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Live from Worlds Day 7 – Event Finals Part 2

This is it! The final day of worlds. It’s a little wistful. I mean, this has been #trashworlds, but it has still been worlds. Five more medals to award today, including many of the best ones. Updates at the bottom.


MEN’S VAULT FINAL

The Koreans got the best draw in this one, with Yang and Kim finishing in the last two spots, while other medal contenders Shirai and Asato have the first two spots.

Continue reading Live from Worlds Day 7 – Event Finals Part 2

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American Classic and Elite Qualifier

You may now rest easy. I have returned from the wilderness. (Metaphorical wilderness, obviously. Like I would do a wilderness.) While I was sans gymnastics, everyone decided to gather at the ranch for the worst-timed competition of each season, the American Classic.

The American Classic is basically a poor woman’s U.S. Classic, which is a poor women’s national championship. It’s the smallest nesting doll. It’s the complementary appetizer. Still interesting, though. Especially this year. Certain people made some certain grand entrances.

Gymnasts competing at the American Classic have already achieved the qualifying score to the U.S. Classic (51 AA for seniors, 50 AA for juniors) but can use this meet to achieve the nationals qualification score (52 AA for seniors, 50.5 AA for juniors). All elite qualifying scores for this season have been lowered two points from last year to account for the reduction in D scores.

Detour: Can we please stop naming everything Classic? It’s so unnecessarily confusing. You hold 1.3 competitions per year, and yet all of them are “the Classic.” Other words exist.

Also note that Secret doesn’t have title sponsorship of the U.S. Classic anymore, so it’s not the Secret Classic. It’s the U.S. Classic because we’re partying like it’s 2007.

Anyway, here’s what we learned from the Flag Pants Classic last week. Continue reading American Classic and Elite Qualifier

Chinese Championships 2017

The 2017 Chinese Championships were the age-old story of the 2016 Olympians saying, “this me = tired” and also “why is the floor exercise just rebar concrete wrapped in a carpet from a 1960s dentist’s office?”

You know the drill. Super fun. So, let’s get into it—just in case you sleep at night and don’t speak fluent Chinese (ugh, try harder) and don’t have the slightest inkling of what happened in this meet.

Team Final/Individual Qualification
The format of the Chinese Championships is more like an international meet, beginning with a provincial team final that also acts as qualification for individual finals later on. Guangdong (Liu Tingting, Zhu Xiaofang, Chen Yile) won the team final, in case you had a horse in that race. Or just REALLY hate Hunan or something.

-I think most of us entered the competition thinking this would serve as the Birth of the Age of TINGTING. Liu Tingting has emerged as the most likely AA star of the future for China over the last year or so, and with last quad’s AA standouts not at full strength for this meet, this seemed to be her time.

That didn’t really happen. LTT did qualify third into the AA final, but she did so with a downgraded vault (Yfull) and a fall on beam that prevented her from qualifying in the presumed first position. She later elected to pull out of the AA final with a mild case of inflamed can’t-have-nice-things, spoiling her opportunity to grab the scepter and reign as China’s new queen. For now.

Wang Yan also declined the opportunity to win the AA here by competing just three events in qualification—and not FX, her best piece—presumably because she took one look at that floor being ripped up and repaired in the middle of the competition, went “You want me to do what?” and promptly returned to her trailer to be sprayed with cooling mists by her assistants. No medals for Wang Yan here, other than team silver.

-As for Shang Chunsong, she clearly would have preferred that this meet take place maybe three months from now after a solid spa vacation and one of those entire-skeleton transplants, but she tried to power through qualification. Beam and floor were fine enough, bars was not ready, and on vault, she performed an “Ugh, we’re still doing this? This is still an event? SIGH.”

-As for other previous-year stars, Yao Jinnan did not compete here and may or may not be done. Huang Huidan did compete here and also may or may not be done. Her face certainly said, “I’M DONE,” throughout bars and beam.

Mao Yi, Tan Jiaxin, and Bai Yawen…also participated. Continue reading Chinese Championships 2017

SEC Championship Preview

Saturday 3/19
Afternoon session 2:00 ET/11:00 PT
Evening session 6:00 ET/3:00 PT

It’s tomorrow! Everything starts very early, with Jesolo getting underway even before the first session of Big Tens. It’ll be a huge day of live blogging and gymnastics watching, so we’ll have to pace ourselves early. Don’t waste your energy before the big-girl sessions begin.

Finally. After years of watching poky live score spreadsheet templates that didn’t even update, followed by the recent generous bestowing of an internet stream, the SEC Championship will at last be broadcast live on actual televisions this year. Happy 1968, everyone!

In an attempt to make up for doing such a terrible job at this for so long, the SEC Network is whipping out all the bells and whistles this season, with a TV broadcast accompanied by each individual event streaming online, meaning we can make sure to watch all of Georgia’s beam routines from behind our fingers while still getting the competition done in a cool two hours. I’m on board. The SEC Network is also really talking up the hip new quad-meet scoring interface it will debut (to the point where it better physically shoot candy and cheeseburgers out of the TV to live up to this), so I’m eager to see what that looks like. The SEC Net has done a very good job of displaying the scores and running totals in an unobtrusive manner so far, so there’s reason for optimism.

