2016: A Season That Happened

Another NCAA season has come and gone, but our aggressive sighing from the corner of the room will live on forever. They may take our season, but they will never take our eye rolls.

Several days on from Oklahoma toe pointing off into the sunset with a trophy in hand, this seems an appropriate moment to cobble together a series of reflections and important frowns relating to the season just passed and college gymnastics in general. Only eight and a half months until it starts all over again! But, of course, we also have that pitiful little zone meet called the Olympics coming up not nearly soon enough, so I’ll be all over the elite action this year with the same level of dedicated preposterousness I usually reserve NCAA. You guys, we have a lot more things to break. At the time, I didn’t quite realize what a good job we did breaking Romania last year, but…it definitely took.

That Frogchenko 2/3ish is my new favorite vault. It’s going to start from a 10.0 in next year’s NCAA code. Cal is already training two of them.

For the second time, and the first time outright, our champions are the Oklahoma Sooners, who were rewarded for their commitment to performing the cleanest gymnastics in the competition. Super Six wasn’t a perfect meet for the Sooners by any means, which is what made it exciting in the first place (a season-best hit from Oklahoma, and this thing isn’t very close). Weaker showings on vault and the second half of bars kept the competition finely poised, but Oklahoma’s errors were less egregious than those of the other teams and did not include any falls. Focus on details like split and chest positions made it much more difficult for the judges to deny Oklahoma those valuable 9.9s in a theoretically tighter-scored environment, and the Sooner managed to snatch twelve of them. Seven was the most 9.9s coming from any other team in Super Six.

My questions about Oklahoma’s title chances coming into the season primarily revolved around the necessity of replacing valuable 9.9 routines on bars and beam with gymnasts who were already on the roster but not making those lineups, often a recipe for regression. While Oklahoma did have to replace a number of those lost routines with tired old sophomores and juniors, the coaching staff was able to get Oklahoma-level routines out of each them. Ali Jackson doing bars? Chayse Capps getting her best scores on bars? What life if this? I went back to my notes about the freshmen from when Capps started, which I still have because I’m a gymnastics hoarder, and I wrote “Capps – VT, BB, FX. Bars – No.” So there’s that. I also wrote, “beam could be one of her potential contributions.” Could be? Potential? You unbelievable idiot.

This is one of the defining characteristics of the Oklahoma team. People compete events no one ever expected them to compete when they started, from Hollie Vise doing a vault her senior year to all these competitors this season. And while I wouldn’t consider these bars and beam lineups all-time great Oklahoma lineups, they more than got the job done.

Other teams also used gymnasts who weren’t making lineups in previous seasons, whether it’s McLaughlin and Fassbender filling in on floor for Florida or Sanders doing beam for Alabama, but those routines were the replacement-level 9.825 scores we would expect from someone on the cusp of the lineup. They didn’t become difference makers in the way that Oklahoma’s replacement routines did, a critical factor in the Sooners’ triumph.

The year of the upstarts
Some solid noise was made this season by teams we don’t normally expect to do anything. Eastern Michigan came, you know, sort of close to making nationals, George Washington broke into the big girls club, and Bowling Green made regionals, not to mention Cal crashing the party of the normal nationals qualifiers, Iowa sneaking into the realm of contenders, and Boise State and Denver spending some serious time in the first tier.

The storylines were different. There were different teams to follow than usual, which is exciting. But that’s all a little too positive, isn’t it? If some teams break in, others have to fall out and perform worse than is expected or acceptable. The biggest disappointment of the season was Illinois, a team that appeared to have the talent to make its traditional biennial nationals appearance but was clearly well off the pace even before devastating injuries sealed the season. Ohio State has also completely disappeared from the conversation since a nationals appearance several years ago that shouldn’t really have been as random and fluky and Kent Statey as it has become in retrospect. Then there’s also Penn State and…well…that whole abuse thing. And DOCTOR Rene Lyst being asked to sashay away from Arizona State, a program that was good as recently as 10 years ago and is now the punchline of the NCAA.

