U.S. Classic Preview – The Juniors

Junior elite competitions, especially the Classic with its lower qualifying score, are fundamentally strange. Such a disparity exists among the various tiers of gymnasts that it seems like a grave mistake that all of them have somehow ended up in the same meet. You have gymnasts who could win worlds if age-eligible rotating with gymnasts where it’s like, “Your D score is 3. Did you get lost little girl?” There will be a touch less of that this year with the major players rotating with the seniors, but still enough.

Junior classic is really three different competitions converging, those 9-10 gymnasts actually trying to win or place well to set themselves up for a senior elite run soon, those other 7-8 little water chestnuts who are four years old and might be on the worlds/Olympic track one day but should probably just be spending the evening at Allegra’s sleepover right now, and those other 30 gymnasts who will do elite this year, maybe next year, get noticed by the NCAA coaches, and then drop back to L10.

The focus of this preview will be the first two categories. We’ll have plenty of time to notice the rest once they verbally commit to college while getting their MMR vaccines. WHY DID YOU WAIT SO LONG. Those who have made NCAA verbals have that noted next to their names.

The favorites

It may have been the case regardless, but with Gabby Perea sidelined for this meet with a (not super, super serious) ankle injury, Maile O’Keefe (Utah) becomes the de facto favorite. O’Keefe won the junior division at Gymnix, finished second to Perea at Jesolo, and won the most recent camp verification.

With a DTY and some extremely difficult combinations on beam that can push her D into the 6s if the judges are feeling credit-y, O’Keefe is starting from a much higher level than nearly all of the other competitors. She’ll be expecting a 56 from a hit meet, while the majority of entrants qualified here with 50s and 51s.

O’Keefe already has the routine composition to dominate at the junior level. Toward next year, we’ll probably see a move to upgrade floor since her routine is mostly D passes right now for 5.2, though with rather well-executed dance elements. As we go on, she’ll be more than capable of pushing through to the mid-5s.

If O’Keefe has an error (and it doesn’t have to be a big error), then Emma Malabuyo (UCLA) will be ready to slip in. She has been lurking just behind O’Keefe and Perea through the first half of 2017, finishing 4th at Gymnix, 3rd at Jesolo, at 2nd at July camp. Her strengths are her DTY, her pretty beam work, and a floor routine that’s a tad code-ier than O’Keefe’s and can therefore score a couple tenths higher.

Bars has tended to keep Malabuyo farther down the rankings than O’Keefe and Perea, because while her routine is clean and efficient, the D score is quite low—just a 5.0 so far this year. Perhaps look for an upgrade in that bars routine because it’s a tough deficit to make up otherwise, even with a clean set.

The spoilers

One Miss Adeline Kenlin (Iowa) kind of came out of nowhere, didn’t she? She has been around for a while but wasn’t really toward the top of the junior radar even last season. Now, she’s suddenly all national team/international assignments/one of the best-scoring juniors. I mean, until recently my one memory of her was that time a couple years ago during touch warmup at Classic when she landed a beam dismount on top of her head just as “Happy” started to play, which I found inappropriately hilarious.

But at Jesolo she took 4th, not that far behind Malabuyo, predominantly on the strength of a new DTY and progressing inbar and Stalder work on bars, which helps her rack up the D. Only a relative lack of difficulty on floor looks like a potential downfall in her quest to contend.

Sunisa Lee (Auburn) also got a look at an international assignment this year at Gymnix, though it didn’t go spectacularly. These things happen. But, the tools are there and the potential is ridiculous. She has shown the highest floor D of any US junior this year, and if her difficult beam and bars skills actually come off—like that Nabieva—she can be exceptionally competitive on those pieces. It is, however, quite tough to win in the juniors these days with an FTY, giving away 8 tenths to all her closest competition.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to try to make Shilese Jones (Florida) happen this year. It already feels like she has been around forever, constantly finishing 6th at things with teammate Shania Adams. She did not have a good American Classic, but ideally her DTY and floor tumbling ability will put her ahead of pretty much all the other juniors.

It’s the bars and beam we have to worry about. (Jones has the handstands and individual skills on bars, but struggles with maintaining the rhythm of the swing and often gets nailed for a Shaposh that reaches nowhere near horizontal.) She’s unlikely to have the scores on those two pieces to rank too, too well.

It may be a little premature, but I’m placing Leanne Wong in this club as well as its newest member. Everyone’s favorite shiny new GAGE toy was a L10 about six minutes ago but suddenly has a DTY now along with the possibility for greatness on bars and beam (her JO routines were pretty special, but it’s going to take some time to rise up to elite composition and become comfortable with it).

The overall D across four pieces probably isn’t there for Wong yet this year. Still, expect a lot of “I’ve fallen in love with her!!!” takes after the meet.