NBC really needs to take notes on what the SEC Network does with live scoring heading into the Olympics. With an easy way to update live scores at the bottom of the screen, you don’t need to watch Gabby do her grips for 25 minutes while waiting for the score. You can move on to other routines, and then display the score and real-time rankings as they come in. You know, actual development and innovation, not just MEANINGLESS TRIANGLES.

EVENING SESSION
Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn

While we all roll our eyes every time an SEC coach says that winning the SEC Championship is harder than winning the national championship (it objectively isn’t to anyone who thinks about it for literally one second), this is still a hell of a competition with a solid five teams realistically capable of a hearty 197. Given the scores we’ve seen this season, however, winning this title really should take a high 197, which probably precludes Auburn and Georgia unless it’s a splatfest and they slide on through. Once again, we’re looking at Florida, LSU, and Alabama.

Alabama won last season, taking advantage of a beam catastrophe from Florida and beam foreshadowing wobbles from LSU to dance to the top spot with a 197.5, and Alabama’s totals so far this year indicate the need for something similar. Alabama has peaked at 197.5s while LSU has gone into the 197.9s and Florida into the 198s. But, if we correct for some silly scoring and for Alabama’s epic depth exploration in every meet, there’s probably not actually a whole fall worth of difference between these teams. While it will be tough for Alabama to match an ideal meet from LSU or Florida based on what we’ve seen, I’m not willing to write off the Tide quite yet. But between Florida and LSU? Take your pick. It will be close. Let’s get into it.

Rotation 1: Florida vault, LSU bars, Alabama beam, Auburn floor  

Event RQS for rotation 1
Auburn 49.435
Florida 49.390
LSU 49.370
Alabama 49.300

You’ll notice something a bit unexpected in those RQSs in that they tell us Auburn should be leading after the first rotation. It could happen because of floor reasons, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Although for Auburn, it’s absolutely necessary if a title challenge is in play. While Atkinson’s is a definite 9.9+ routine (along with occasionally Rott, Demers, and Hlawek), the high floor RQSs across the conference and country reflect loose end-of-meet scoring rather than significant supremacy over the quality of other teams on other events. It will be tough to replicate in this context, and Auburn taking a first-rotation lead would also require a couple other teams under-performing early.

This first event is also critical for LSU to establish a high-scoring pace since bars is their weakest event (the RQS is lower on beam, but beam). Finnegan is obviously a star, and the return of Priessman ups the scoring potential, but a couple 9.800s with form breaks and lower amplitude at the beginning of the lineup put LSU’s bars behind those of Florida. If LSU can get Zamardi, Finnegan, Priessman, Wyrick, and Hambrick all in the lineup at the same time, however, that should minimize counting any low scores and bolster what could be a flat event, but those five have not actually been in the same lineup yet this season. Judging by a high 197 standard, LSU must go into the 49.4s on bars to avoid falling off the pace.

Vault is Florida’s lowest-scoring event, though it really shouldn’t be, not with those huge 1.5s from Baker and Boren and supreme fulls from McMurtry and Sloan. It all comes down to landing control. Caquatto and Fassbender can get 9.800ish, and if Baker and Boren are bounding forward out of those 1.5s, those scores can get down to 9.850 in a jiffy. With a good hit, however, Florida should verge on 49.5 and will look to be leading after the first. Scoring down into the 49.3s would constitute a door swinging open.

Alabama has exquisite beam workers in Aja Sims, Guerrero, McNeer, and Winston and with an ideal lineup in place, shouldn’t be ceding ground to any other team in the country based on beam. They’re too talented. That’s why it’s a little surprising that Alabama has hit the 49.3 mark on just three occasions this season, and not since mid-February. Inconsistency has been a burden, with Bailey and Beers struggling to find the security of past seasons, and then there’s the old lineup shuffling. Those four I mentioned at the top of the paragraph haven’t competed on beam together since February 12th, but they’ll absolutely need to be the core at the center of a high-scoring cake. Cakes have cores. What are you saying about? Settling for 49.3s won’t be good enough to get on winning pace, even on beam, and while this rotation order means that Alabama probably won’t be bursting out of the gates, the 9.9 sisters must show up on beam if this is to be an Alabama postseason.

Rotation 2: Auburn vault, Florida bars, LSU beam, Alabama floor

Event RQS through 2 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 2):
Florida 98.855 (49.465)
Alabama 98.715 (49.415)
Auburn 98.685 (49.250)
LSU 98.660 (49.290)

Rotation two is going to be a good one. This rotation is why I’ll be glad for the four-event stream because the scores might seriously fly on every piece. Interestingly, RQS tells us that LSU should be trailing the pack after two events, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Tigers since they’ll end on floor and vault and can make up a ton of ground there. If LSU is within a couple tenths of the lead after two pieces, DD will be shooting animal-print rainbows out of her eyes. Still, LSU shouldn’t actually be trailing after beam and would consider something close to that RQS of 49.290 a disappointing performance. With this lineup and those potential 9.9s throughout the order, we should expect 49.4s. 