In a somewhat different category are Oregon State and Arkansas, two teams that had perfectly fine  and respectable seasons and might have made nationals with a kinder regionals draw, in the case of Oregon State (Oregon State was the only school that had to face two eventual Super Six teams at regionals), or without some critical injuries, in the case of Arkansas. Still, this makes three straight years of missing nationals for Arkansas and three of the last four for Oregon State, both programs that at this point should expect to make nationals every time.

The presence of these upstarts puts more and more pressure on the top teams to be better during the regular season so that they don’t end up with those very challenging regionals draws, which is positive because it makes the regular season mean more. Stanford did not have an impressive regular season and was a whisker away from being unseeded at regionals, which would have produced an even more challenging setup. For a team that currently has only three home meets a year, several of which are in a glorified black box theater, the incentive to make regular-season meets a more invigorating and successful experience grows stronger.

Scoring the rotation order
Another significant characteristic of the season, perhaps the most extreme, was the presence of the fifth event, Home Floor. Home Floor is the phenomenon in which a host team goes to floor in the final rotation only to find that the code of points has suddenly been replaced with a rainbow lollipop made of panda hearts. Home floor has always been a thing, but this year, floor scoring reached a ten-year high, rendering the effects of home floor more pronounced than ever. If you were a top team who didn’t get 49.500 on floor at home, you might as well be counting 80 falls.

So, end-of-meet scoring is a problem, and one that’s not simply confined to floor and home meets. At nationals, we also saw the effects of scoring the rotation order and elevating scores based on when the routine came in the meet. In Super Six, the average team score per rotation was 49.206 in the first rotation, 49.2375 in the second, 49.369 in the third, 49.225 in the fourth, 49.350 in the fifth, and then suddenly 49.500 in the final rotation. The highest team score on each apparatus in Super Six was recorded by the team that happened to be competing on it in the final rotation. Of the 37 scores of 9.9 or greater given out in Super Six, 23 came in the second half of the meet compared to 14 in the first half of the meet. As many 9.9s were given out in the final rotation as in the first three rotations combined. Amazing how all the teams got to perform on their best events in the second half of the meet. What a coincidence.

The rotation order should be random nothing. It shouldn’t decide the scores, and finishing on a bye (or not starting on a bye) should not be an actual disadvantage in the competition the way it appears to be now. It’s a judge’s job not to get excited by the circumstances of the meet (which is why smiling should be banned forever—it reads as unprofessional), and judges need to be made aware of tendencies to elevate scores at the ends of meets. They must make a point of judging the first routine of the first rotation with the same lens as the sixth routine of the sixth rotation and repel the natural instinct to loosen and elevate scores as the meet becomes louder, longer, and more exciting, not allowing themselves to be swayed by the siren song of fervent cheering and a passionate atmosphere. They’re not here to enjoy this. They’re here on business.

Lineup orders
At the same time, scores going crazy is sort of the nature of college gymnastics, so why not take advantage of it when possible? Creating a traditional lineup in order of ascending difficulty and obvious quality is never a disastrous strategy. It’s fine. I would say that Oklahoma’s lineups this year were pretty traditional, which clearly worked out well, but if you’re looking to scrape out all the tenths you can, why not try to work the system and use score-building to bump up those totals? Why try to build toward scores that were going to be the best in the lineup anyway? In many cases, the best (or most famous) gymnast doesn’t need the advantage of going last. Others might.

We’ve seen too clearly how successful Florida has been with this strategy over the last four seasons for any excuse or uncertainty about it to remain. Teams that are able should take advantage of building lineups toward a simpler routine that might get overlooked in an earlier position by placing it after the big/famous routines. Bridget Sloan won the national AA title anchoring one event. (And did it three years ago going no later than fourth on any event.) Why? Because she’s The Bridget Sloan. She doesn’t need to go last.

