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Nationals Postmortem: Semifinals and Individuals

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The worry heading into the national semifinals was that everything would go exactly to plan and the top six teams would all advance comfortably to the final. Thankfully for our purposes, that didn’t happen. Because otherwise snoozeburger.

Alabama’s elimination and descent to a fifth-place semifinal finish, ultimately eighth overall, reigned as the big story on Friday and marked the first time Alabama missed Super Six since 2007—what had been the longest Super Six streak in NCAA. This 2018 situation almost exactly mirrored what happened to Alabama in that 2007 semifinal, when Alabama also did not count a fall or even have a disaster meet, just got stuck with some meh routines for 9.7s and 9.8s to end up fifth in the semifinal as Nebraska snatched the upset and finished third, advancing to Super Six. Just like what happened here.

It was basically the same meet, 11 years later, except instead of Georgia outperforming expectations to finish fourth as we saw in 2018, that year it was an upstart Oklahoma team led by first-year head coach KJ Kindler. We never heard from her again.

On the bright side for the Tide, Alabama came back from that 2007 result to finish the following regular season ranked 4th, and then went on to be national runners-up just two years after the disappointment of 2007.

It must be noted that Alabama was no more than the borderline Super Six team coming into nationals this year (ranked #6) and probably the most likely top-6 team to be upset. Given the regionals performance from Nebraska and the scoring potential on that roster, the result is not a devastating shock, but it is still a surprise that Alabama did not put up a more competitive meet. Not qualifying is one thing, but losing to Georgia will also sting. The high score on the day for Alabama came from Abby Armbrecht’s leadoff floor, a clean and pretty routine that’s supposed to set the stage for the routines to come, not be the top score on the entire team. No one else got higher than 9.850 for any set, which is crazy.

We’ve talked a lot in recent years about Alabama having plenty of 9.8s but not enough 9.9s, which ended up being a problem here, but it’s still alarming to think that Alabama went through a whole meet of routines from Winston and Guerrero (which makes for seven realistic, frequent 9.9+s) and didn’t score over 9.850 on any of them. The top routines had uncharacteristic deductions across all four events, which stunted Alabama’s ability to get out of the mid-196s.

It was a performance best encapsulated by Guerrero’s little improvised half turn out of her side aerial on beam. It was an amazing cover and actually beautiful, but a cover nonetheless. When was the last time you saw Guerrero have to cover on a side aerial on beam (or not stick that 1.5)? Those are rock skills for her, but they suddenly weren’t on the day, which happened to person after person after person.

Of course, when discussing Alabama and a lack of 9.9s, the unspoken topic is the semi-mysterious absence of Bailie Key this season, who was recruited to be those 9.9s. Alabama isn’t returning any 9.9 RQSs next season, which means we’re not done with this conversation (or the conversation about Dickson ending up being just a one-eventer this year) even if Gaskins and Olsen come in next season and replace what will be lost from Winston and Guerrero. The world of the top teams is too deep for schools to be able to afford their high-profile, elite recruits not to come through.

Among the teams that didn’t qualify to Super Six, the big winner was Georgia, snatching a number of moral victories from the competition even while being eliminated. Georgia finished 7th overall, well above expectations, and managed to score exactly as well as the content of the roster allowed in the circumstances. The only thing holding Georgia back was having, you know, three floor routines and two vaults and an overall lack of depth and preponderance of injuries, but this no doubt will be an encouraging showing heading into the total roster reboot that will happen next fall.

Georgia is bringing in enough potential routines next year that it will be able to retain only the most useful Snead, Dickson, Oakley, Schild, and Vega sets and fill all remaining lineups spots with freshmen. Georgia 2019 will expect to be like Georgia 2018 except without all those 9.7s at the beginning of the vault and floor lineups, which would have made for a Super Six team here. Georgia missed by only four tenths anyway while counting four 9.7s and having to go with five on bars after Pedersen died in the middle of choreography on floor (which is still a fall by the way, even when it doesn’t happen on a tumbling pass).

