Freshman Notes: Florida, Utah, Stanford

We’ve got a whole slew of new, optimistic faces ready to start their NCAA careers in a month and a half (lots of classes with 5 and 6 freshmen this year), so before they do that, let’s get to know the new meat and break down what they’ll bring to their teams—besides “such great enthusiasm and a beautiful competitive spirit,” thank you for your no help, coaches—and where they might contribute this year.


The defending champs have certainly lost significant routines from Kytra Hunter and the Wang/Spicer 9.850 Preservation Committee after last season, but this is Florida and that happens every year. This new class is probably the second-strongest freshman group in the nation (because cut to LSU going, “wanna fight?”) and will be expected to maintain a similar team-scoring pace while missing very few beats, aside from the hole in the ceiling left by Kytra’s floor 10s.

It’s rare that one of the most anticipated freshmen in a season is a non-elite, but such was the level of Alicia Boren‘s annual dominance at JO nationals, winning her age group about a hundred years in a row. With most of the name-brand elites entering this season carrying Pulitzer-level injury histories, Boren looks to be among the more reliable bets for “impact freshman,” or whatever sportsball people say.

Vault and floor are a definite yes for Boren. She has a very comfortable 1.5 on vault, which is all the more valuable this season, and her floor tumbling is big, big, big. She anchored her JO floor routine with a full-in, which is a total “check me out, losers” move, and I love it. At this point, we should probably start a running tally of “SHE’S THE NEW KYTRA!!11” for the season, because it’s going to be all the time. We need a gymnastics-commentary swear jar for it. I hereby ban all further mentions.

Boren’s beam work will also have a definite place on the team, with her strong, secure acro elements and workable leaps. The main question mark as to her possible AA contribution will be bars since it’s the weaker event of her four. It’s not really a problem routine (she would compete bars for the majority of teams), but the releases are a little clunky and there’s some foot form. So, while she’s capable of putting up a usable bars routine, it will be more challenging to make the top 6 there. At the same time, her JO bars work is much stronger than McMurtry’s was, so there’s that. 9.950

Let’s move on to Peyton Ernst, the one you always think is a character from Make It Or Break It and then remember that she’s a real person. Ernst was an elite for a number of years, coming out of Texas (Bailie Key’s Broken) Dreams, and was legitimately in the conversation for an early-quad Worlds team before her case of Generalized Elite Injury Disorder set in. She has been a little witness protectiony ever since, so in some respects it will be a wait-and-see as to how much she’s able to recover those elite routines. But, with her previous elite skill set and well-rounded difficulty and quality across four events (DTY, shaposhi, DLO & double arabian on floor, strong dance elements), she would certainly contribute a big routine on any event in ideal health circumstances.

Ernst’s most important event will be beam (and that’s the one event we saw from her in the most recent training videos above). Remember when she showed up with that 6.3 elite beam routine and everyone went, “Is that a number?!?!?” We were so young then. Beam was the weakest event for the Gators last year (relative), and they haven’t really had that second sure beam 9.900 since Macko left (SHE’S THE NEW MACKO!!11…anyone? Anyone?). Ernst can be that with the right skill composition, of which she has many, many options.

Also of note, this isn’t much of a bars class (it’s the bad event for every newbie except Ernst), but the strong crop of returning bars routines means that won’t necessarily be a problem. Still, Ernst is the one who can make a real difference there.

Lacy Dagen looks to be another in that ever-growing line of strong Florida gymnasts who get  overshadowed by the bigger names but should still contend for a couple early lineup spots, depending on the general injury-scape for people like Ernst and the recovering Claire Boyce. There will be several open Wang/Spicer spots here and there, and everyone will basically have to arm-wrestle Ericha Fassbender to see who gets them. It could be a number of people. Dagen was a junior elite at the very end of the last quad and has a solid full on vault (along with about 10 other people on this roster) and showed a DLO on floor, and both of those will be assets for her.

Amanda Cheney and Ashley Hiller are the later additions to the team for this year, with Cheney excelling on beam (she also has a fine yfull and tumbling, but it’s mostly beam) with lovely line and presentation. As long as they get rid of her straddle 1/2 like yesterday, it could be a thing. Hiller was a vault standout as a JO gymnast, placing 2nd there in Senior D this year, as has some serious ups on her full.

The Utes have quite a job to do this year if they’re to come anywhere close to reenacting last year’s 2nd-place. 12 out of 24 routines will now need replacing after the departures of Dabritz, Lothrop, Wilson, and Tutka. It’s basically the whole floor lineup.

This new class does not have the same big gymnastics and accomplished resumes of that departing group and will not be expected to replicate the same quality. As much onus will be on the sophomores like Partyka and Stover to show more routines this year to make up the lost scores, but realistically the scoring potential will not be as high. In contrast to last year, when the team had enough routines and depth to bring the new ones along slowly, these freshmen will be thrown into the fire and relied upon to do more because of just how many lineup gaps there are now.

