National Championships Preview Part 1: Innocent Gymnasts versus the Beam Troll

Gather round, darling children, and learn about the NCAA national championship, a far-off magical land where all the most glorious gymnasts assemble in an arena made of gumdrops and frozen tears for a battle royale to see who can force the biggest fake smile after her teammate falls on beam. It’s always a really close contest. 

As is only traditional, let’s begin at the start. The first of the two semifinals will take place in the void between the dimensions on April 15th at 2:00 ET/11:00 PT and should be a doozy. 

Competing teams (starting event)
[2] Florida (bye before floor)
[3] LSU (bye before bars)
[6] Auburn (vault)
[9] Georgia (beam)
[16] Minnesota (floor)
[18] Stanford (bars)

Competing individuals
All-around – Nicole Artz, Michigan; Alison Northey, Washington; Morgan Porter, Missouri; Sidney Dukes, Kentucky; Alex Hyland, Kentucky; Danielle Ramirez, Southern Utah

Vault – Meaghan Sievers, Iowa State
Beam – Lexi Mills, Arizona
Floor – Talia Chiarelli, Michigan; Brianna Tsang, Penn State; Lindsay Offutt, Pittsburgh

An argument can be made for five of these six teams advancing without having to concoct very many insane circumstances at all (sorry, Minnesota, but it would take a splatfest from the others). The big five should all expect to score into the 197s and will be disappointed by anything less than that. Even though we see 197s fall all over the place during the regular season, it’s not a given that the challenging teams will reach that plateau in this meet as scores tend to tighten at nationals (tend being the operative word). The highest score that has ever failed to advance from a semifinal is 197.025, an ignominious mark shared by Utah 2014 and Michigan 2015. That’s not a particularly impressive score these days during the regular season, but 197 remains a thing at the national championship.

To some extent, we’re in the dark about how scoring will play out in the semifinals because we’re entering a whole new era. Starting this year, six judges will work each event beginning with the semifinals. Will that depress the scores? Possibly. That’s two more whole people who have to be slipped a roll of cash under the bathroom door, which is a lot of work. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

This was instituted in an attempt to prevent a heap of ties for event winners now that those titles will be decided on Friday as well, and in case you’re wondering, it’s terrible. Theoretically, having more judges and more oversight for scores at the most important meet is a great idea, but this is also going to result in a ton of really ugly-decimal scores that will be inconsistent with the round-number scores we’ve seen all season long. It’s the most unappealing thing I’ve ever heard. I just want to buy a crate of apples and stab them all about it.

So…to the teams!

Closer to nationals, I’ll do a Super Six preview, which is ludicrous to do before we know who has qualified to Super Six but when has this blog ever been unludicrous? I’ll save a more detailed discussion of Florida and LSU and how they match up against the other title contenders for that preview since they should both be in the mix. Of course, there’s still the semifinal to get through, and counting a fall could ruin the year for any team at this point, but these two are the clear favorites to emerge from this semifinal. If either doesn’t make it, it’s an upset. For the rest of the teams in this group, it isn’t.

Florida looked distinctly meh at regionals, and while that’s a near-annual tradition that shouldn’t necessarily indicate anything real, the score was a far-from-peak 196.725. I’m not expecting a 196.725 to make Super Six. By contrast, Florida also looked a little meh at regionals last year, but the score was still 197.475. Just a sliver of doubt begins to creep in, though I would be surprised by a repeat of those weak landings once we get to nationals. Another significant contributor to Florida’s low score was the Kennedy Baker ankle situation. She landed short on her double pike on floor and was pulled from vault as a precaution, and with normal hits from her on those events, Florida is close to—if not at—197 already, even with the same blah landings. Baker is essential to Florida’s title hopes, so the amount that ankle does/does not affect her will be a critical storyline on semifinal day.

LSU did not have the same issues as Florida at regionals, comfortably breaking 197 and sliding through to qualification without a question. Very reassuring. Except nothing is reassuring ever. Most doubts as to LSU’s ability to fulfill expectations this year are based on traumatic flashbacks to last season, when the Tigers were in an essentially identical position and seemed a sure qualifier to Super Six until three falls on beam happened. It didn’t come out of the blue last year. LSU had an iffy but manageable beam performance at regionals right before, which is why that 9.6 and 9.7 action from this year’s regionals did not help alleviate any of those flashbacks.

Still, this is prognostication about the likelihood of counting falls, which is a fool’s game, but that’s what it would take to knock Florida or LSU out of this. Based on the quality of the gymnastics we’ve seen this season, both of these teams should be in the hit-and-advance category. Elimination with a hit meet would be a massive shock.