When all the routines begin from a 10, the differentiating factor among them is not difficulty but execution, so if anything, lineups should be organized in ascending order of execution instead of ascending order of difficulty. Unless the start value says so, you don’t get bonus points for difficulty. The judges have tried to show teams again and again, especially over the last four or five years, that a 10.0 start is a 10.0 start (Oklahoma’s floor scores in Super Six being the latest example), but this belief that difficulty is going to be rewarded persists despite current evidence against it.

In Super Six, the average score for floor routines containing an E pass was 9.857, and the average for those not containing an E pass was 9.837, less than a quarter tenth apart. That’s not a particularly significant difference and doesn’t account for the fact that the better floor workers overall tend to be the ones throwing E passes and probably should score higher anyway. So, don’t give me “E passes get rewarded in the postseason.” Not really. Until the code provides an actual incentive for E passes, the only reason to do one is if it’s exactly as clean as a D pass. If it’s even a slight bit messier or less consistent, it doesn’t pay.

Let’s stay on this difficulty issue, though, because in some cases I do believe an incentive for difficulty should be built into the code to make it necessary/worthwhile, as it has on vault, and there’s a good argument that the code should build in an incentive for E passes on floor. That just doesn’t exist now.

In spite of this being a terrible year for beam, it was actually a really good year for beam. Admittedly, this may be a case of confirmation bias, but I thought the general style and posture and completion of split elements on beam was better this season than in past years. It may have to do with so many of the new top head coaches being beam queens like Rowland, Duckworth, and Durante. They can coach some beam, and it shows in the performances. Even the “bad” beam teams like Georgia and ultimately Michigan had lovely routines both in the lineup and sitting on the bench. They just couldn’t hit to save their lives.

That’s my way of saying that I have the fewest problems with beam right now, though I do still think adjustments can be made to reward those who beam the best beam and encourage more risk in the routines. Yes, we already have a lot of falls on beam, but falls are good. Falls are exciting and make things more interesting and develop the drama of the sport. When we stop constructing falls as something shameful or emotionally devastating—they’re not, they happen to literally everyone, even Simone—we get rid of the need to “feel bad” for people who fall. You don’t need to feel bad for her. Her grandma didn’t die. She just fell on beam. It happens, it sucks, and I’ve already forgotten about it. Falls are good for the entertainment factor of the sport, which means that risk is good for the entertainment factor of the sport.

So, we can make things a little more risky, for instance requiring a true rebounding acro series in every beam routine. I use this example mostly because the “fake acro series that I’m clearly pausing in the middle of” has become an epidemic in NCAA gymnastics that must be quashed. Walkover+pause+back handspring is not an acro series and should not be allowed to fulfill that requirement.

Ideally, we’d see a true rebounding acro series become a requirement, but it doesn’t even necessarily require a rule change. It just requires the judges to start being more vigilant about denying credit to those forward-backward series when they’re not speedy. I completely understand why the judges seem to be loath to acknowledge paused acro series. Denying credit to an acro series because of a short pause is such harsh punishment for a relatively minor mistake. That’s two-tenths off the start value, and because scores are so high, that makes the score basically unusable. It might as well be a fall. It’s reasonable that the judges might want to keep that anvil in their pockets unless absolutely necessary because it could define a meet.

But, actually starting to take that deduction in all cases of an even vaguely noncontinuous series is the best way to discourage use of the dumb front-to-back non-acro acro series. Before next season, the judges just need to send a warning shot to all the coaches to say, “Hey, unless it truly shows continuous movement, we’re not giving the front-back acro series anymore and are going to be super mean and harsh about it starting now.” Then let the coaches decide how much they really want to take the risk of doing this “non-risky” acro series. I think we would see a lot fewer of them, limiting them to only the ones that are particularly confident and elegant.