It will still be tough for LSU to lead after two because Florida and Alabama both also compete on high-scoring events in the second rotation, but the Tigers just can’t let it get out of hand. Florida is the conference’s best bars team and probably the country’s best bars team (though Oklahoma would disagree), and the Gators will expect to have a solid lead after two events. Sloan and Caquatto should be scoring in the 9.9s each time, BDG often hits that mark as well, and McMurtry…well, we know what happens there. It’s a believable recipe for 49.500 and has looked the closest to postseason-ready among Florida’s events over the last month. If Florida is looking for areas of advantage over LSU, bars is the biggest one.

Alabama has about 68 realistic floor options that could score 9.850, but whom to choose? It won’t be good enough just to hang in the 9.850s during this rotation, not with this level of competition, which is why success or failure in this championship could hinge on who is able to go on floor. The amount Carley Sims has been able to progress since we saw her two weeks ago will be critical. She’s back, but in her floor performances so far she hasn’t looked full Carley Sims. She needs more time to return to her normal level, but if she’s there and is joined by a Winston/Beers/Jetter-type lineup, we can expect at least 49.4, which is the minimum Alabama needs here to challenge. If, however, the Tide is forced to opt for a more Aja Sims/Giancroce-type lineup (both of whom are perfectly solid for 9.850), then challenging the LSU floor machine and staying competitive becomes a serious task.

As we’ve moved toward the end of the season, Auburn has been squeezing every possible tenth out of the vault lineup and staying much more competitive than I would have thought given the available options. At the same time, the limits of lineup depth and difficulty (just one 10.0 start most of the time) put a ceiling on what Auburn will be able to do here, making a big early floor statement all the more critical.

Rotation 3: Alabama vault, Auburn bars, Florida beam, LSU floor

Event RQS through 3 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 3):
Florida 148.260 (49.405)
LSU 148.170 (49.510)
Alabama 148.030 (49.315)
Auburn 147.965 (49.280)

And now we arrive at the portion of the meet during which LSU should be making a move. If we’re truly to believe in the Tigers’ ability to win, they’ll need to jump into the lead after three events. The RQS tells us that LSU should be in second after three, but with Florida ending on floor (even though LSU will be on a strength at the same time, vault), no team can allow Florida to have a lead going to the last rotation. They’ll just Baker everyone into submission. 

One through six, I’d say LSU has the strongest and most even floor lineup in the country, able to warrant 9.9s from Ewing in the first spot right through Gnat in the final spot. There are a couple issues (Wyrick has some leg form and chest position here and there, Kelley can be inconsistent with those landings), but fewer issues than the other teams have. We should expect the 49.5 that RQS tells us LSU will get, which is why the Tigers have the opportunity to gain a couple tenths on a Gator beam rotation.

Florida does score very well on beam, but uncertainty has crept into the lineup recently, assisted by the yet-another-injury to Peyton Ernst that kept her out of last weekend’s meet. The work is not quite as pristine as what LSU and Alabama can boast, with a couple more moments of leg form, short splits, and Ericha Fassbender’s sheep jump. Under normal circumstances, there are still a couple 9.9s in this lineup as long as Bridget Sloan remembers that she’s Bridget Sloan, that’s a side aerial, and COME ON. It’s not exactly a feeble event and has often won meets for Florida, but this is the closest Florida comes to a rotation where the other teams can pounce.

Alabama has the difficulty on vault with three 1.5s from Beers, Brannan, and Guerrero, all of whom have scored well at times this season, but it hasn’t quite come together in the same meet yet, keeping Alabama at respectable but often modest totals. The 49.2s won’t get it done in an SEC Championship. All three of the 1.5s should go at least 9.850 (Guerrero’s is a bit shorter and less laid out than the others, so she’s more likely to stay in the 9.8s, while Beers can go 9.950 for a stick), but the factor bringing the scores down has often been the quality of the fulls. The vaults from Bailey, Bresette, and Armbrecht aren’t consistently competitive in an SEC vaulting context, so Alabama will need to have McNeer and Winston back on vault to put up a number that can keep relative pace with what Florida and LSU do here. 

Meanwhile, in DLOs-that-are-to-die-for news, may I introduce Auburn. It’s somewhat surprising to me that Auburn is down at 8th in the country on bars because a lot of this work is exceptional, particularly the dismounts. There are a few form issues in the beginning of the lineup that can keep the scores in the lower 9.8s, but once we get to Milliet and Atkinson, expect the number to go quite high. Keeping pace throughout the meet will be extremely challenging for Auburn, but this event should merit a respectable score. In the rankings, Auburn is already pretty well set for that normally-coveted 6/7/18 regional (unless that 18 seed ends up being Stanford, in which case this would become the nightmare regional), but a 196.975 in this meet would guarantee dropping no lower than 7th in the rankings.

Rotation 4: LSU vault, Alabama bars, Auburn beam, Florida floor

Event RQS through 4 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 4):
Florida 197.745 (49.485)
LSU 197.615 (49.445)
Alabama 197.400 (49.370)
Auburn 197.140 (49.175)

Note that these are the totals of the four event RQSs, not the teams’ overall ranking RQS.