Basically, I could copy-and-paste the “Auburn v. Michigan v. Stanford” section from the regional previews here and just replace the word Michigan with Georgia. It would be upsettingly accurate and appropriate, hearkening back to some of my frustrations with the repetitiveness of the current postseason assignments. We more or less just did this, and if everything goes to plan, it will be these three teams facing off against each other, only now it’s a fight for one spot instead of two. The comparison is particularly congruent because Michigan was thwarted by the beam at regionals, and Georgia is Georgia. Just swap one for the other.

As I said then, I still consider Stanford the challenger of the group rather than a likely qualifier because of those weaknesses on vault and floor. Everything worked out at regionals because bars and beam came through as they were supposed to and the other teams had errors, but at some point relying on just two events won’t be enough. Still, if Stanford’s first-place tie at regionals taught us anything, it’s that this is more than possible. Georgia misses beam, Auburn repeats its uninspiring regionals performance, and hello Stanford once again. 

Auburn had a slow start to the year, with some untimely injuries and lost magical routines that needed replacing, but ultimately showed far fewer low points than either Stanford or Georgia. That’s why Auburn ranks the best of the group on three of the four events, and maintaining that commitment to fewer lows is Auburn’s path to qualification here. If I were to name the most talented of these three teams on each event, I would give vault and floor to Georgia and bars and beam to Stanford. It’s close, but that’s what I would do. At the same time, Georgia and Stanford are also more prone to faltering on the other events and throwing in weak meets in general, which gives Auburn the opportunity to jump into the top three by virtue of being the steadiest and least horrifying.

I suppose Auburn is the safest choice, but if the others, particularly Georgia, come through with a real hit on the weak events, they have higher potential score and could leave Auburn behind.

Beam beam beam. That repetition of the same word three times is always appropriate, but beam is particularly critical for each of these three teams’ qualification hopes. We’re all well acquainted with Georgia’s crusade against the troll that lives under the beam and occasionally pops out to force Brittany Rogers to answer his questions three, but if Georgia conquers beam, I would argue that Georgia becomes the favorite to advance. If we total the teams’ RQSs on the other three events, Georgia has the edge over Auburn by a tenth. Still, Auburn is ranked higher, defeated Georgia in their dual meet, and scored higher at SECs. Because of beam. When the teams met in the regular season, Auburn won the meet by .050 and won beam by .050. BEAM.

They really do balance each other out elsewhere. Georgia has the edge on vault, Auburn boasts more reliable sticks on bars. Georgia has Jay, Box, and Marino on floor. Auburn has Atkinson, Demers, and Rott. Auburn has not been as dominant on beam this season as last season, but Milliet, Demers, and Atkinson? That should be a stellar group, and with everything else too close to call, beam remains Auburn’s chance to pick up some ground in spite of the uninspiring score from regionals.

Beam is just as critical for Stanford, but in a somewhat different way. It’s not critical in the please-don’t-fall kind of way (although not falling is always a good idea), but more in the you-probably-need-a-49.500 kind of way. I don’t know how realistic that score is for a beam lineup that misses Vaculik and Wing, but because the scores on vault and floor will be somewhere around 49.1-49.2 on a solid day, the beam number needs to be large. Those vaults have been getting the “none for Gretchen Wieners” treatment all season, which isn’t tenable in semifinals. A 49.1 is not a Super Six score, which means by default, bars and beam must be world-beating to catch a hit meet from any of the top four seeds here. Bars delivered at regionals. Now beam needs to as well.

Stanford competes on bars and beam in the first two rotations so will let us know fairly early if this meet is a thing. The combined bars and beam score from regionals was 98.750, and if Stanford isn’t at least equal to that here, I have a hard time envisioning qualification or a 197. Top three at the halfway point is essential. If Stanford isn’t top three after three rotations, that’s it. Ground won’t be gained on floor and vault. Stanford must lead from the front. It’s not ideal, but Stanford had the same rotation order last year and was able to get the big scores early and use them to hold off a surging Michigan by a slim margin at the end.

Starting on beam, Georgia will compete on what presumably will be its lowest and highest scoring events in the first half of the meet, so an acceptable halfway score probably means something around 98.600. If we say 49.200 on beam and 49.400 on floor, that’s a solid number and one that is fully attainable for these lineups. Since Auburn gets to finish on floor during the year of the insane final-rotation floor scores, Georgia will want a healthy lead heading to the end of the meet to buffer against a Rott, Demers, Atkinson festival of 9.9s that could change the game at the last minute.

The fourth rotation is the serious one to watch here. Georgia goes to vault, Auburn goes to beam, and Stanford goes to floor. This is the Gymdogs’ opportunity to pounce. They should win this rotation by a couple tenths given the events on which the others will be competing, so Georgia’s margin (or lack thereof) at this point will tell us who holds the power.

