Thus, the insanity begins. Last year, we were subjected to the relative letdown of all twelve #1 and #2 seeds advancing to nationals, but this season has been marked by uprooting of the traditional order of things, with teams like Cal and Denver breaking into the top 12 and shoving out some more established powers. The heavy parity among most of the teams ranked 10-18 should be cause for hope that we’ll see some real upsets this year, but even if we don’t and all the #1 and #2 seeds go through, that would still mean that less-traditional qualifiers like Cal and Denver are heading to nationals.
Before we go to therapy for our anticipation problems by dissecting the regional championships one by one, the news of the day is the announcement of the six finalists for the AAI Award, a.k.a. the Best Senior Award: Caitlin Atkinson, Ivana Hong, Lindsay Mable, Nina McGee, Haley Scaman, and Bridget Sloan. Snubs include Brandie Jay, Brittany Rogers, Danusia Francis, Lauren Beers, among others. I wonder who’s going to win…
Anyway, to the regionals! Let’s begin with the top-seeded Oklahoma Sooners and their visit to the land of that butter statue of Shawn Johnson, the great state of Iowa.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Oklahoma (bye before bars)
 Nebraska (beam)
 Arkansas (floor)
 Iowa (bye before floor)
 Kent State (bars)
 Central Michigan (vault)
Western Michigan (Anna Corbett – AA; Kelsey Hood – AA; Jessie Peszek – UB, BB; Rachel Underwood – BB, FX; Jessi Buis – VT; Jessica Juncaj – UB)
Ball State (Denaisha Christian – VT, FX; Sarah Ebeyer – VT, FX; Jordyn Penny – UB; Baylee Bell – BB)
Centenary (Ashley White – AA)
The favorite — Oklahoma
The Sooners should sail through this competition for all of the reasons, of particular note being that their season average is greater than the season high of any other team in the meet and that they’ve spent the month of March looking even more postseasony than usual. It would be a massive disaster if Oklahoma were not to qualify out of this session, so I’ll spend more time addressing the Sooners later once we head toward nationals and start evaluating the title chances of the various top contenders.
If things go to plan and Oklahoma is up by, you know, seven tenths halfway through the meet, everyone’s attention will probably be directed at the exciting qualification fight for the second spot in this session, but there are still a few areas to look out for in Oklahoma’s performance with eyes toward nationals. As with pretty much all the teams, refining landings will be a major focus of the next month. Vault is the only event on which Oklahoma doesn’t own the world, currently sitting in 3rd place behind LSU and Florida, often a result of the lineup peaking around 9.875 when Scaman and Jackson have larger steps on their 1.5s at the end. They need some more consistently controlled landings on those 1.5s to keep pace with the Gnats and the Bakers. (Should Oklahoma mimic what Florida does with McMurtry and throw a sticker like Kmieciak or Capps in the anchor spot after the 1.5s to ensure they get 9.9s instead of potentially being kept down earlier in the lineup?) I’m also interested to see how the routines are being evaluated as a whole since we’ll get both Oklahoma and Florida as away teams at (hopefully) non-cuckoo-scoring venues at the same time for comparison.
The fight — Nebraska v. Arkansas
This year, the #3 seeds are ending on a bye, which isn’t great for the excitement of the competition but does mean that we should know exactly what Nebraska needs to do on bars heading into the final rotation since Arkansas will already be done. We have reason to hope it’ll be close because there’s very little to separate these teams right now, as it should be when the #12 and #13 face off. It would be hard to consider either team advancing much of an upset. In fact, while Nebraska’s overall RQS is a touch higher than Arkansas’s, their four event RQSs total exactly identically.
The performances at conference championships pretty clearly illustrate the identities of each of these rosters at this point in the season (now that Nebraska has enough people to compete): Nebraska scored eight 9.9s to Arkansas’s one, while Nebraska also had three scores under 9.7 to Arkansas’s none, with the caveat that Nebraska’s conference championship also took place at home. Nebraska has more big-score potential from Blanske, Laeng, Breen now, and Williams sometimes but also still has to throw in the occasional backup auto-drop, while Arkansas has been 9.850ing along in pretty much every meet. After enduring a disaster in Cancun (“we’ve all been there, amiright?” said the worst person in the world), Arkansas has become one of NCAA’s most reliable teams.
This would seem to indicate that the meet is in Nebraska’s hands. If the Huskers hit to a relatively postseasonish level, they can take a couple tenths and run away and hide with them (recent form backs this up, with Nebraska’s lowest score in the last three being 196.900—a meet that included counting an OOB on floor—and Arkansas’s highest being 196.775). That’s why it’s imperative for Arkansas to nail its “big” routine on each event. Arkansas doesn’t have a lot of huge gymnastics, going the yfull-double pike route this season, so the showcase routine—be it Wellick on vault and floor, Zaziski on bars, or Nelson on beam—must be a big number to take away Nebraska’s chance of using more 9.9s to rack up a multi-tenth edge.
