The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

National Championship Preview: For the Win?

Team Title

I hesitate to do any kind of real or deep dive into the team title conversation right now because, first, we don’t know who the four advancing teams are and, second, we don’t know how everyone is going to look in the semifinal. I should wait and do a more informed preview that Saturday morning after the semifinals and before the team final, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen.

So…Oklahoma and UCLA, right? They are comfortably out in front by NQS, had the two highest scores from the regional finals, have been 1-2 all season long, own 2/3 of the 198s recorded this season, and…the list could go on and on. The margins in college gymnastics are too close to be confident…but Oklahoma and UCLA.

The argument for Oklahoma begins with vault. Oklahoma will put up a lineup with six 10.0-start Y1.5s, while UCLA is looking at putting up a couple fulls and has been more inconsistent with the overall landings on the 1.5s it does have. When Oklahoma has a lunge on a 1.5, it can drop that score and count the five other 1.5s in the lineup, but when UCLA has a big lunge on a 1.5 for 9.825, that score can’t be replaced as easily. That dynamic has carried Oklahoma to an NQS advantage of .170 over UCLA, the largest difference between these two teams on any single event.

The second-largest difference belongs to UCLA on floor with a lineup that owns a .150 advantage over Oklahoma there. When at its strongest, we’ve seen this UCLA floor lineup start with something like 9.925 from Frazier and not dip below that mark for the entire six routines, ending with what is a almost an auto-10 from Ohashi. Those big scores have become such a given that the only real question we have about UCLA’s floor heading into nationals is Tratz or Dennis for the lineup?

Meanwhile, floor has been Oklahoma’s low event with its most depleted lineup that has resulted in an NQS of (GASP) 49.570. You know, so bad. But it’s true that Oklahoma can get a little more 9.850y through the Draper and Schoepfer/LaPinta portion of the lineup, which makes the potential for a Maggie floor comeback so influential because she can erase much of that floor deficit we’ve seen develop this year.

To reduce it as much as possible, I expect either vault or floor to produce the largest single-event margin between these two teams, and whichever team’s strength happens to be the event producing that margin…there’s your winner. Because both teams are going to get huge numbers on bars and beam. I think Oklahoma is a little stronger overall on bars (UCLA has some mid-lineup uncertainty about who is going, with a couple potential 9.8s there in the middle), while UCLA is a little stronger overall on beam (Oklahoma has a routine or two early on that should get in the 9.8s, while UCLA starts with a legit potential 9.950 from Glenn and can go from there). But those are small margins, on-the-day differences that could flip to the other team in an instant. Hard to make an argument based on them.

Not to limit this thing totally to Oklahoma/UCLA, but they’re the top two teams, and we just…don’t know who’s going to be in the final with them at this point. But I will say: LSU comes into nationals in exactly the same position as UCLA did last season—the #3 most likely team to win the title, close enough to spoil should things fall just right.

Individuals

All-Around
The all-around title at NCAAs is supposed to be challenging to pick because you have all these amazing AAers within a tenth of each other—and then you know it’s probably going to get weird anyway and Kim Jacob wins. Based on what we’ve seen so far, however, this year shouldn’t be as wide open as normal.

With the frequency at which she is racking up the 10s, Kyla Ross has pulled out as a clear frontrunner. If she lands that 1.5 under control in the first rotation, she’s going to be on track for an absolutely massive number. One of the reasons Ross appears to be so far out in front, though, is Maggie Nichols’ floor absence. She hasn’t done AA since week 2. If Nichols returns to floor at nationals, there’s really no routine where you’d put Ross clearly out in front. They can both knock on the door of 10s on every event.

At the same time, we haven’t seen Nichols on floor in so long. We don’t know…that she’ll go, we don’t know what difficulty she’d put up, we don’t know how the landings are looking, so there’s always going to be some mystery about her AA chances.

In the next group, we have Sarah Finnegan. Finnegan can challenge for 10s on three events, but she’s probably going to max out at 9.900 for her vault given the difficulty and position in the lineup. The way scores have been going this season, one 9.900 is basically enough to drop you out of the title race. MyKayla Skinner will also be in the hunt, but for her, one step on the double tuck on beam presents the opportunity to take that score down to 9.850, and if 9.900 drops you out of the race, then 9.850 definitely does. They’re both in it, but if the scores are trending super, super high, Finnegan and Skinner max out at a lower position that Ross and Nichols.

Natalie Wojcik, Maddie Karr, and Lynnzee Brown present some enjoyable underdog hopes, and keep an eye on Alicia Boren as well competing as an individual, but it would be a definite surprise if the AA title doesn’t go to one of those first four.

Vault
Have fun guessing this one.

Someone with a 10.0 start and stick capability is going to get 10s from at least a couple judges and move ahead of the rest. We’ve seen that from Ross, Wojcik, and Nichols this year, so be surprised by a victory for none of them. But you could list so many others as realistic. Skinner, Brown, Snead, Karr, literally the entire Oklahoma lineup. The way vault is evaluated, we know it’s going to come down to who sticks on the day. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bars
You look and bars and ask, who is the most likely to get a 10? And the answer is Kyla Ross, so she’s going to enter the competition as the favorite for the bars title. She is best able to replicate the exact same routine from meet to meet to meet to meet—and the most likely to stick her dismount—which makes her the most reliable pick.

Beyond that…a win from Nichols? Not surprising. A win from Finnegan? Not surprising. A win from Lexy Ramler? More surprising, but I’m not going to shut up about the possibility and her routine is absolutely worthy. Trinity Thomas is also competing as an individual for bars and floor. I firmly believe that we will see an individual title go to a Florida gymnast in this meet, and Trinity Thomas on bars is not a bad option at all.

Beam
Do we want to just copy+paste Ross, Nichols, and Finnegan again into this one? Yeah, basically. Beam is definitely more unpredictable than bars this year (and every year, it’s beam), but it’s pretty much those three and Ohashi as the squad of most likely winners right now. UCLA has won beam at nationals 4 years in a row, and there’s no reason to think that streak won’t continue. I mean, it could even be Grace Glenn getting a 9.950 in the first spot if no one ends up 10ing.

The upset picks you’re rooting for here are Lexy Ramler and Alexis Vasquez, both of whom have been very 9.950 this year, but there are many, many you could add and not be remotely surprised by, like Sabrina Vega or Anastasia Webb or something.

Floor
This one is in Ohashi’s hands, let’s be honest. We’re at a point where, if she controls the landings on the DLO, she’s getting a 10 and at least a share of the floor title. They’re going to give her the win unless they physically can’t.

If Ohashi doesn’t control the DLO and the judges have to go 9.950, however, then this thing is live. I mean who didn’t get a 9.950 on floor at least once this season? I got 6 of them. From Trautman and Dowell, to Finnegan and Kelley, to Lynnzee Brown, to Trinity Thomas again as an individual, to literally the entire UCLA floor lineup, we’re going to see a lot of 9.950s on floor at nationals and more than a couple 9.9625s (remember that extra judges at nationals give us some weird decimal places) especially from anchors after three 9.950s have been given out to the previous three competitors. The surprise here would be if the floor win doesn’t go to a lineup anchor.

I’m a bit bummed that the new format kind of quashes my typical sassmonster individual strategy of just picking whoever goes last on each event in one of the semifinals as a protest of rising scores, but it’s my thing, so I’ve got to do it. Taylor Houchin for vault, Lexy Ramler for bars, Alicia Boren for beam, and Sophia Carter for floor. Let’s go.

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