Poor Minnesota, I’ve left you out of this completely, but Minnesota’s victory for the season is advancing to this stage. Until about March, that seemed unrealistic, but Minnesota held to the plan exactly at regionals by staying close with Denver on three events and then being clearly better on beam to establish a margin. Well, not exactly to the plan since Mable fell on floor, but mostly to the plan. If Mable doesn’t fall on floor in the semifinals, she’s one of the legitimate contenders for the all-around title in her final attempt. Minnesota has gone through some…issues…since 2013 when the team last qualified in Mable’s freshman year, so it’s sort of fitting to return to nationals in her senior year. It’s been a long road, but…poetic-sounding things about how it has come back around.

If Minnesota were to have a path to qualification, it would be through weathering a disaster meet from all corners. Minnesota is rooting for insanity and chaos. Say, Georgia and Auburn both have a beam catastrophe and Minnesota outscores Stanford by enough on vault and floor. It could happen, but it’s quite dependent on the performance of the other teams, not the performance of Minnesota. I do expect a competitive beam score for Minnesota since Mable and Nordquist would be late-lineup beamers for any team in this competition, and a mid-196 would be quite a worthy result.

Stanford and Minnesota will certainly need to exceed their RQSs to have a chance to qualify out of this meet (and the same applies to Auburn since Georgia’s event-by-event RQSs are actually higher than Auburn’s), but the rotation-by-rotation RQSs do provide a sense of where teams are expected to score/rank at various points in the meet so we can tell who is exceeding those expectations as we go.

Rotation 1: Minnesota 49.270, Auburn 49.250, Stanford 49.230, Georgia 49.180, Florida BYE, LSU BYE
Minnesota begins on floor and would need this exact kind of number to have any hope, but the Stanford bars and Georgia beam RQSs underestimate their capabilities (posssssibly). I’d say Stanford will expect and need the lead after one event. Not-last after beam may be the victory for Georgia.

Rotation 2: Stanford 98.425, Minnesota 98.390, Florida 49.505, LSU 49.370, Auburn 49.250, Georgia 49.180
Even RQS, which isn’t a particularly pretty picture for Stanford, tells us that Stanford should have a lead after two events, but the score will need to be bigger than this for Stanford to hold on. Stanford needs a giant lead after the second rotation. For Florida and LSU, as long as they can get relatively close to their RQSs on each event, they’ll be fine and dandy.

Rotation 3: Florida 98.925, LSU 98.725; Georgia 98.565; Auburn 98.545; Stanford 98.425; Minnesota 98.390
And this is why Stanford would need a much higher score after two events. Stanford needs to be top three once everyone has done two events, and RQS has them 5th. Nope. I really hope the race between Georgia and Auburn is as close as this the whole way because it’s going to make for an excellent finish. The rotation order gives us a relatively neck-and-neck picture throughout, and neither should ever leave the other behind. 

Rotation 4: Georgia 147.980, Auburn 147.760, Minnesota 147.570, Stanford 147.475, Florida 98.925, LSU 98.725
After that all-important fourth rotation, event RQS has Georgia leading Auburn by two tenths, which is the margin what we should be looking for if we want those two to end in a tie. When Auburn is on floor and Georgia is on bars for the last event, I’d take Auburn gaining about two tenths. Variation from that two-tenth margin will tell us who has the advantage. Except for the fact that inevitable falls will render all this moot, but if it goes to plan, this is the guideline. If Minnesota really is this close heading to beam, they’ll be over the moon.

Rotation 5: Minnesota 196.755, Stanford 196.595, Florida 148.425, LSU 148.270, Georgia 147.980, Auburn 147.760
High 196s like this would be a great result for Minnesota and would put the Gophers in a ripe position to take advantage of other teams’ mistakes, but Stanford should do better than this pace, in spite of this being quite similar to the result from regionals. A mid-196 is not going to be good enough, or an acceptable result for Stanford, even if the others have a sloppy meet. RQS tells us that Florida and LSU should have pulled away from the pack by multiple tenths at this point, which is why they should advance without all that much trouble given a normal hit.

Rotation 6: Florida 197.855, LSU 197.715, Georgia 197.260, Auburn 197.205, Minnesota 196.755, Stanford 196.595
The event RQSs give this thing to Georgia by a half tenth, while the overall meet RQSs give it to Auburn by a tenth and a half, hence Auburn’s higher ranking. That’s why I’m so hopeful for a really close contest. Once Georgia figured out beam (ish, sort of, not really), it became clear that these two teams are exceptionally evenly matched. Which brings us back to the quality of the beam hit. RQS assumes a relatively weak beam hit for Georgia, so the first rotation will provide a framework for which team seems to be the favorite.

One thought on “National Championships Preview Part 1: Innocent Gymnasts versus the Beam Troll”

  1. Six scores, drop high & low, average four scores, minimum score interval will be .0125, an extra decimal place over previous years but still nice and neat

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