#4 Oklahoma Preview

A major loss.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma drew the short straw this year and were the team hit by a significant preseason injury when Natasha Kelley went down with yet another Achilles problem, sidelining her for the season. She has faced so many major injuries over the years that we have to wonder how much more gymnastics her body can take and whether she will be able to come back from this.  She was limited by the right knee even before this latest injury.  
In contrast to some of the other recent major injuries at top schools (UCLA losing Vanessa Zamarripa and Alabama losing Ashley Priess last year), Oklahoma doesn’t have as many major contributors with high scoring potential, so it will be harder for them to manage without their anchor on bars and beam.  Still, even though some have constructed this injury as completely devastating to Oklahoma’s chances, they do have other strong gymnasts who can keep them in the top group of 5 or so schools.  In fact, after the graduation of Hollie Vise, many expected Oklahoma to return to the second tier, but they kept pace in 2011 by getting refined, well-prepared routines from unexpected places.  Now, without another well-known elite, they’ll have to do the same in 2012.
Kelley had assumed much on the scoring leadership on her two strongest events (bars and beam), but now that responsibility falls squarely to Megan Ferguson.  Ferguson has displayed strong scoring potential throughout her collegiate career, but she became a star in 2011 by leading the team through the postseason (not posting a score below 9.850 at regionals or championships) and performing energetic, attention-grabbing routines.  Sometimes it’s easy to overlook Oklahoma because they don’t have the program history and don’t always perform the most difficult routines, but it’s impossible to ignore Megan Ferguson.

But as we’ve seen so many times, one star cannot make a team.  Ferguson doesn’t contribute on vault, and that piece could turn out to be a problem for Oklahoma, with three or four routines to replace from a lineup last year that wasn’t going to compete with UCLA, Alabama, or Florida anyway.  One of the major concerns on vault is the frequency of Yurchenko halfs we’ve seen from this team.  While the blind landing makes it difficult (and difficult to score well), it’s still considered a bit of a soft 10, and it doesn’t necessarily stack up against schools that are performing one or more Yurchenko 1.5s.  If you’ve just watched a Yurchenko 1.5 from Kytra Hunter, Georgia Dabritz, or Kayla Williams (or seen something from Zamarripa’s stable of phenomenal vaults), you’re not going to be that impressed by Madison Mooring’s Yurchenko half, even if it’s clean.  Oklahoma’s vaults could give them too many 9.825s in that lineup.

Interestingly enough, even though Kelley was the anchor, beam still looks to be Oklahoma’s strongest event in 2012.  They were far and away the best beam team in 2011, and that was just as much due to confident performances from Ferguson and the rest of the lineup (Nowak, Spears, Mooring, and Ratcliff) as it was to Kelley’s scoring.  Kayla Nowak in particular will be necessary as a solid early lineup gymnast on that event to give the team that base 9.800-9.850 (in addition to her anchor position on floor).   

Oklahoma is a bit lucky in that they did not lose any hugely influential seniors after last year, so they did not enter this season with too many holes that the freshmen were expected to fill aside from solidifying that vault lineup.  That means that if they can find the routines (likely a combination of gymnasts rather than a single star) to account for Kelley’s scores, they may be able to keep pace with the scoring potential from last year.  This will likely come from some lineup experimentation, meaning that the notable freshmen, Rebecca Clark and Erica Brewer, will be given a prime opportunity to prove their worth to the team.

         

We haven’t seen anything from Rebecca Clark in ages, but back in the day she was a junior with potential, making her way onto the junior squad for 2008 Pacific Rims.  She’s part of a group of new freshmen who are difficult to judge, having flown under the radar since competing as elites in 2009, but we see that her strength is in her clean form.  Coming from GAGE, this is not a surprise and can earn her high scores in NCAA if maintained and cultivated with positive routine composition that shows off this strength.  The team will need her healthy and contributing frequently.

It’s certainly going to be a challenge for Oklahoma in 2012.  The injury to Kelley has put them in the same position as teams like Michigan, who have to focus on replacing lost scores instead of gaining new, better ones.  Oklahoma does have significantly more depth than Michigan, which should help them have a much stronger result in 2012, but they will have to get ideal performances from all their remaining gymnasts. Even if that happens, without enough significant names of note, it will be extremely difficult for them to crack the top 3.  While things can always change, it seems that those top 3 teams are just too deep and talented.  One of the most interesting storylines for 2012, though, could be the fight for that 4th place, and Oklahoma is still right in that race.

  
Advertisements

#5 Utah Preview

Utah continues to be the most fan friendly program in collegiate gymnastics.  Given the numerous training videos and free live streams of their meets provided by the Marsdens and Utah Athletics, the general fan is usually more familiar with Utah gymnastics than with most of the other programs in the country.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because it cultivates a dedicated and knowledgeable fan base, not just in Utah but all over the country.  It’s a curse because we know the deal.  We know that, on December 9th, Utah is going to look like the most prepared team in the country.  We’ve been here before. If we didn’t know anything, we would look at the routines from the Red Rocks Preview and say, “Wow, there are a lot of 9.750-9.800 routines.  If they can clean up and refine, they will be great this year.” Because we do know something, we understand that even though some landings and body positions will improve in the coming months, the overall gymnastics we see now is the same as we’ll see in April.

That being said, this level will still probably be good enough to place in the top 6.  The comparison between Utah and Romania is not a new one, but it is apt.  They’ve perfected the science of being fine. They will go to championships, they will be one of the most consistent teams, they will capitalize on others’ mistakes, and they will reach their highest achievable place.  Back in the day, that highest achievable place was a championship.  Then, it became more like top 3.  Now, it’s a 5th or 6th place finish.  Going better than that is probably beyond the talent level of this team.