Florida has the luxury of coming home on an event that hat scored as high as 49.675 this season. I’m hoping that the introduction of four judges for championship season and the context of an actual title on the line will keep floor scores a little saner than they’ve been this season, but even so, finishing on floor will give Florida the opportunity to make up any small deficit that may have arisen (or just seal the deal). This floor rotation has had some issues this year, spending most of the first few months of the season looking like half a team, but McMurtry joining the fold and Caquatto getting it together lately has beefed up the lineup into something more competitive, relying less on 9.825s from McLaughlin and Fassbender or that backup routine from Hiller. It’s still not the strongest floor in the country, but when Baker and Sloan are hitting, it’s quite difficult to beat. If the Gators are in the vicinity of first place going to the final event, bet on them.

But it really must be the vicinity of first because LSU on vault is LSU on vault. The Tigers may drop a little bit to Florida in this rotation, but not much. If they have managed a lead after floor, they’ll be feeling pretty darn pretty going to vault. While I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as one of the all-time amazing LSU vault lineups, they’ve been able to take advantage of the new rules and superior difficulty to snatch some massive scores. Gnat’s giant DTY has settled into a pattern of going 10.000 when she sticks and 9.950 when she doesn’t, which is such a valuable scoring guarantee. The rest of the lineup would have to put up total stinkers for the score not to be competitive. They don’t usually do that, with useful 1.5s from Ewing and Savona (Savona may still need a little more time to find her landing) and one of the country’s better fulls from Hambrick. The Tigers occasionally lose a little bit in the early part of the lineup when they have to use Macadaeg and Cannamela, whose fulls are fine (and have improved) but not as dynamic as the best vaults. That’s more something to watch compared to Oklahoma when we get to nationals though, because the same remark can be made about Florida and Alabama.

Alabama’s bars terrify me. That’s not to say the score can’t be good. It has been as high as 49.6 this year, and Kiana Winston’s routine is among the best in the country. It also helps that the judges have suddenly decided that Brannan’s bars work is worth 9.925 even though it’s the identical routine she was performing at the beginning of the lineup for 9.800-9.825 early in the season. But then there’s also Jetter’s double front. Yikes. Watch that space. If Alabama is going to win this title, it will take a season-best performance during which things happen that we haven’t seen yet. Bars is the event where Alabama may just pull something out and be suddenly more competitive than we’ve expected as long as Winston, Bailey, and Jetter are all having a good day.

Being the runt of the session, Auburn has to start on floor and end on beam. (Would you rather go in the evening session starting on floor or in the afternoon session starting on vault?) Beam has been an OK event for Auburn this year, retaining some of the glory of last year with Atkinson, Milliet, and Demers uniting for a trio of lovely, but it hasn’t been quite as crisp, consistent, or high-scoring. Megan Walker has absolutely not been replaced. We’ll also have to watch Atkinson in the AA battle. Sloan enters as the favorite because of Sloan, but I’d probably put Atkinson at second-favorite to win, aided by the fact that she anchors every event. If intra-lineup score building is happening, Atkinson could ride that to a major total. There are a number of other contending options, including Baker and Boren for Florida (though they won’t have the bars and beam scores to win if Sloan is nailing the meet), Rogers and Jay for Georgia (beam asterisk), Hambrick for LSU (maybe not the bigness across four events?), and whoever does AA for Alabama this time (I like Winston’s chances if she’s actually able to do four events). But to me Sloan and Atkinson look like the most convincing favorites.

AFTERNOON SESSION
Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky

Sort of like the Pac-12, we do have a vaguely realistic title challenger in the earlier session in Georgia, though I would say Stanford is more likely to win the Pac-12 than Georgia is to win the SEC. Yes? True? With me? Georgia is capable of very high scores, but do we see the 197.8-197.9 it may take to win this thing coming from Georgia? I’m thinking Georgia would be really happy with a 197.4ish score and challenging for 3rd place. That would reflect four strong events with real hits, not just we-avoided-a-fall hits. Those have been too hard to come by this season.

Georgia’s asset remains vault, a lineup that is solidly top-3 in the conference and should be the primary factor boosting Georgia ahead of the other schools in this session, toward a mark that would be challenging for the evening teams to match. The Gymdogs have the difficulty with three 1.5s, aided by mostly solid fulls from the rest of the group. That, and a floor rotation led by believable 9.9s from Marino, Jay, and Box, is what will lead Georgia into the 197s. Bars has been fine, not the disaster it might have been this season given the lineup exodus. Although, they do need to figure out what’s happening in that second spot, which is now occupied by Johnson who works bars like a vault specialist. They’ll want to drop that score every time, which puts pressure on the others not just to hit but to 9.850+ hit. All of this is a way of dancing around the beam issue. We’ve talked about it enough. The last few meets have been encouraging, but that’s not enough to declare the epidemic over, especially because even if there’s no fall, Georgia is still risking a couple 9.7s, which is pretty much as good as a fall when trying to contend for an SEC title.

In spite of all that’s happened this season, Georgia has a legitimate shot to move into the 6/7 spots if either Auburn or Michigan has a bad day on Saturday. Although since Utah (currently #5) and Michigan (currently #7) are also regionals hosts along with Georgia, we’re looking at some rearranging either way.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of all these contenders has been Arkansas, a team that over-performed expectations early in the season by spending a couple months in the top 10 and has frequently proven capable of snatching 196.7s. Also helping Arkansas is the “neutral site that isn’t a neutral site” thing, making this pretty much a home meet that counts as a road meet. That will allow them to drop a road 196.1 (very doable) and move back up the rankings, potentially as high as #10. As things stand right now, Arkansas would be paired with Oklahoma and Nebraska at regionals, a fate they’d rather avoid.

