Welcome to Pac-12s Part Deux: Megan’s Revenge, the thrilling summer blockbuster in which Utah will try to beat UCLA for the first time in 2016 following two consecutive losses in what feels like their fifteenth meeting of the season.
Repetitive matchups are one of the problems I have with creating a bracket for the postseason, in addition to the fact that it’s not a true knockout event and doesn’t have enough rounds for a bracket to be all that necessary. (It should be a true knockout event, but it isn’t. The meets are best 2 out of 6, or 3 out of 6, which isn’t the same thing and is fundamentally less dramatic. You don’t get a bracket until you institute a format that lends itself to a bracket. You don’t get dessert until you eat your vegetables.) You might as well just list all the teams at the beginning of the season in two columns, put a box in the middle for the winner, and say, “It’s a bracket!” It’s not a bracket.
This will be the third meeting of the season between Utah and UCLA (and their third each against Washington, though at least they were in different sessions at Pac-12s). If they both do qualify, the semifinals will be their 4th meeting and the third consecutive meet day in which they’ve faced off. We get it. By contrast, Utah and Auburn would have been an interesting comparison, and they probably won’t meet at all.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Utah (bye before bars)
 UCLA (beam)
 Washington (floor)
 Southern Utah (bye before floor)
 Illinois (bars)
 Utah State (vault)
Sacramento State (Kalliah McCartney – AA; Lauren Rice – AA; Cassie Benning – UB, FX; Julia Konner – VT)
UC Davis (Alexis Brown – UB, BB; Stephanie Stamates – BB, FX; Katy Nogaki – VT)
Seattle Pacific (Maria Hundley – AA)
Alaska (M’rcy Matsunami – AA)
The favorites – Utah and UCLA
Unlike in the regionals previewed so far, this one features two teams that really should go through barring disaster. Disasters are always possible, and always the most fun, but if Utah and UCLA hit five-for-six on each event, they’ll advance. The other teams are hoping for a mistake.
The clash between Utah and UCLA should still be quite interesting and telling about both teams’ potential to do some damage in the postseason. UCLA’s position is bolstered by the two wins over Utah this year, while Utah’s position is bolstered by finishing only .325 behind UCLA at Pac-12s in spite of counting a fall. And by being at home this time. The Bruins would counter that they also had some mistakes at Pac-12s that brought down their score, like Cipra’s floor fall and Preston’s not-in-the-face vault. And we could go on. It should be a close-fought affair. With the home advantage and the stronger scoring pedigree over the whole season (a higher RQS on three of four events), Utah should come in as the favorite between the two, though far from a prohibitive one.
Neither team has a ton of difficulty on vault and both may struggle to compete with the three-1.5 lineups of the SEC once we get to nationals, but Utah’s landings were significantly stronger than UCLA’s at Pac-12s with a couple vaulters showing season-best sticks. Even without a difficulty edge, Utah’s vault beat UCLA’s by nearly three tenths because of landings (and direction, and knees), which would be a massive boon if that were repeated at regionals.
UCLA’s edge comes on beam, with a lineup that is quite smooth in rhythm, precise in split elements, and varied in skill selection and difficulty. Utah, meanwhile, showed the signs of the Stover-ectomy in counting a beam fall at Pac-12s. It’s clear the team needs her back as soon as possible not just to prevent using a fall but to provide a much-needed 9.9.
Interestingly, UCLA beat Utah on bars at Pac-12s, even though bars is supposed to be a weakness for UCLA that compromises postseason hopes while it has been a strength for Utah. If UCLA is able to continue minimizing the bars deficit compared to a team like Utah, perhaps aided by a mysterious secret-weapon appearance of Peng or Ohashi, that would eliminate one major obstacle to postseason success. I’m not convinced yet, but it will be worth watching.
As for the rotation order, UCLA begins on its two best events, which I don’t love. It means the Bruins must get a bunch of big scores early and absolutely need a lead at the halfway point, and a pretty significant one, to have a shot at winning this thing. They’ll want a solid 98.800 after beam and floor, which is doable. The Utes will gain ground in the second half of the meet, particularly when they turn to floor as UCLA is turning to vault. As long as Utah is anywhere over 98.500 after bars and beam, even if still trailing, I would consider that on track to put up a competitive total/win.
The challengers – Washington, Southern Utah, Illinois
All three of these teams have proven capable of a mid-196 this year, each peaking in the 196.5-196.6 territory. The problem for them is that both Utah and UCLA would consider a 196.6 quite a poor showing. Even when counting a fall at Pac-12s, Utah went 196.9, and UCLA’s last fall-counting score was 196.8. Both favorites will have some buffer. But which of these challenging schools is the most likely to put pressure on Utah and UCLA? It could go any which way.