On the subject of pauses, though, I also have some feelings about the pause deduction. I had no problem with judges that elected not to take the deduction before Francis’s beam dismount, same with the judges who chose not to take it before Courville’s arabian in previous seasons. These are difficult, showpiece skills that can warrant a pause. Now, if you’re pausing before a full turn, you get the pause deduction because that’s unnecessarily breaking the rhythm of the routine, which is the point of the pause deduction to begin with. If, however, you’re pausing before a super difficult acro skill, it does not break the rhythm in the same way and I have no problem letting it be. Taking it in that case is not the spirit of the deduction. In fact, the pause actually serves to build anticipation for the skill in question. We all heard how the crowd would begin to roar during Francis’s pause.

If judges do feel the need to take the pause deduction in these cases, that’s fine because it is the letter of the law, but they need to be consistent. That means taking it on basically every routine being done by everyone. Standing at the end of the beam tapping your foot on the beam cap and taking a deep breath before your dismount is a pause and let’s stop pretending it isn’t.

Also, obviously gainer fulls and gainer pikes are terrible garbage and need to be Bs, but…how many times, Alyssa?

Bars risk
A change was made to the bars code before this season to encourage more release skills, but its consequence was essentially making Alex McMurtry do a Ray and that’s all. Too many exceptions were built into the requirement, rendering it toothless and able to be fulfilled by transition elements, which while they do involve releasing the bar, should not be called release elements. They’re transition elements. I don’t think it’s too much to ask simply to require a same-bar release from every routine. Once again, risk = yay.

Switch side + popa dance combination
So over it.

I’m fine with last year’s decision to get rid of the requirement to show two different shapes in dance elements on floor because it was being applied exactly 1% of the time anyway, but continuing a theme, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to require that everyone perform a cross split element to 180 degrees in a floor routine. At this level, that should be compulsory. Plus, there are enough split-based elements in the code that it shouldn’t get too repetitive.

BUT…don’t make this elite
One of the joys of college gymnastics for me is how much the stakes on each skill are increased by the demotion of difficulty and the ascension of execution. Little mistakes become massive, rendering every skill equally important. A small balance check on a layout stepout is the difference between a good routine and a bad routine, the difference between winning and losing, rather than an expected part of every beam routine. That makes watching meets so much more exciting because they can turn on every skill and for the most minute reasons, the smallest correction, the tiniest toe. If elite gymnastics finds beauty and significance in the very big, college gymnastics finds beauty and significance in the very small, and we shouldn’t compromise that by rendering the requirements too many or onerous.

Leveling the playing field between L10s and elites by making pristine performance and clean execution the epitome of excellence is a hallmark of college gymnastics that should never be lost. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t raise expectations just a little. As we learned on vault this year. But…

Yurchenko “arabians”
We’re onto you. Let’s correct this nonsense posthaste. Establishing a difference between Yurchenko halfs and Yurchenko arabians this year was silly, an irritating and unnecessary blemish on the season. Not only isn’t it being applied correctly or strictly enough, it’s also far too inside baseball for college gymnastics fans. If the judges are struggling as to the differentiation between the two, you can bet the fans are. Take the Yurchenko arabian down to 9.950 as well and make this vault change actually do more of what it was intended to accomplish.

Still, in general the vault change was one of the major positives of the 2016 season. While yes, the biggest difference is that it encouraged more Yurchenko one-and-a-tucks to infiltrate vault lineups, I’ll take anything that isn’t a full, even if it’s sloppy.

One of the best things about the vault change is that it forever eradicated the argument of “the lesser schools won’t be able to keep up and parity will be ruined” which tends to follow any attempt to raise the difficulty expectations in college gymnastics. The lesser schools did keep up, either through increasing difficulty themselves, employing more creativity on vault, or using cleaner fulls to gain ground/keep pace with schools upgrading to sloppier difficulty. “The lesser schools won’t be able to keep up” is no longer to be considered a valid argument against increasing requirements on other events. See above.