The Razorbacks have somewhat exceeded what I expected this season, in large part because of vault. I expected the new vault values to destroy a team like Arkansas that doesn’t have 1.5s, but they have shown that a six-yfull strategy is still tenable (disproving the perennial fear that changing the vault values would make teams like Arkansas less able to contend) as long as those fulls are, you know, landed well. Beam has also been considerably un-terrible this season, much better than last year, with every score going over 49 since the first-week disaster. That’s much better consistency than I expected from this group. I normally rail against the strategy of burying the best beam workers at the front of the lineup, as Arkansas has done, because it compromises scoring potential (and I think you can argue that it has because Arkansas gets stuck at 49.1 for hit rotations). It’s often a knee-jerk reaction to falls and in many cases isn’t even necessary. Teams have a couple meets with falls, throw Janie Beamington into the first spot, and later the team starts hitting, believing that they’re hitting because Janie Beamington is in the first spot. When really, the two may not be related. But at that point, because they believe it, the lineup doesn’t get changed to one that would score better in the postseason, and the team has handcuffed itself.

Anyway, Arkansas has done well putting the best beamers at the beginning.

And Missouri has done well not being the weakest team in the conference this season. Hooray! Ever since Missouri joined the SEC, they’ve been the caboose of the conference, but picking it up to 7th out of 8 this year is a big deal. That sounds sarcastic, but it actually is a big deal. It has been too long since Missouri got 196s at all, let alone five of them in the same season. Porter, Ward, Miller, Harris, are Schugel make up a competitive core of high-scoring gymnasts that Missouri didn’t have even back during the glory season of 2010 when it was Sarah Shire and Company, starring Sarah Shire as Sarah Shire. Like Arizona, Missouri has an outside shot of getting into the top-18 and snatching a seed if everything goes just right, but it’s not likely. 

It’s rather unlikely that Missouri or Kentucky will challenge the top 6, though it’s certainly possible if Arkansas is just OK. More likely, they will be fighting each other not to finish in the basement, which is a meaningless distinction but helpful for pride. That’s pretty much what Kentucky is playing for here since little will change in terms of rankings or regionals placement at this point. Which team is more 196ish and more likely to hope for a weird upset bid at a regional, that’s what we’ll need to watch. They’re both in it with a shot. Dukes, Hyland, and Stuart have reinvigorated a Kentucky program that looked like it was headed for a dip this year after the million injuries and routine losses of last season. Keep an eye on next year. Top 18 wouldn’t be surprising. 

#4 Utah Preview

Roster
Delaney, Kailah – Senior – VT (possible BB, FX)
Hughes, Breanna – Senior – VT, UB (possible BB, FX)
Lange, Haley – Senior – N/A
Lee, Kari – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Lewis, Tiffani – Sophomore – VT, UB, FX
Lopez, Kassandra – Senior – UB, BB
McNatt, Shannon – Freshman
Merrell, MaKenna – Freshman
Muhaw, Erika – Freshman
Partyka, Samantha – Sophomore – VT
Rowe, Baely – Junior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Schwab, Sabrina – Freshman
Stover, Maddy – Sophomore – BB

Recent History
2015 – 2nd
2014 – 8th
2013 – 9th
2012 – 5th
2011 – 5th
2010 – 6th

2016 Outlook
The Utes couldn’t have hoped to do any better than they did at last season’s Marsden farewell celebration tour when the 49.5s suddenly poured straight out of the sky, but in the cold light of an onrushing 2016, things look very different. The holes in this roster are suddenly large and everywhere. Basically, Megan and Tom have to reconstruct half a team, and by necessity, returning gymnasts will be expected to compete events they weren’t making last season. That’s usually a recipe for regression, so don’t expect the same result as in 2015 (though no one really expected it in 2015 either).

The 2016 team we saw at the Red Rocks Preview does possess enough depth to put together competitive lineups, but without too, too many stars/stars-in-the-making, this looks like another season in which Utah will have to workmanlike-9.850 the other contending teams into submission to make it back to Super Six. That strategy has worked plenty of times before. The mission for Utah is to show more depth, constancy, and durability through whole lineups than Pac-12 peers UCLA and Stanford, who will have more 9.9s but may struggle to fill out the entire lineup with competitive scores.

Key Competitor
One underclassman who did emerge as a new bright light amidst that Dabritz/Lothrop ticker-tape parade of a 2015 season was Kari Lee. Most significantly, she brought an elevated level of extension and refinement that had been missing from the beam lineup, but she also has an exceptionally clean and stickable full on vault, a 9.900 floor routine, and a sufficiently usable bars routine that may actually be needed this year. Suddenly this season, she has become the most impressive gymnast on the roster, and she’ll have to lead the charge in creating the big nest of new 9.9s Utah needs to succeed in 2016.

Vault 

Vault was a tremendous strength for Utah last season, pushing the team right into the vicinity of a title with a whole host of 9.925s and controlled landings (that survived all the way to the championship instead of disappearing around February!). In 2016, however, there’s more reason to question Utah’s viability as a vault powerhouse because of the changes in roster and start value. Kailah Delaney is the one remaining member of the 9.950-a-trons, and while she will once again be an essential component of the lineup, her vault remains a full. That means she’ll be looking at something closer to 9.875-9.900s most weeks, useful scores but not dominant scores.

