First Round – March 30, 2pm ET – Towson v Penn State
Semifinal 1 – March 31, 2pm ET – Cal, Michigan St, W Michigan, W Virginia
Semifinal 2 – March 31, 7pm ET – Florida, Arizona St, Maryland, TBD
Final – April 2, 5pm ET
Getting into this regional was the goal for the play-in teams, the prime draw. If a play-in team is going to make a big run to the regional final this season, the Pitt regional presents the best opportunity to do so. The average rank of the unseeded teams here is 28.4 (compared to 27.4 at UCLA, 25.6 at Oklahoma, and 24.6 at Denver), telling us that there’s not a whole lot separating these play-in teams from Maryland, Western Michigan and West Virginia. If a seeded team opens the door, the team that walks through it seems just as likely to be Towson or Penn State.
But first, one must get out of the play-in.
Penn State made a big push toward the end of the season, going 196.875 in the home finale followed by 197.025 on the road at Auburn to muscle its way into the regional places. Those scores are way, way above the level it usually takes to win the play-in. With just two meets to go, Penn State was outside the top 36 and converted exactly when necessary. Towson, meanwhile, owns both the better season ranking and the better conference championship result, going 196.500 to win EAGLs compared to Penn State’s 196.200 at Big Tens.
An early indicator of how this might go will be whether (and by how much) Penn State can go over 49 on vault. The dual Omelianchiks from Ava Piedrahita and Bella Salcedo have allowed Penn State’s 2023 team to tie its best vault ranking since the downgrade of the Yfull. It’s a real opportunity to prevent Towson from developing an early lead, as long as the landings are there.
That vital Penn State vault rotation will run while Towson is on bars, and with one of the top-ranked bars rotations in the country, Towson is quite accustomed to having a post-bars lead this season. Having that lead would seem especially definitive for Towson in this case because, even while Penn State has made a big scoring run in the last several weeks, Towson has maintained a consistent advantage on floor. While Penn State has peaked out at 49.175 on floor this year, Towson has beat that mark 7 times and will therefore expect to end this meet on an upward note. Penn State will aim to get on top before that.
Regional Semifinals – Battle to Watch
Of all the regionals, it would be the most surprising to see an upset come from the semifinals in this one. Cal and Michigan State have a pretty deep advantage of more than a point (and closer to 1.5 if recent meets are the best indicator) over Western Michigan and West Virginia and should enjoy enough of a buffer to count mistakes and still be OK. Just by making it into the regional semifinal, Western Michigan has already ensured this will be the team’s best-ever season, so some of this is just gravy. A 196.7, for instance, would be an excellent and gratifying regionals performance for both WMU and WVU—that would still probably mean multiple counting falls for either of the seeds.
So if there’s a battle to be watched in these regional finals, it centers around whether Arizona State is vulnerable or not in the second semifinal.
The rankings say no—Arizona State’s NQS is stronger that the peaks for Maryland, Towson, and Penn St—and the season highs say no, with Arizona State going over 197.4 three times in a row starting in late February, a score that would easily advance in this semifinal. But digging deeper, that home 197.750 to beat Oregon State and that home 197.550 to beat Utah were among the more controversial results of the season (or at least would be if that mattered), and the more terrestrial 196.700 for ASU’s performance at Pac-12s—with room to pick up tenths here and there but mostly a solid hit—would look more attainable for the other teams in this semifinal.
Now, an exact replica of Arizona State’s performance at Pac-12s should still be enough to get through, but Maryland has six scores of 196.5+ this season, Towson has been 196.5+ in each of the last two meets, and Penn State had those two big numbers before Big Tens, where they came back to earth a little bit with a 196.200 (but still beat Maryland). The best challenger team in this semifinal, whichever school that ends up being, will expect a hit for a mid-196, so if Arizona State throws in an extra blip, maybe a counting 9.6 on beam or an OOB on floor, this one could get real.
ASU has to stay solid, which should be enough, but if they can get an extra bonus 9.9 from, say, the Y1.5 from Anaya Smith or any little thing from Emily White—who would be the form-swoon queen of the internet if she went to a different school—it would help a lot in crushing the hopes and dreams of everyone else, the true spirit of the postseason.
Regional Final – Battle to Watch
Ooooooook. Let’s talk Cal vs. Michigan State.