If we employ RQS as our constant and reliable guide—because without numbers we’re no better than the animals—Arkansas theoretically has the edge on vault and floor.
That’s mostly a reflection of consistency. Arkansas has shown better landing control on vault and has suffered fewer instances of having to put up only five on vault and floor. Or as the kids call it, Nebraskaing. They’ve both had some, Nebraska during Laeng’s absence and the Ashley Lambert injury saga and Arkansas after the injury to MacMoyle, but no one can out-“putting up five on vault and floor” Nebraska. The bigger routines from Blanske at the end of those Nebraska lineups, however, may negate any Arkansas consistency advantage, especially if she sticks that 1.5 the way she did at Big Tens.
Bars and beam, on the other hand, are supposed to go Nebraska’s way. Nebraska’s beam RQS is higher than its vault RQS, you guys. WHAT IS THIS WORLD? I don’t even know what to think. So I won’t. Bars has seen some lineup upheaval for the Huskers this year, but it was the event that nearly single-handedly saved their score at Big Tens as they Oklahomaed all over that score sheet.
Nebraska’s final event is bars, while Arkansas finishes on beam, which should be advantage Nebraska. Arkansas has been solid on beam this year and has found a lineup that works, but it’s not going to be a hugely huge score, especially if Sydnie Dillard keeps getting Aisha Gerber-level inexplicably low 9.7s in the first spot. That means the closer Nebraska keeps it early, the more the advantage shifts to the Huskers. All of these #2 seeds like Nebraska are starting on beam, so we’re going to have a pretty good sense of where the Upset Meter stands after the first rotation of each regional.
The spoiler — Iowa
“There’s nothing more dangerous than an unseeded host team capable of scoring 196.500” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
We can’t count out Iowa here. Quietly, this has been a pretty monumental season for the Hawkeyes. Escaping from the usual purgatory of the lower end of the top 30, Iowa used some mid-season 196s to jump squarely into the teens and enter regionals as the strongest of the unseeded schools. Competing at home, and with a competitive scoring precedent already set this season, Iowa could do some damage as long as Nebraska and Arkansas have a case of the 9.825s and stay in the 196s. On vault and floor early in the meet, watch the scores for Drenth and Glover. If Glover is hitting 9.900 on floor and Drenth is hitting 9.9 for her “arabian,” as she did at Big Tens, that’s your sign that this might be an out-of-the-ordinary scoring day and that Iowa needs to be watched. Still, unless it’s a day of true crazy home craziness, it’s hard to imagine Iowa beating hit meets from both Nebraska and Arkansas, who are much more likely to go into the higher end of the 196s. Iowa needs a couple meltdowns. But, they can be minor meltdowns as long as Iowa stays on 49 pace. If the first two events are sub-49, it will take more than a minor mistake from the others for Iowa to get into this meet.
And the rest
Kent State and Central Michigan round out the regional, and for them it’s more a fight with each other than a fight to make it to nationals. Central Michigan impressed last year, but after graduating basically the entire roster + seven people, CMU did well just to hang on for a spot at regionals this season. Kent State recovered from missing out in 2015 with some crucial late 195s to hop into the top 36. It will be a battle of Kent State’s floor versus CMU’s bars and beam. Kent State ranks very competitively on floor but relies heavily on that being a 49+ score because the other events are weaker, which may be Central Michigan’s opening.
The top two AAers not on a qualifying team will advance to nationals from each regional competition, along with any event champions who are not on a qualifying team. Every year, a couple individual event gymnasts do advance to nationals, but it’s very difficult, especially in a regional like this when making nationals for a single event requires beating Oklahoma’s entire lineup. No easy task. Sorry, bars specialists. Wofford’s in the house.
In the all-around, Nebraska has several competitive AAers because, as usual, there are only about three and a quarter healthy gymnasts on this team. Blanske, Williams, Laeng and Breen are all back in the AA with 39.400 potential, and any two of them could advance to nationals if Nebraska doesn’t make it. Of course, if Nebraska doesn’t make it, that probably means at least a couple of them didn’t do so much with the great in this meet, but that’s why there are four. Two probably still will.
If Nebraska does qualify and Arkansas does not, then Wellick becomes the clear pick to advance as an individual. She’s the only AAer for Arkansas, so for the other spot, money probably goes on Mollie Drenth, who is capable of 39.3s/39.4s and could also quite realistically knock out some of the Nebraska gymnasts if that’s the scenario. Angel Metcalf of Iowa is also in the hunt, though Drenth probably has higher scoring potential. CMU will put up Bolender, Teet, and Janowicz in the all-around, but they’re lower down the scoring chart and would need mistakes from Nebraskans/Iowans to get in.