The darkhorses

Watch out for Ellie Lazzari (Florida). She got a huge total at the Parkettes qualifier (yes, scores at Parkettes, but still), including a 15 for a DTY, which is the highest US vault score of the year. She should place right up toward the top on at least vault and floor but could be there across the four pieces.

I shouldn’t forget Olivia Dunne (LSU), also on the national team. Unlike some of the others, she has reached this position because of usefully solid gymnastics across the board without stretching for marquee difficulty. That means her D scores aren’t going to be as high as the other national teamers, but she’ll look to go mid-13s throughout to record a competitive total—perhaps while others are having up-and-down junior meets—maybe a little higher on beam since that’s her most precise event.

Hill’s suddenly has quite the impressive crop of juniors again. (Remember that time when Kelli Hill was like, “I’m retiring”? So…I guess not that?)

I’ll get to some of the significant new ones in the infants section below, but Madeleine Johnston has been around a bit longer, with a DTY and very competitive difficulty on beam and floor. She is tied with Malabuyo for the highest floor score among the US juniors this year, which I wouldn’t necessarily have called.

I don’t really know what to expect from Jay Jay Marshall (Denver) at this meet. She had that Amanar at JO Nationals last year, and last summer, she showed elements like a double double on floor and a Fabrichnova on bars. She hasn’t put all that together in a single hit meet yet (and scratched at the American Classic in the middle of bars for a 1.5 D score), but the skill ability foretells big things.

Kara Eaker has tremendous possibilities on beam. This should be among the best beam sets at Classic (as long as…dismount).

Also expect Audrey Davis (Georgia) to WOGA the crap out of a beam set. Her 14.2 on beam this year is the third-highest among US juniors behind O’Keefe and Eaker.

Grace McCallum threw a casual DTY in Junior C this year, along with a very comfortable full-in on floor.

For Olivia Hollingsworth (Auburn), the tumbling is there on floor with some gigantic passes, displaying both difficulty and comfort in landing them.

She brings similar acrobatic ability to beam with a back full series, though the leaps mean her execution scores probably won’t get out of the 7s.

The infants

I’ve put the 12- and 13-year-olds in their own section because the expectations are different, though several of them should place higher than many of the gymnasts listed above. There’s just so much time.

Anya Pilgrim of Hill’s is one causing a bit of a stir this year despite being a single day of age. She has a new DTY, the makings of big tumbling on floor (though also one pass that’s just a layout stepout, indicating that Kelli isn’t pushing too much right now and that Pilgrim won’t be at the top quite yet). Pilgrim also showed a 5.8 D on bars earlier this year, which is a serious thing these days. She has the inbar skills already, but it can get Raggedy Anya in places. Bookmark this one for next year.

On Hill’s affairs, I’m all about Kayla DiCello as well. She doesn’t have the standout elements right now, but she’s quite comfortable and precise in her work. I’m assuming the NCAA coaches are banging down the door.

Lauren Little is an interesting one in that she hasn’t competed this year, but she has been invited to every national team camp, meaning that Team Valeri is squarely on the Team Little train. Presumably it’s because of her massive potential on vault and floor, showing a too-easy DTY last year at junior nationals along with some massive amplitude on floor.

You may recognize Konnor McClain‘s name from the constant video suggestions on the right-hand side of YouTube for the last five years being all “AMAZING 4 week old gymnast KONNOR MCCLAIN you won’t BELIEVE what happens NEXT.” Well, now she’s an elite. Because we’re old. As is typical with the babies, beam is already there.

Similar is true for Lilly Lippeatt, Mary Lee’s new prized possession whom everyone adopted during the Nastia Cup this year.

Get ready to hear about Annie “Dear Ragan, you’ve been replaced” Beard of Texas Dreams as well. Kind of a lot. She’s unlikely to place particularly high in the all-around standings because she doesn’t have the bars yet, but she already has a DTY and quite competitive ability on beam and floor. If bars didn’t exist, she would be an easy top-10 pick here.

8 thoughts on “U.S. Classic Preview – The Juniors”

  1. I think it’s kinda ironic that you talk about Leanne Wong being everyone’s new favourite for 6 minutes and that I started reading this article 6 minutes after it was published!

  2. OKAY Literally Leanne Wong has been my life since JO Nationals this year so just to make sure, I WAS OBSESSED BEFORE LEANNE WONG WAS COOL. Also, Ragan will never be replaced. Ragan and her beads are eternal.

  3. That thing behind the beam in all the Allentown qualifier videos is driving me NUTS– what the heck is that thing supposed to say?

    1. That is a horrible typographic design! The part that is visible says ” dog is hang on”
      I’m stumped as to what the rest of the phrase could be….

      1. I did a little googling and believe the full phrase is: Bulldogish-Hangontiveness! I’d never heard of that before, but apparently it means endurance.

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