Arkansas’s performance in the first semifinal sort of got lost in all the storylines, but it was a very competitive three-event showing that I think a lot of people missed because of the early vault problems that took Arkansas right out of contention. Vault has been the issue for Arkansas since McGlone’s injury, and a miss on a full from Garner forced Arkansas to count Burton’s layout, which sealed the team’s fate. Across bars, beam, and floor, however, Arkansas ended up outscoring both Alabama and Georgia, so remember that when thinking about next year. I’ll forget probably.

The second semifinal was a huge disappointment to everyone by not providing any upsets at all, and it needs to sit in the corner and think long and hard about its life choices. Instead, as a surprising team result began looking less and less likely the farther we went (and then more likely for a second when Utah struggled on beam, and then less likely again because 9.7s), the second semifinal became the Elizabeth Price show.

Everyone cried and swooned and died because of class and poise and deserving things and not having a team to prop up her scores here (…or for the last four years…) as Price took a share of the bars title with a 10.000 and finished third AA, with Maggie Nichols winning the all-around because duh.

Nichols ended up taking three individual titles (AA, share of UB with Price, share of FX with Ohashi), while Peng Peng Lee took beam, and vault finished as a tie-way tie among Skinner, Dowell, and McMurtry. So yeah, we still had too many ties. An unnecessary number of ties (which is anything more than zero). And no one even got on someone else’s shoulders on the podium when they all tried to fit. Boo. This six-judge thing isn’t really doing a sufficient job of avoiding ties. And we still don’t need to award trophies down to eighth place. Top three will do.

Among the teams that did not advance from the second semifinal, Cal put together the most complete performance and will be semi-satisfied with how it came out, especially with how competitively vault and bars scored. Those two scores were at a level to catch a seeded team. Tight performances on beam dropped that total lower than Cal would have liked, and a few things combined to keep the floor score well down, including a bout of front-foot-ADHD on landings that meant most passes could be deducted for control, as well as a sudden case of judging prudence that was not maintained on floor for the rest of that semifinal.

Unlike the rest, the score was there for George in the middle of the lineup. She broke 9.8 despite opening her routine with one of the more uncontrolled passes of the rotation. She was able to do that because her leaps are an actual dream that other teams use as examples to show their gymnasts how leaps should look, and because she has the amplitude. She’s really the only one pre-Williams who can get away with a lack of landing control, while most of the others tend to have the kind of unassuming rudi routines, or enough foot form, that they can get stuck in the 9.7s, especially in a nationals context. That’s what happened here.

Beam and floor made it impossible to catch Utah, even on an off day for the Utes, but Cal will still definitely take a 196.500 at nationals, with the promise of another pretty large, pretty accomplished class coming in next year to reinvigorate some half-lineups.

What floor was for Cal, vault was for Washington. An event that is unassuming enough, without a ton of difficulty or control, that it can be 9.7ed to death at nationals and take the team out of contention. Washington was OK on the remaining events but just a little too inconsistent to get the big scores or match Cal as the best non-qualifying team. Washington lost a few necessary numbers from Goings, Burleson on bars, Hoffa on floor, which made it that much more difficult to get up to the mid-196s. A 196.250 is fine, but not as strong as Washington’s nationals performance last year.

Kentucky had a real shot here coming off that 197 from regionals but immediately fell into a pit of piranha lava on bars. With a fall from Coca and two major mistakes from Hyland, Kentucky’s bars was the closest thing we had to a counting fall or a disaster event at nationals, and happening right at the beginning, it deflated Kentucky’s whole meet. There were still good moments, but poor Alex Hyland struggled mightily after that opening bars issue, and beam continued being a surprisingly low score for a team that should be quite strong there. It nonetheless remains the case that making nationals itself was a victory for Kentucky, but Kentucky also had a chance to advance in this one and didn’t really bring its best gymnastics.

 

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