The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Super Six 2018: What. Just. Happened?

UCLA wins! Just like we all predicted!

Except not. UCLA had situated itself cozily among the pack of four legitimate title contenders entering nationals—but was certainly not the leader of that pack. Third place would have been seen as a very solid result and sign of improvement in 2018, so winning a title will go down as a true upset. Not a completely baffling, shocking upset, but something along the lines of Oklahoma winning its first title with the tie in 2014. Oklahoma was likewise among the top contenders that year, but actually winning a championship was a leap for that team—about a year earlier than expected at the time—and similar is true for UCLA. The Bruins made the unforeseen leap this year, when next year (with the additions of Frazier and Flatley, having a fuller-strength Kocian) and the following season were supposed to be UCLA’s biggest shots at another championship.

Instead, it’s a 2018 title for the Bruins, their seventh overall, as they jump back ahead of Alabama for sole possession of third place on the all-time list.

So what just happened? An extremely competitive, deliciously exciting Super Six is what just happened, a meet that stylishly sends the Super Six postseason format to its rightful place—super six feet underground—while still serving as an excellent advertisement for next year’s four-team final since this…basically was a four-team final.

It’s tough to beat this year’s Super Six on excitement level, though I’m not among those shouting from the rooftops about the amazing quality of the actual gymnastics. There were fantastic moments of course, but what made the competition so exciting and enjoyable wasn’t some amazing high level of peak performance. It was that everyone had issues, keeping them all bunched together. Team “I just want everyone to do their best and hit at the same time” will not have enjoyed this one because that’s not remotely what happened. Team “GRRR BLOOD WAR PLEASE” will have enjoyed this one because it was close and dramatic and full of equal peaks and valleys. I enjoyed this one.

We saw an unexpected number of mistakes from teams that should have been able to go 24-for-24 in Super Six. Our national champion won with two falls, which hasn’t happened since Florida’s infamous beam in 2013. No one hit a complete and fantastic meet of four events, which also serves to stunt some potentially brewing controversy. Not a single one of the six teams, even UCLA, can righteously say “We deserved that win based on our performance on the day.” No one did, no one completely nailed it, so they all left it in the hands of the judges. If Oklahoma showed up and had been completely lights out again this year, Oklahoma would have won, but that’s not what happened, which gave us a thrilling meet and an upset winner.

If I had watched the meet without knowing any of the scores, I likely still would have named Oklahoma the champion, but it was extremely close. It’s far too simplistic and inaccurate just to say that UCLA was held up in the scores. All of the major teams were held up in the scores and showered with gifts on more than a handful of routines. For every mathematically impossible judge that gave Janay Honest an actual 10 on bars or even 9.900 (but really what?) or ignored Kocian’s double stag on floor, you can point to Oklahoma’s tentative beam performances or some of those bouncy floor passes, or Finnegan getting over 9.8 for a bars routine where she went over on a handstand. There were preposterous scores everywhere. You can’t talk about overscores for one without addressing the overscores for all. And, when seen with sober eyes, they were for all.

Or, the entire thing was rigged. Also a fair assessment. The NCAA gymnastics writers definitely earned their paychecks for this season finale.

Side note: I actually thought Florida got the fewest preposterous scores compared to the other three top finishers (what world is this??????) but had too many issues on beam and parts of floor to make a particularly compelling argument as a rightful champion. Having to count the Boren beam because of the McMurtry fall is the kind of thing that takes you out of contention in a close meet like this. Although, I did think it was a little harsh that Florida didn’t have the lead after two events. Florida was the best team in the first half of the meet, just couldn’t keep it going after that.

Florida will probably be playing the what-if game after that performance because it could have been a win with just a little more on beam. Or with a little Kennedy Baker.

So you have two performances from Oklahoma and UCLA, one that was quite good on all four pieces but that gave away a little ground on each from Oklahoma, and one that was kind of mediocre on two events and then absolutely fantastic on two events from UCLA. I suppose that evens out in the end, which is exactly what we had, a meet that was more-or-less a tie that went to UCLA because the Bruins got the hits in the important moments. It’s nonetheless unusual and still very surprising to have a team that was no better than OK on two events win a championship, but the door was open for it.