If we judge by RQS, Washington is 3rd on vault, Southern Utah is 3rd on floor, Illinois is 3rd on beam, and Utah State is 3rd on bars. So that helps zero. Thank you, RQS.
Somewhat in keeping with the theme of this regional, vault has been a nightmare for all of the challenging teams, and we’re going to see a rash of 48s. If Washington can in fact be the best of the group on vault, that bodes well since bars and beam really should be their most competitive pieces. With hits. Beam was an absolute catastrophe at Pac-12s, taking Washington out of the competition in the very first rotation, but the style in that lineup has not gone unnoticed. It’s only fitting when an accomplished butterfly charmer is coaching the event. There’s a universe in which Washington stays very competitive on bars and beam. I’m not sure if this is that universe, but I know it exists.
Southern Utah has been a floor force this year and will look to put up a score well over 49 there that can be ridden into the mid-196s with hits on the other pieces. Having to start on floor is unfortunate because we don’t know how much the floor scores will soar early before UCLA and Utah head there, but SUU has regularly scored 9.875-9.900s in a variety of contexts this season. Southern Utah should be leading the pack of challenging teams after one apparatus and will then look to hold on with consistency to remain in front of the peloton. Bars can be another strong SUU score, with a couple likely 9.850+s including a routine from Memory Shettles, whose name is Memory Shettles. She was an AA star two seasons ago but missed last year with injury and is just back on bars this season, though we’re seeing the shades of that success once again in her bars work.
It’s sort of shocking to see Illinois sitting all the way down at a #5 seed. Illinois is a perennial nationals contender, but it just wasn’t happening this season, even before the storm of injuries to Horth and O’Connor. That’s eight essential routines lost that most schools would be unable to replace, and Illinois is one of those schools, having to throw out a yurchenko layout on vault and a number of 9.725s on the other events. There are still highlights. Sunny Kato is a joy and 3/4 on bars and beam, Erin Buchanan continues leading the floor lineup, and Lizzy Leduc has moments where she shows that elite training even if the consistency of execution isn’t there yet. We’ll see some good scores pop up for Illinois, and a total that could verge on 196 with a hit, but with all the injuries, the lineups just aren’t deep enough to fulfill the potential this roster seemed to be bursting with before the season began.
And the rest
Sorry, Utah State. You’re alone in this one. As mentioned, Utah State has been competitive on bars this season and should put up a 49 score there, but the 196s have been harder to come by than for the other challenging teams. Utah State is the least likely of the group to emerge as the top challenger, but this does mark the third-consecutive season that Utah State has advanced to regionals, following a long winter of hanging down in the bottom half of the 40s and not challenging for regionals places at all. Utah State had an absolute nightmare on bars and beam two years ago and counted a major mistake on bars again last year, so with bars such an important event for the team score this year, slaying that postseason demon is imperative to remaining in the vaguely competitive zone. Really, Utah State’s main goal will be a qualifier in the individual race, which is possible.
If we assume that Utah and UCLA do qualify as teams, then the biggest favorite to advance to nationals as an all-arounder is Allison Northey. She’s ranked in the top 15 and has proven her ability to hit that exalted 39.500 plateau. The other major player to keep an eye on is Danielle Ramirez from Southern Utah. She’s more than capable of going 9.850 across the board, and potentially higher on bars when she hits. There have also been some falls, but earlier in the season. If gymnastics betting were a thing, those are the two I would go for, but it’s not as straightforward as all that. There are some complications. Bailey McIntire of Utah State is a big one.
McIntire has gone 39.400 twice this season, including at the conference championship, and her ability to brush the 9.9 plateau on bars and floor is what makes those events USU’s most competitive scores. It’s always fun to have someone from a #6 seed to watch out for, and McIntire is a legitimate contender here.
Under normal circumstances, Illinois would have been expected to snatch both the AA spots with O’Connor and Horth, but now, individual qualification to nationals appears much less likely. It would be amazing to see Leduc sneak in there, and while she does have a few competitive scores and can stay close on one of her consistent days, vault may take her scoring potential down too low to challenge hits from Northey and Ramirez. Buchanan is probably the team’s top AAer now. She should be very competitive on floor and vault, but bars and beam can get a little 9.7y. They’re both in it, yet others have proven more 9.850ish across the events. The same is probably true for Goings, Washington’s second AA option. She’ll get a solid number, but Northey is more likely to score higher.