The member of Utah’s team who will benefit the most from the new vault values is Breanna Hughes. I remember when Hughes first arrived at Utah and I was all up in her 1.5 being a centerpiece of the vault lineup. That never happened even a little, but it has always been a solid vault and one that she stuck in the RRP. This is finally her year to become a vaulter. The coaches should put her difficulty 5th with Delaney 6th to push that Delaney score up as much as possible. Note that you’re going to get very sick of me complaining about vault lineup orders this season. MaKenna Merrell also had a 1.5 in JO, though she showed just a full in the preview, which makes sense because the full was only OK. I’m not sold on her difficulty or placement in the lineup as yet. She might get Hughesed for a while.

The rest of the lineup will be fulls, unless McNatt and her Omelianchik materialize. Kari Lee will certainly be back for 9.850-9.875s since her full is second-best to Delaney’s. Beyond that, a collective of 9.825-9.850 fulls will compete for the remaining three (or so) spots including Lewis, Partyka, Rowe, and Muhaw. It’s a solid contingent, but losing the Dabritz and Wilson vaults will most certainly be felt in the scores. I still like this lineup for an RQS around 49.350, but it doesn’t look like the 49.5s of recent days.

Bars

I should probably refrain from writing this section because reality has proven that I just don’t get it with Utah’s bars and the scoring. It eludes me. Right now, I look at the nine or ten options Utah has on bars this year, and they all look around 9.800-9.850 to me. Which means they’ll go 49.600 at nationals. But still, it seems inevitable that the Utes will experience a noticeable drop-off post-Dabritz because, you know, there’s not another auto-10 just hanging out on the roster. Given the lost routines, ending up a couple tenths lower than last year’s bars scores seems a realistic outlook.

A lot of these routine options look pretty similar right now, so expect some mixing and matching with the ultimate lineup spots determined by stickability. The stalwarts should be Lopez, who has been a bars constant for a thousand years and has always scored well, and Baely Rowe, who was a reliable 9.850 all last season. Across the whole team, though, Rowe’s bars work looked the most improved at this year’s preview, with a better finishing position on her full turn, tidy legs on the bail, and a stuck DLO, so I could see her scoring higher this season. As for the new ones, I’m most looking forward to seeing Sabrina Schwab develop as a bars worker. She has the best line and toe point on the roster, so if they can put together competitive difficulty for her with a dismount she can stick, she’ll be a future bars star. In the present, she at least needs to be an integral early-mid lineup piece.

The remaining merry band of 9.8s is large enough to allay any depth worries. Tiffani Lewis will be a thing. Her tkatchev is now a jaeger this year, which is a shame because I enjoyed her tkatchev the most on the team (Utah’s tkatchevs tend to look a little clunky and lack the counter-rotation the best ones have), but her routine should score about the same as last season. Breanna Hughes didn’t have a great year on bars in 2015 and often got stuck in the 9.7s, so she’ll have to fight for the leftover spots with the likes of Lee, Partyka, and Merrell. While bars does look like a perfectly fine 49.200-49.250 event, this is now a lineup without showcase routines, and that can be a recipe for getting stuck in the 9.825s. 

Beam

Beam has been an issue to varying degrees for Utah for several centuries now, almost costing the Utes the season at regionals last year and, even on better days, often getting stuck in the 9.800 purgatory of meh. Among the underclassmen, however, Utah is going through a medium-level beam renaissance that should provoke greater expectations both for scores and elegance this season. Beam will still be abjectly terrifying in terms of consistency without Lothrop, but multiple members of the lineup have real 9.9 potential, even away from home.

The sophomores Lee and Stover will have to be the da Vincis of this renaissance. Lee’s fluidity and precision make her the best beamer on the team, and while Stover struggled with a case of the wobblies and got too many 9.7s early in the 2015 season, she can be just as strong and should emerge as a lineup leader this year. It has taken Baely Rowe a little while to become the beamer she was supposed to be when she started, so while she still has the occasional hilarious fall/wobble, hers is a more reliable score these days. Those three will be the core of the lineup and three best scores, but I like the freshmen Merrell and Schwab to join them to augment beam away from 49.150-49.200 and toward 49.300s. Both have the line and potentially not-awful splits to develop into constants. They did look extremely tentative and terrified about all of life’s ills in their performances at the RRP, but that happens. If they can work through it, they could even help make beam almost a strength for Utah. I said it.

For any remaining spots, just roll the dice and see who ends up the most consistent because it all looks a little too scary right now. Though I do need to give 100 self-aware bonus points to Breanna Hughes for picking beam music with the lyrics “I’m a little unsteady.” We know. We’re all in this together, Breanna.

Floor

Oops, the floor lineup’s gone. Where did it go? Floor was a huge event for Utah last season and a reliable 49.4+ most weeks, but every single person has left now including the auto-9.9s from Dabritz and Tutka. Don’t expect last year’s performance to carry over into this year. Floor will still go 49.4 sometimes because the best schools always do here and there, but it won’t consistently be the same strength without that pack of dominant floor performers and big bang-bang landings. 

