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National Championship Final Notes

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To round out nationals for another year (8.5 months away…), here are a few residual thoughts that have been rattling around my head since returning.

The general sentiment about Super Six, from me and I think everyone: Oklahoma was ridiculous.

This was not supposed to be a blowout year. This wasn’t like some of those Kupets/McCool/Heenan seasons for Georgia, or UCLA in 2010, or Florida in 2013 (before counting a fall and making Super Six much more interesting than it had any right to be), where there was a clear #1 team that really should win by a lot.

Super Six 2017 was supposed to be extremely close between Oklahoma and LSU, but instead we were treated to a romp thanks to a comically excellent performance (particularly on beam) from Oklahoma, the only team to perform better in Super Six than it did in the semifinal. It’s very rare to see a team look that good and bring season-best gymnastics at Super Six, but that’s what Oklahoma did. Usually, Super Six brings performances more like what LSU showed.

I expect the postmortem on what happened to LSU’s title chances will be the primary topic occupying NCAA gym conversations for the next 8 months, so here’s my initial take.

On the semifinal day, LSU was the #1 team, a combination of LSU having probably its best performance of the season and Oklahoma delivering to potential on only one apparatus. If it were a one-day competition, LSU would be the national champion. On the flip side, after Super Six I heard a lot of “if only LSU had repeated the semifinal performance at Super Six…” which I’m not sold on. I still say Oklahoma’s Super Six performance would have won, but pair it with LSU’s semifinal and we would have been gifted the very, very close competition I think we all deserved.

This is what I saw from LSU: About an hour and 45 minutes before Super Six begins, rotation two of the warmup gets underway with LSU on floor, and my brain instantly went, “Uh oh.” Uh oh because they were sooooo excited. Even by NCAA gymnastics standards. They were five-year-old-just-got-into-the-Halloween-candy excited. There was so much screaming, and so much bouncing/dancing, and so much adrenaline that I was concerned they would come out and be too pumped to control their gymnastics and would try to be special instead of being normal.

Now, perhaps that was an issue in the first couple floor routines with those uncharacteristically uncontrolled landings (it’s impossible to know without being in someone’s head, but this LSU team doesn’t typically bounce around like that). Many teams did have trouble controlling their landings on this very bouncy floor, but LSU did not have that issue in the semifinal and is usually quite at home—literally—on a very bouncy floor.

(Fun fact: In five of the last six years, the team starting on floor in Super Six has had at least one OOB, and Utah kept up the tradition by starting on floor this year with two OOBs. LSU had one of its own in the second rotation—its first event of the meet—from Sydney Ewing, her second Super Six OOB in as many years.)

After those first couple floor routines, however, I saw a team that was desperately trying to make up tenths. Ashleigh Gnat’s double pike is one of the biggest in NCAA. Girl shouldn’t ever land short, but it looked like she was going for a stick to try to make up tenths and turn her usual 9.950 into a 10.000, which ended up making for a bigger error. (And then that judge said, “WE FORGIVE YOU, 9.950” because I can’t even…) On vault, we also saw several short landings from people who don’t ordinarily do that and who didn’t do that in the touch warmup, incurring way more deductions than they should have and basically ending the meet after three rotations.

A team competing in the second semifinal ends up winning Super Six about every other year, including Oklahoma last year with the same time schedule, so I’m not sold on the argument that the format favors the teams competing in the first semifinal.

Sure, they have more time in between actual competitions, but the coaches whose teams competed in the first semifinal were not happy about their schedules either, particularly because all the individual awards are given out Friday night following the second semifinal now. Those teams in the first semifinal had to arrive at the venue at 8am, and by the time the individual awards were finished at the end of the second semi, we were closing in on 11pm, at which point the event winners hadn’t even started their media availability yet, which is a crazy-long day for the teams who compete early. Backstage at that point was basically a competition to see who could be the crankiest and the hungriest. (It’s like my Super Six! I did really well. Definitely hit to potential.)

That was the strongest vault rotation, and probably strongest rotation overall, I saw at nationals. There were other coaches coming up and saying it was the best vault rotation they had ever seen, a rotation that culminated in Alex McMurtry being like, “I’m Alex McMurtry, and I haven’t done a single DTY in a whole month, and I’ve only done five all year, and I’m just going to throw it out right now and stick. Bye.”

Florida will be displeased at not being able to recreate that vaulting in Super Six, where even one gymnast landing at the same level as in the semifinal would have given Florida 2nd place outright.