Event finals…?
I’ve made it no secret over the years that I am the Capulets to the event finals’ Montagues, though I was still somewhat miffed by the decision to eliminate event finals altogether because it’s another case of gymnastics shrinking itself down and voluntarily eliminating portions of itself. More, not less! Still, I ultimately found that I did not miss the Montagues much at all and in some ways feel that the championship was better without them. It lent more finality to Super Six and didn’t actually end up giving us any crazy event winners. The event winners this year were more believable and realistic than they usually are.

The system is not totally wonderful, though. We had a whole slew ties for event titles, which we don’t need. A championship should have a winner. These ties existed even though we had six judges per event, which we were assured would eliminate the concern that everything would end in a billion ties. It didn’t work. It just added a hideous and inconvenient extra decimal place that forced us to have to add scores together to get rotation totals rather than just looking at the scores and knowing instinctively what the total will be because we’ve spent that much time following college gymnastics. We don’t have time for adding! Not in a championship!

I would have no issue with returning the number of judges to four at nationals and just using RQS as a tiebreaker, which would also serve to provide some modicum of reward for being good during the regular season. Sure, tiebreakers based on previous meets are anticlimactic in a championship context, but event titles are anticlimactic at NCAAs anyway. They’re by no means the focus of the meet, so why not award the titles based on a sensible tiebreak?

Also, do we really need to give trophies and podium spots to eight whole places? They’re not five years old. Not everyone needs a trophy. Champions, and then we’re done. Hilarious podium human pyramids for third-place ties do not make up for a ridiculous number of awards being given out. It’s so boring to anyone who isn’t a parent. Stop forgetting that this is a sport for people who aren’t the parents! This isn’t JO.

Pac-12 and SEC Networks
Another major highlight of the season was the work of the conference networks in increasing their coverage of college gymnastics and maintaining a commitment to doing it not terribly. Not terrible is the highest possible rating for a gymnastics broadcast. They gave us real coverage, frequently, and did it live with a team of broadcasters who were actually trying, did research, and knew things, even the ones who weren’t gymnasts. It’s a brand new world.

The scoring display that the SEC Network/ESPN used at the SEC Championship and nationals was excellent, a relatively unobtrusive way of displaying a large amount of vital information in real time, helping casuals follow the action easily and providing each gymnast’s score immediately for the benefit of diehards. There’s still an issue with displaying the in-progress rotation totals because 37.6750 doesn’t mean anything to anyone. We can’t really see where things stand until five people have gone on each event, but I don’t know exactly how you’d solve that while staying unobtrusive. The pop-up to give the individual routine scores for the in-progress team helps. If only we could have something like this for the Olympics.

This commitment to appealing to both casuals and diehards carried through in the streaming decisions as well, providing the main commentary TV broadcast for casuals along with the event streams for diehards, proving that you do not have to choose between appealing to one or the other. Technology allows for both at the same time. The Bart/Kathy and Jim/Amanda/Sam/Greg/etc teams also show that commentary style does not have to choose, being accurate and precise enough that all levels of viewers will understand and enjoy what’s happening, trusting the casuals to be smart and attentive enough to soak up the nuances of the code without talking above them, while never dumbing things down for the diehards.

What I mean to say is, other broadcasts take note because this was my favorite broadcast of championships we’ve had. Not saying the competition was particularly fierce there, but it was still the best in a landslide.

2 thoughts on “2016: A Season That Happened”

  1. What if the powers that be codified a 0.05 or even a 0.1 “up to the level” deduction for floor routines that don't have an E pass? I think a lot of gymnasts can and will upgrade their floor passes if there is a start value difference like on vault. Floor is getting to be ridiculous, both in terms of scoring and composition. I cannot take another season of the same three passes and one dance combo.

  2. I think the next step for floor exercise is to eliminate the ability for gymnasts to perform the same tumbling skill in more than one pass (i.e. AJ Jackson’s layout half + punch front Rudi/front layout full).

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