Continuing the theme, Lee becomes the de facto leader of this lineup as the best returning score on the roster. Her triple full is a consistent, if staggered, landing, and by not giving away much in the dance elements, she’s good for a 9.900 for any mostly controlled routine. I also expect Tiffani Lewis to emerge as a serious score on floor this season. She was a clean, early-lineup double pike last year, but she has since added a pretty solid full-in and seems to be on track toward becoming the new Tutka. I’d expect those two to lead, but Rowe will necessary again and Delaney has always been pecking around the vicinity of this lineup. She may finally get her chance with all these new spots opening up. Among the freshmen, Merrell will also see some time, and Schwab showed plenty of floor potential as a JO gymnast. If Lewis is to be new-Tutka, then it looks like Schwab is being made into new-Damianova, the one with the simpler “I’m being artistic” D-pass routine who can get scores through cleanliness.

As on the other events, there are a bunch of 9.8y looking options for any leftover spots, which is one of the reasons I still like the Utes to have a good season. They have retained a worthwhile and complete batch of usable options to fill out the lineups with room to spare. There’s Partyka, Hughes, yada yada yada. Stover has good twisting form. I actually thought Lopez looked the best of the rest in the RRP, which was surprising since she has made this lineup a grand total of never before. I’ll be rooting for that one. Love a senior making a lineup she never has before.

NLI Week 2016-2017

Before we get ourselves fully entrenched in bracing for the inevitable disappointments that the 2016 NCAA season will bring, it’s time to take a moment to gaze with dewy-eyed optimism and childlike wonder at the possibilities resting on the post-Olympic horizon. Beginning today (Wednesday) and for the next week-ish, schools will reveal which gymnasts will join their teams for the 2017 season by confirming the completely informed and totally sensible verbal commitments those gymnasts made right before preschool graduation. You know, when you’re thinking about college. 

I’ll be updating this list with the various schools’ press releases as they announce their incoming gymnasts’ NLI signings. Now to review, NLI stands for Nine Long-term Injuries and is the document gymnasts sign to acknowledge that they are under no circumstances going to be healthy enough to compete four whole years of college gymnastics. But in real life, it stands for National Letter of Intent, and it signals an end to the recruiting process by confirming a gymnast’s commitment to attend the school in question. Once a gymnast signs an NLI, the choice of school is official, unlike the previously announced verbal commitments that can and do change.

The verbal commitment is kind of like when you run into a tiring acquaintance a party and they say, “We should do something sometime,” and you’re like, “Yeah, that would be great, we should” but barely mean it and can always back out when you think of a good excuse. But signing the NLI is like when that tiring acquaintance texts you to say, “You’re coming to dinner on Friday, right?” and you actually have to do it now because specific plans have been made. Just as a random example. 

So, let’s find out who has to go to dinner on Friday.

OKLAHOMARelease
Maggie Nichols, Jade Degouveia, Brehanna Showers

Alex Marks also signs to come aboard immediately to round out “Operation No Brenna.”

“This signing class is literally giving me goosebumps.” We’re gonna need a bigger swag-o-meter.

UTAHRelease
MyKayla Skinner (previously signed), Missy Reinstadtler, Kim Tessen

WASHINGTONRelease
Madison Copiak, Michaela Nelson, Maya Washington

FLORIDARelease
Alyssa Baumann, Amelia Hundley, Rachel Gowey, Maegan Chant

This is the “your job is to replace Bridget Sloan, so no pressure” group, and it will be the strongest of the 2017 classes, along with UCLA’s. Just get the duct tape and staple gun ready.

PENN STATERelease
Tess McCracken, Kristen Politz, Mikayla Waddell

MARYLANDRelease
Kirsten Peterman, Alecia Farina

ALABAMARelease
Maddie Desch, Wynter Childers, Shea Mahoney

ILLINOISRelease
Karen Howell, Lindsay Dwyer, Rae Balthazor

PITTSBURGHRelease
Lucy Jones, Megan Tripp

BOISE STATERelease
Courtney McGregor, Isabella Amado, McKinley Pavicic

TEXAS WOMAN’SRelease
Hannah Swoish, Hunter Vincent

MICHIGANRelease
Polina Shchennikova, Lexi Funk, Maddy Osman, Maggie O’Hara

CALRelease
Cassidy Keelen, Rachael Mastrangelo

ARIZONARelease
Heather Swanson, Courtney Cowles, Christina Berg

STANFORDRelease
Kaylee Cole

NC STATERelease
Alexis Beucler, Melissa Brooker (for 2016-2017)
Paris Phillips, Alexa Phillips (for 2015-2016)

MICHIGAN STATERelease
Ally Hoyer

UCLARelease
Grace Glenn, Anna Glenn

Hmmm, that sure is two people instead of the class of 1700 million we were promised, but there are some previously signed gymnasts along with some spring signings that will round things out. Allegedly.

GEORGIARelease
Sabrina Vega, Jordyn Pederson, Rachel Dickson

The big question was when the ghost of Sabrina Vega would officially be able to begin, and now it looks like she’ll finally start in the 2017 season. I’m just glad she got on the NCAA wagon at last.

