bigger potential than 49.1s. Illinois’s first two events will be beam and, dun-dun-dun, floor, so they’ll just be looking to keep things close. Within a tenth or two at the halfway point, and Illinois should be pleased. That’s because floor has been just something to get through, for both Illinois and Stanford, this year. That’s the nice way of putting it. It has been a pro-o-o-o-oblem. Way more 48s than should ever really be happening on floor. Illinois is in need of a Gianna O’Connor-led intervention to help everyone else on the team keep floor as competitive as she does.
The pressure will certainly be on Stanford to start quickly and get the big scores early, but some of that pressure can be taken off by trump card Elizabeth Price. I’m still waiting for her to come back on floor (we had that one tantalizing taste), but if she does, it’s the edge Stanford would need, and the Cardinal would become the definite favorite on floor as well. We know how much her 9.950 has saved the vault lineup this year to keep it much closer to competitive. But the other vaults still do have a tendency to get stuck in the 9.825s, especially if the case of the bouncies is still contagious, so Stanford is going to need to find a way to establish a true lead before going to vault in the last rotation. Illinois finishes on bars at the same time and will look to stay close up until that point so that they can use another bam-bam DLO parade to move up and clinch an upset.
Don’t be surprised if Arkansas is seriously close in the standings for most of the meet. Arkansas’s first two events are floor and vault, and given what issues those have been for Stanford and Illinois (possible Price notwithstanding), it’s realistic to consider Arkansas the second-best vault and floor team in this competition. The Razorbacks should be pretty competitive through the first half and, like Stanford, need a humongous early score to be a real challenger (seeing Illinois in fourth place at halfway is realistic and not necessarily cause for alarm for Illinois fans). But we won’t really know anything until the end of the meet because Arkansas won’t go to beam until the sixth rotation. Beam has been a consistency catastrophe and is the biggest thing holding me back from considering Arkansas a more serious challenger to Stanford and Illinois. If it were just the other three events, Arkansas would be on par. Which means if they suddenly figure out beam, we’ve got ourselves a meet.
And the rest/Individuals
The biggest challenge to the higher seeds comes from Arkansas. If we get a surprise, it will be them. Having such a strong 4th seed also means that New Hampshire and West Virginia would have to hope for an implosion not only from Illinois and Stanford but from Arkansas as well to somehow get into this one.
West Virginia is at home, which is always a boost, and traditionally West Virginia has been among the teams that enjoy a considerable home advantage. At the same time, it’s probably the kind of home advantage that would allow WVU to finish 5th instead of 6th. They may be competitive early, though. West Virginia starts on floor, which has been their best event by far this year, so some contending early scores wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. The problem is once they get to bars and beam.
In the all-around, there’s some serious action a-brewing, especially if Stanford is indeed able to qualify. If Stanford fails to qualify, then Kristina Vaculik BETTER get to nationals as an AAer otherwise there will be no point to the world. But if Stanford does advance, then there is a potentially serious five-way showdown among Illinois’s O’Connor, Horth, and Buchanan, and Arkansas’s Wellick and Zaziski. You want to call that one? I guess I’d say O’Connor and Wellick would be the safest calls, but I’d like to see Zaziski, the co-SEC freshman of the year (selected over McMurtry—scandal!).
New Hampshire also has a solid 9.825 AAer in Meghan Pflieger who is a colossal benefit to the team, but given the AA depth in this region, it’s going to be challenging for her to make a mark.