If you’re looking for specifics of what gave UCLA the advantage, the way the teams reacted to the early-lineup beam falls is a check in UCLA’s corner. Both teams had an early fall, but after the fall, UCLA got better and Oklahoma got tight. Not majorly tight, not significant errors, but leans on gainer fulls and checks on layouts and slower connections. A hole was poked in the confident crispness we expect from Oklahoma beam, and when the ultimate margin is smaller than a single deduction, these things matter.

The rotation order did end up being very beneficial for this year’s UCLA team—finishing on the event where it can best snatch drunken end-of-meet scores—but it was also an ideal rotation order for Oklahoma, getting to finish on its best event. Oklahoma’s bars performance was another of the surprises of Super Six because while good, it was definitely not great. Oklahoma, with a clear lead, going to the last event, finishing on bars? I think we all expected a stick-fest clinic, and that’s not what we got until Nichols. There were hops. There were handstands. It wasn’t perfect. We expect perfect from Oklahoma on bars, and it turns out that the rotation needed to be perfect because we did get perfect from UCLA. And by UCLA I mean Peng.

Peng’s Perfect 20 will go down as the legend of nationals 2018, and she certainly brought her best possible gymnastics at the best possible moment. She is capable of doing neither routine any better than she did in Super Six, and while the prudent judge would deduct for shape in the dismount on both events, those were not among the top 20 most egregious judging decisions on the day. I have little problem calling those routines, particularly beam, perfect. Should they actually be free from deductions? No. But in the current NCAA score-scape, those are 10s. In fact, all of the 10s we saw at championships were legitimate 10s. Not all of the 10s we saw from individual judges were legitimate 10s, but that’s why we drop scores.

Now it’s time to address LSU, the team that will probably be the most disappointed by its Super Six performance because several of LSU’s midseason meets would have been good enough to win this title on the day, and the scores were there for them. The judges were ready for LSU to win a title, particularly on bars and beam where LSU received the same benefit of the doubt as the other preordained championship options, but the quality of meet just didn’t happen. It was still a strong performance, but like Florida’s, one that had too many small mistakes to be a championship meet, without the same BIG AMAZING moments that allowed UCLA to cover up its own issues.

LSU had the Macadaeg beam issue (of course that would be Macadaeg’s final beam routine because goodbye cruel world), the Finnegan bars, the Priessman ankle that looked like it absolutely could not stand up to those floor passes, the everyone’s vault except Sarah Edwards. There was a moment after Edwards stuck that vault that I think everyone thought LSU would go on a run of sticks and be the team that made that huge, late push, but the majority of the rest of the vaults just weren’t there.

The question now is where LSU goes from here because despite a successful season, this 4th-place finish will feel like a regression immediately following two 2nd-place finishes. What’s more, there are currently no new gymnasts scheduled to come in for next year. Currently.

Get in loser, we’re going beam shopping.

The big four teams finished well ahead of Utah and Nebraska, which both ultimately came in a point behind and never really challenged the top few. Nebraska will not be overly pleased with its actual Super Six performance, which began with mistakes on bars in the first rotation (over on a handstand, a foot-brush), taking the team out of contention right away and ensuring it would not end up with an ideal score. At the same time, making Super Six was a gigantic victory for Nebraska and displayed clear improvement over last season. Even with a completely hit meet, Nebraska was probably peaking out at fifth place here, so the legacy of this nationals performance will be making Super Six in the first place rather than a bars rotation that took the air out right as Super Six started.

Utah’s fifth-place finish is one of the more interesting dynamics because unlike Nebraska, which will view reaching this point as a major accomplishment, Utah will view reaching Super Six as been-there-done-that-yawn, despite this result pretty accurately mimicking expectations based on the regular season. It’s another year of fifth place (which makes four times in the last eight seasons). Another year of getting to the final day but not finishing all that close to the best teams upon arrival. Utah’s actual performance was OK, but the team will be disappointed in the quality of the landings, which most clearly took away the scores on vault and floor for counting 9.7s, but kept all four events bunched down in the 9.8s overall.

The team will also, of course, be disappointed that UCLA won another title. Just pour some lemon juice on the wound. Next year ought to be fun.

In the next post, I’ll break down in detail the major stories of the semifinals and individual competitions and judging. There’s a lot more to get through.

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