I thought Jordyn Pederson signed last year and just deferred, but whatever. She’s coming. 

DENVERRelease
Samantha Ogden, Maddie Karr, Courtney Loper

WEST VIRGINIARelease
Kassidy Cumber, Julia Merwin (walkon)

MISSOURIRelease
Alyssa Johnson, Rachel Ley, Aspen Tucker 

SOUTHERN UTAHRelease 1, Release 2, Release 3
Madison McBride, Megan McBride, Autumn Jorgensen, Becky Rozsa

IOWA STATERelease
Laura Burns, Emily White, Riley Walsh, Molly Russ

MINNESOTARelease
Rebecca Taylor, Kristen Quaglia (scholarship)
Ivy Lu, Casey Betts, Ryan Stach (walkon)

EASTERN MICHIGANRelease
Amanda Arnold, Hollie Minichiello, Emili Dobronics

SEMORelease
Megan Dennis, Courteney Taylor

OREGON STATERelease
Isis Lowery, Brianna McCant

LSURelease
Ruby Harrold, Kennedi Edney, Ashlyn Kirby

KENTUCKYRelease
Alaina Kwan, Erynne Allen, Katrina Coca

Event Finals, Please Pack Your 9.9s and Go

RIP, NCAA event finals. We’ll always have complaining about how long you take amid a vague hangover.  

During the great yfull purge of 2015, the NCAA League of Chief In-Charge Women also revealed that they were planning to decapitate the event finals in the town square at some time to be determined, and it turns out that time is immediately.

It is now confirmed that instead of the usual three-day competition, the 2016 NCAA championship will consist of the normal semifinals on Friday, the normal Super Six on Saturday, and then nothing on Sunday, eliminating a specific day devoted to events. (This is a slight improvement on the previously proposed Friday-rest-Sunday schedule, as advocated by the boring police from Lametown.) In another development, both the Friday and Saturday competitions will be televised live on ESPNU, a coup that the sport has been fighting for dating back to the days when TVs were a thing that people watched.

Getting live television is still a big deal in exposure for the sport (we’ve seen the very encouraging recent ratings from the Pac-12 and SEC Nets that helped propel this move and have brought more people into following the sport), especially for family viewing and people who still watch programs—but pronounced progrums—on the TV box, though it’s increasingly less important for later-teenage, early-twenties whippersnappers who Liketweet on their iDroids and aren’t particularly likely to watch the competition live on TV, and who make up a valuable demo for gymnastics that isn’t catered to quite enough, but that’s an issue for another day.

Well actually, it’s an issue for today because there is a real chunk of people, mostly younger and therefore still valuable as human beings, who will be excluded from watching the championship since ESPNU broadcasts fall behind a subscription wall. People who don’t have ESPNU or a WatchESPN login from their cable/sat package likely won’t be able to watch (unless a special allowance is made), which is a long-term issue for a sport that needs every set of eyeballs it can get on its main event to stay afloat and specifically needs to cater to people in that borderline age of “I’m not doing gymnastics anymore and I might start drifting away from it toward other interests if my attention span isn’t constantly reminded of it” to turn them into lifelong fans. Getting a live TV deal is still good news, but it’s not exclusively good news in the present incarnation. 

Personally, I’d probably choose to watch on the app anyway, just like the last few years, because that’s convenient for blogging and because someone might make a weird face at some point that I’ll need to screencap and never forget ever. But that’s just me.

Let’s also talk about some other problems. (Autobiography title, called it.) The move is being constructed as “we had to get rid of event finals for the TV deal” which is a problem because…um, hi? That makes no sense. Having competition on Sunday has no bearing on whether ESPN shows the team final on TV on Saturday or not. So, you don’t want to show an extra day of competition on Sunday? Then don’t show it. Throw it on ESPN3 like always and use the TV broadcast to focus on the team and pretend event finals don’t exist. NBC has been doing that with Worlds for years. This explanation is illogical.

Now, the other thing I’m struggling with is that I’ve always mostly hated NCAA event finals. They’re long, a complete afterthought to Super Six that no one thinks about until the morning of, and extremely arbitrary in determining qualifiers and awarding titles. The one or two fun upgrades that get thrown out there each year don’t really make up for that. I should be celebrating since they’re basically my arch-nemesis, but it feels hollow. Primarily because it means there’s less gymnastics, which is a disheartening continuation of gymnastics’ tendency to try to solve problems by shrinking itself down to seem more palatable. Whether its going down to fewer routines/all scores counting like in the elite or men’s NCAA TF, or going down to fewer team competitors for the 2020 Olympics. It always feels like it’s surreptitiously trying to dwindle away.

Also, we need to talk about how event champions are going to be determined now. Because it seems like it’s going to be a problem. The issue with awarding event titles based on scores from the semifinal day, like in the AA, is that every event will have 5-6 people tied on 9.950 in first place. And if they’re all co-champions, I’m going to riot. The Worlds bars final is not a role model. Is there going to be some sort of permutation based on season performance + semifinal performance? Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a permutation as much as the next spreadsheet-happy dorkburger, and that would result in more deserving champions, but it wouldn’t exactly adhere to the mission statement of making things straightforward and easy for all fans to follow.

Well, with all that said, it’s a brave new world. Let’s get ready for it.