Well actually first, Florida won’t be able to dawdle here. Of course Florida should advance and is favored to do so, but even a performance like the 197.700 from the now-infamous Oklahoma meet isn’t necessarily going to get through to nationals from this one. If Cal and Michigan State deliver to capabilities, the required score could get high. In terms of scores earned in the month of March, Michigan State ranks #6 in NCAA. It just so happens that Florida ranks #2 and Cal ranks #4 in that list.
Which speaks to how tight this one could get.
Despite the close-but-no-cigar result at Pac-12s, Cal will probably be pleased by how near the total score—in a championship, four-judge, road environment—got to the wheeeeee home finale results from the weekend before, with a conference championship total of 197.825 compared to Michigan State’s 197.550. That reinforces the present-but-not-definitive edge Cal has heading into this one.
The biggest necessity for Michigan State here will be proving that it’s not just a home thing. Michigan State’s average score within the state of Michigan this year is 197.635, while the average outside the state of Michigan is 196.893 with a peak of 197.675. Those outside-of-Michigan scores, despite their historic nature (197.675 is MSU’s third-highest score ever and kind of a big deal), shouldn’t really make nationals from this site. Michigan State did the whole “valiant effort, great score while being eliminated” thing last year. This year, they’ll want more. And it will probably take setting a program road record in the regional final to do it.
As for the events, beam and bars are Cal’s weapons, apparatuses where they will expect to perform with an absence of built-in execution deductions that can match any other team—and where they will expect to develop an edge over Michigan State. Now, bars also happens to be Michigan State’s best event (the scores tell us differently, but I’m saying it’s the best event, have you seen Jori Jackard), but while MSU will hope to keep up with Cal there, you have to imagine that any tangible Michigan State lead would rely most heavily on the circumstances of vault and floor.
The early-season problems that plagued Cal’s floor rotation seem to have been ironed out, with nothing lower than 49.475 there since March started. It’s not usually going to be their best score, but it’s doing enough, especially when Frazier and Lauzon get 9.950s. If floor is keeping Cal close enough to 198 pace that bars and beam can put the score over the top, it’s a good day. Still, there’s more potential for a botched pass here or there in Cal’s floor rotation than in many of the other floor lineups in the top 10, and if it’s that kind of day, Michigan State can pounce with a 49.5.
Meanwhile, Cal has improved on vault this year. Adding the eMjae Frazier DTY and getting the Lauzon Y1.5 in there healthily and consistently has been a boon, but it’s still the event most likely to get stuck in the friend zone. For much of the season, it seemed like Cal was alternating big vault day for 49.4, then meh vault day for 49.1. Michigan State should be able to keep up difficulty-wise with the handspring pike 1/2 from Kellerman, Y1.5 from Smith, and the scores-like-a-10.0 Yfull from Stephen, and if the landings are under control, it’s a place to gain some tenths. Meanwhile, Cal would have Olympic order in the final, and if they open the regional final with one of those 49.4 vault days, it’s going to be very tough to pull that back.
Qualification is in Florida and Cal’s hands, but they don’t have the buffer that some of these other top teams have.
Individual qualification sees the top-ranked AAer and top-ranked performer on each event who are not part of a qualifying team advance to nationals as individuals, based on the scores from the regional semifinals.
If the seedings go to plan and Florida and Cal advance to nationals, Michigan State has three strong all-arounders in Schulte, Nikki Smith, and Stephen, and you expect at least one of them to have a big result that gets through. And if Michigan State gets through as a team, the same statement is true for Cal. Or Florida. There’s probably not much room for an upstart AAer here (or on many of the events).
But if there is room, Arizona State has Hannah Scharf as its most consistently strong four-event gymnast—as well as Emily White as another top-50 AAer—while Western Michigan’s Payton Murphy, who has scored over 39.5 this year, would be the epic upset pick to get through. It would be perhaps less of an upset to see Murphy get through as the floor qualifier, though, since she has been one of the top floor scorers all season and does have 10-from-one-judge in her pocket. She ranks in a tie with Emily Holmes-Hackerd from West Virginia and Hannah Scharf of Arizona State among those hoping to steal a floor spot.
Arizona State does have a few options with Emily White on beam, or Anaya Smith if she sticks vault, but it would take a lot of work to deny spots from whichever top-10 team doesn’t get through, as they all have someone everywhere—or three people everywhere—who would be favored advance.