Makenna Merrell has risen the JO ranks in the last year or so, ultimately finishing 2nd in her age group at Nationals this year. She possesses that “are you a person or a line segment?” look that everybody seems to love, especially on beam where she has an almost Nastia-circa-2003 thing going on in her movement choices (if you squint…and get drunk?).

But Megan, we’re going to have a sit down with her about wrists, right? Good. But, Merrell is an interesting one because with that look, you’d expect her to be solely bars and beam queen. That is where I expect to see her biggest contribution—she should absolutely do beam because she has good extension through her loso series and the girl can hit a split—but she also has some unexpected difficulty on vault and floor, which have yielded the majority of her best scores in JO and account for her big recent AA results.

Merrell has a 1.5 on vault and a piked full-in on floor, which is higher difficulty than anyone else in this class, though I’m not quite sold yet. The 1.5 can sometimes be a little short and fragile and is the kind of vault that probably would have been downgraded to a full in previous seasons, but this year it will be viewed as an asset and they may work harder to make it a thing. Watch that space. She’s the definite possibility as an AAer in this class.

But most importantly, Merrell is from All-American gymnastics, and the biggest thing I learned is that her gym has a meet called “All American Hot & Ready,” which is absolutely unacceptable. Also, please do not google “all american hot and ready.”

Following much “which school are you going to?” and a prolonged multi-year case of the brokens, the Wogette Sabrina Schwab ended up at Utah once UCLA was like, “I don’t know her…” If she emerges as a big contributor, expect a lot of “we didn’t give up on her like certain other schools…” Or at least I hope so. Post-TV-meet shade is one of my favorite types of shade. I’m giving Megan a lot of assignments so far.

Schwab is expected to be primarily bars and beam and contribute significantly there. It makes sense because she has definite WOGA bars, complete with lovely toe point and handstands and some slight WOGAtkatchev-itis to balance it out. Back in the day when she was doing junior elite, she also showed an enjoyable floor routine featuring a legit 3/1, so I’ll be hoping to see her on more than just bars and beam at some point over the years if she’s able to get back, but her bars is by far the most important routines this year as they try to restock that lineup post-Dabritz auto-10. They’ll need something serious from her.

Like many of her incoming peers, Shannon McNatt was a junior elite for a second in 2012. Of particular note is her Omelianchik on vault, which is the routine we’re most likely to see.

It’s a strong vault, she has been doing it for a while, and it’s still valued out of a 10, which shoots her up the vault list quite a few places. Having an Omelianchik is a much bigger asset now when the majority of gymnasts are coming in doing perfectly OK fulls that start from 9.950. I’m not sold on the other events yet, but she has the passes on floor.  

With the floor lineup so depleted, Utah will be looking for people to emerge with usable work there, even if they’re not the “ALL THE E PASSES” routines of a couple years ago. Erika Muhaw is one of those options. She’s another of the clean-high-double-pike brigade, but she also shows solid dance elements with her straddle work and could put together a routine that’s relatively free from deductions. It’s a similar story on beam. She’s a total Christine Still “efficient little gymNAST.”  

Stanford’s freshman class this year is sort of [scene missing], which is fitting because that whole program is like, “Shhhh, gymnastics is a secret.” Stanford gymnastics is like one of those pop-up restaurants that’s only open one Thursday every year and no one knows when it’s going to be or who’s doing it, and the only dish is a wicker chest of octopus foam. Who’s healthy enough to compete this year? We’ll find out in January! Let’s hope it’s more than 4 people this time.

Stanford’s great postseason last year was built on gorgeous bars and beam routines, so the loss of Shapiro and Vaculik is slightly troubling, mostly emotionally because how are we going to survive now? Just by watching Vaculik Gienger on youtube and then crying ourselves to sleep, like usual?  It’s not wholly troubling because the Ebee/Ivie dynamic duo should still be getting 9.9s, but it will be tough to keep the same pace since this new group doesn’t really excel on bars. That’s why Dare Maxwell will be important. She’s the one who could. In breaking news, she still does gymnastics and has great toe point along with a Ray, which should be able to be molded into something excellent by the Stanford bars machine if she stays healthy.

But as we know, this team is always in need of vault and floor routines so that they actually have 6 of them, which is where Taryn Fitzgerald comes in. She has a pretty solid full on vault (also has done a 1.5, but I’m thinking it should be a full) and a double arabian on floor at times, so that’s basically a golden ticket. Get in those lineups.

The biggest thing to know about Hailee Hoffman and Nicole Hoffman is that they’re not related, which is blowing my mind. I already have enough trouble with the McNairs, and at least they have the common decency to be twins. Nicole has solid, contained form in a relatively low-difficulty repertoire across most of the events. She could do a clean floor for them. As for Hailee, she has posted her best scores on vault and floor in JO, though I’ve seen very little from her.

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