Speaking of, Alex McMurtry is probably a witch. Watching her not warm up DTYs and barely train floor, all the time with a Living Spaces full of cushions taped around her body like she’s living my dream life, reinforced what a bizarre achievement her all-around success is. Now, I still have issues with bars (and it’s quite frustrating to me that she can get a 10 for that bars routine but not get one for that semifinal DTY because…what world am I living in?), but for someone whose JO bars caused me to invoke the word “Brestyan’s” when describing them, it’s a remarkable feat. Alex McMurtry was the hero of this meet, and the joy that exuded from the arena when she landed her final floor pass could be bottled and sold in a back alley.

In a way, it’s good that Nichols fell on beam because McMurtry’s score would have defeated her in the AA anyway, and can you imagine?

I mentioned the bounciness of the floor, but there was an actual issue when it came to the uneven bars, which were not originally in acceptable shape (work on your stamina, bars apparatus). The problem was noticed immediately, which prevented any kind of Sydney-2000-what-is-wrong-with-you-people situation, but it meant that podium training had to be delayed by about an hour while the bars were fixed. If you’ve ever wondered whether NCAA bars coaches are capable of murder, I can confirm the answer is a hearty yes.

While it may have been half-prompted by injury, I was pleasantly surprised to see UCLA get real and step down the difficulty on beam for Peng and Ohashi, with Peng dropping the punch front and Ohashi competing a bare-bones routine. It may be more fun to try the difficulty, but that’s not what NCAA gymnastics is and that’s not what the code rewards (unless you can actually hit it each time). It’s why we don’t have D scores. We’re here for the perfection. At some point, you have to be pragmatic and go for the scores. And honestly, not having to complain about Peng Bonus during Super Six was a victory grander than any punch front could ever be.

I was never the biggest supporter of event finals when they existed. Event finals were an endless day of too many qualifiers—and often bizarre qualifiers—who were extremely fatigued and clearly cared way less about these finals than the team competition. But, I would have preferred a tear-down and a re-format rather than eliminating the day entirely, and it was clear at nationals that I’m in the minority on team “boo event finals” anyway, with most people advocating the return of the previous format intact.

Certainly, the current system isn’t working either and has just as many problems as event finals did. The billion-way tie for bars champion may have been deliciously hilarious when they all had to try to cram themselves onto the podium together, but it’s also super dumb to have that many event champions. What’s even the point of awarding the title? The award ceremony for the event and AA champions was also endless in a completely unnecessary way.

Nebraska performed excellently in the semifinal, so clean, controlled, and precise and among the very few teams that didn’t seem to struggle with that floor.

It’s a real shame that they couldn’t be rewarded with a Super Six place because they probably would have advanced from the first semifinal. There’s always one. In the second semifinal, it would have been nearly impossible to challenge Alabama without an Alabama mistake on beam at the end, but Nebraska’s landings on those last two vaults really hurt as well. The meet had been going basically as well as anyone could have dreamed until that point, but short landings and major steps on the final vaults kept Nebraska farther away from Alabama than the overall quality of the performance merited. Lambert’s floor routine has a legit argument as the strongest set in that entire semifinal. It was certainly the most entertaining.

It all seemed so typical, Alabama finally showing up in the semifinal, vaulting a million times better than at regionals, and earning that spot in Super Six. Because of course they did. Even Michigan’s falls on beam ended up being irrelevant because Alabama would have advanced anyway given the strength of its performance.

And then Super Six happened. Dana Duckworth was wearing some kind of cape contraption, and that’s the best thing that can be said about Alabama’s performance, which got bleak quickly. Very un-Alabama.

WHAT. But like…what.

It started out fine. For like a rotation and a half in the semifinals. And then it got super cracky almost immediately. By the time we reached the end of the first semifinal, the floor judging had gone past the point of no return with 9.9s flying for routines that had no business going anywhere close to the 9.9s. At that point, the judges had already painted themselves into a corner because if pedestrian double pike routines with slides on landings were worthy of 9.9125 and 9.9250, then how do you possibly score the best routines coming later? And if you’re giving all six routines in any lineup scores of 9.900 and greater, then your standard fundamentally isn’t strict enough to properly reward the best gymnastics or separate routines from each other. These routines aren’t all the same.

I get that you’re going to see your own routines with rose-colored telescopes, and that’s fine and normal. Be obsessed with yourself. It’s good. A little score saltiness never hurt anyone. But, unless you’re talking about the first rotation of the first semifinal (which I thought was scored appropriately yet noticeably tight), you weren’t underscored. You just weren’t. At all. And if the routine in question would have scored a tenth higher at home, that says more about your home scoring than it does about the evaluation of this meet, which was not strict and not unfair in its ranking conclusions.

They’re no fun at all. Imagine the teams that would have sold out this meet with crowds that weren’t just…the parents or whatever. Can you imagine what the atmosphere would have been like if, say, LSU had hosted? Following next year in St. Louis, nationals are going back to Fort Worth for the next four years, and UGH FOREVER.

The end.

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