Let’s just cut to the chase. Florida was the best team in the NCAA last year, and it wasn’t close. For all the discussion about Alabama and UCLA stepping up at the right time (which they did), Florida had no business losing the title. That they didn’t even make Super Six is an even greater and more interesting disappointment.
Much has been made about Florida peaking at the wrong time and showing their best gymnastics in January and February instead of March and April. Rhonda has clearly taken this criticism to heart. She pushed the team’s training schedule back 4-6 weeks this year in order to put them in a better position come championships. Whether this will work remains to be seen. It will be fascinating to watch their January meets to see if they look like the January Florida we’ve become accustomed to or if they look more like early-season UCLA.
While poor performances in January may be alarming to the team (and it will be interesting to see how they might respond mentally to losses since they are used to starting the season with such strength), a bad result or two is likely the best thing that could happen to them. The two major issues that knocked them out of championships in 2011 (struggles on the beam and an inability to produce top routines under pressure) both appear to stem from a lack of competition adversity during the season.
Because the beam problems didn’t truly start to manifest themselves in an alarming way until SEC Championships, the team had little time to experiment with lineups or correct these issues. Mahlich suddenly felt new pressure to hit, which made her very tentative and induced the falls, and the rest of the team was relatively unfamiliar with performing in a must-hit situation. Worse beam outings early in the season would have made this scenario less foreign and would have told Rhonda exactly who could be relied upon to hit when necessary. In addition, after the beam disaster at championships, the gymnasts tried too hard to stick their landings on vault and bars and ended up with worse scores because of it. Familiarity with performing after a poor rotation may have given the gymnasts a calmer demeanor and more ability to produce the gymnastics they had prepared.
For all of the issues we saw at the end of last season, Florida can still make the argument that they are the most talented team in the country. In particular, returners Alaina Johnson, Mackenzie Caquatto, Ashanee Dickerson, and Marissa King will be relied upon on 3-4 events each and are all capable of massive scores. Johnson would have been the undisputed top all-arounder in the country last year had it not been for lower scores on the beam, but she is capable of 9.950s on 3 events. Caquatto proved herself a reliable 9.9 gymnast across the board, even coming off a long elite season in 2010. She’ll have to get healthy, stay healthy, and continue improving on her performance ability under pressure. She’s come a long way over the years from being the girl who could never hit beam, but she needs to keep getting more confident and not allow those 9.7s to creep in when she’s nervous. Dickerson is so powerful on vault and floor that a 9.9 has become an expectation. She’s scored well on beam in the past, but it can still be a struggle with leg form and consistency. That 8.450 at regionals will haunt her beam performance for a while. King is the national vault champion and is capable of the above floor performance. Enough said.
The four stars by themselves would be strong enough to go up in the 3 through 6 positions on most events and contend for a national title, but they will be joined by standout freshman Kytra Hunter, who will be expected to contribute in the all-around as well. She’s amazingly powerful, and her tumbling is always insane. If they can manage her dance elements, she can bring in huge scores. Bars was a significant weakness for her as an elite, but she’s still a Kelli Hill gymnast. With a simple routine that doesn’t show off missed handstands, she can be a solid early contributor.
New gymnasts Kiersten Wang and (potentially, so has been said) Rachel Spicer would be standouts on other teams. They will be necessary at times during the season, especially if Rhonda experiments with her depth early on, but with the five gymnasts mentioned above it will be hard for them to make too many lineups come the postseason.
Florida has no reason to worry about vault or floor. Johnson, Caquatto, King, Dickerson, and Hunter will all be 9.9 capable on both those events. That’s a lineup right there, as long as they bring in a competent scorer in the first position, not a placeholder whose score they’d rather not count. In 2011, some of their leadoff gymnasts were notably weaker than the rest of the lineup, which was fine when everyone hit but became a problem when the score had to count. This team is better than a 9.775 leadoff.
King and Dickerson are both capable on bars and can perform routines early in the lineup or whenever necessary, but they will not be standouts. While Johnson and Caquatto can carry the team, the graduation of Alicia Goodwin creates more uncertainty in this lineup, and Florida will need at least one more strong score to be competitive. This is where freshmen can step in and make the lineup if they prove competitive.
As for beam, the issue is less about the number of competitive, possibly excellent routines (they will have many) than it is about who can hit. Expect a lot of experimentation with this lineup and a lot of opportunities for the depth to show (or not). Even though we can expect the stars to perform here as well, those lineup spots are not guaranteed if they perform tentatively and give us those 9.7s we saw last postseason.
When it comes to the top 3 teams this year, there are no guarantees. Any one of the three could take the national title, and it would not be a surprise. It’s hard to argue with Florida’s lineups, and predicting some 49.500 rotations this season is not farfetched. They have the capability to be even better than they were last year, but it will take fixing the cracks we saw exposed so publicly at the end of 2011. Rhonda’s willingness to make changes to her preparation schedule is an encouraging sign because Florida cannot expect to do the same things as last year and win this time, especially not with the improvements around the country. They’re ranked #3 for a reason. There are significant questions about their ability to make those changes and fix those problems. But if they do, it will take superhuman performances from UCLA or Alabama to beat them.