The biggest reason Utah will get that far is that, unlike some of the teams ranked below them, they have numbers on each event.  While they won’t necessarily want all of these numbers competing, they have that sought after 10-12 routines on each event from which to choose.  An injury to any one of their gymnasts won’t put them out of contention.  The downside of that statement is that all of their gymnasts are replaceable.  They don’t have that star who is going to lead them on the score sheet.

Stephanie McAllister was their top all-arounder last season, but she is a 39.300 gymnast, not a 39.600 gymnast.  The consistency is there, but the crisp execution on four events isn’t.  Of the other returners, we can expect a bunch of 9.825s from Corrie Lothrop and Nansy Damianova on 3-4 events and from Cortni Beers on 2 events (though not if that wackadoo form on bars during RRP keeps up).

The return of Kyndal Robarts will be the biggest boost to this team, particularly on vault where she performs very well.  She is different from McAllister (who is solid but unamazing across the board) in that she has some really compelling qualities but some definite weaknesses that keep her from staking claim to the title of big scorer.  Looking at the floor routine in the above video, we see that the leaps in particular just aren’t happening right now.

A good sign for Utah is that they have a big class of 5 freshmen coming in.  I’m a firm believer that it always helps to have new blood in lineups because we don’t have memories and expectations of these gymnasts’ performance qualities.  They don’t have the same association with the previous year’s results. Of this group, Tory Wilson has been getting some attention for floor because of her double layout, but I don’t expect to see too much from her or Becky Tutka this year.  Kassandra Lopez was a notable L10 and competed at Nastia’s Pink Leotard Jamboree a couple times, and she will likely fit into that Lothrop/Damianova category.  Good, solid, professional, fine.

Georgia Dabritz is the biggest name of the incoming group because she competed a few times at Visa Championships.  She should compete often and score well on vault and bars.  Even though she had a less notable elite career than Lothrop, I see more potential in her as an NCAA gymnast.

Even though Dabritz is the most talented of the group, the new gymnast I’m most interested in is Kailah Delaney.  While things aren’t perfect (you will find yourself saying, “Legs!” on beam in the above video), I like her vault and her presence.  She has the potential to break out of the Utah mold a little bit if allowed the chance to compete regularly.  I’ll be rooting for her.

Because of this incoming group, expect Utah to be better than they were last year.  They have a couple new 9.9 routines from Robarts and Dabritz that they didn’t have access to in 2011 when they were a very 196.400 team all year long.  Expect this year’s team to be more 196.750, which I anticipate will be about the cutoff after semifinals.  And because they’re Utah, let’s bet on them to make it.

  

#6 Nebraska Preview

Of all the top teams, Nebraska gets the least notoriety.  They don’t often attract the big name or elite gymnasts, and (competing in the Big 12 until this year) they haven’t had the conference rivalries and built-in strength of schedule that give a team both identity and national attention.  With the rise of Oklahoma’s program, there was a budding opportunity for a strong, attention-getting rivalry between two of the best teams, but Nebraska’s move to the Big 10 limits that a little.  I still would like that rivalry to be cultivated, though, and seeing the two schools competing in a quad meet this year is a bit disappointing.  The presence of other teams (especially lower ranked ones) tends to mitigate the atmosphere and excitement of a rivalry.

Nebraska was able to beat both Florida and Utah in national semifinals last year by sticking landings and not giving away unnecessary tenths, even if they didn’t have the biggest difficulty or reputation.  This attitude and tenacity will have to continue in 2012 because there are significant questions about the depth of the team and how that depth will or will not be able to overcome some of their weaknesses, namely the beam.

As seen in the discussion of beam strength, Nebraska was the weakest of the top 10 last year when competing after a fall on the beam.  At championships, their highest score on beam was a 9.800.  In Super Six, they were competitive with third place Oklahoma on three events, but ended up .5 lower solely because of the beam.  With no standout performers and only 4 returners to the lineup, they will need to find bigger scores on this event from somewhere in this incoming freshman class.

There are five new freshmen this year, but the clear standout in the bunch is Jessie DeZiel.  Six months ago, she would have been considered just another one of the new L10s and wouldn’t have received much attention at all.  But after making the elite push to compete at Visa Championships in her home state, DeZiel found herself on the Pan Am team and performed very well.  In true gymnastics fan fashion, the narrative about DeZiel went from the condescension of “Aww, isn’t that sweet” when she made championships to the overreaction of “She’s the best gymnast on the Pan Am team” after she performed so well.  To be clear, she was not the best gymnast on a Pan Am team that included Shawn Johnson, Bridget Sloan, and Bridgette Caquatto (and she would be completely overlooked if she continued elite), but she did perform with exceptional poise and confidence in Guadalajara, which will serve her very well in NCAA.  Also, her Yurchenko double full is really quite excellent.  They will need her anchoring that event and replacing Erin Davis’s score.

In addition to DeZiel, Nebraska is bringing in Kailyn Hawkins, Amanda and Jennifer Lauer, and Desire’ (That’s an apostrophe, not a smudge) Stephens, all of whom are scholarship athletes and can be expected to contend for lineups.  Of this group, Hawkins has the biggest skill set.

Even though Nebraska is bringing in these five new freshman, the team is still smaller than most, having lost Erin Davis (she of the 10 on vault), Brittnee Habbib, Maria Scaffidi, and Maddie Steinauer — leaving them with 2 or 3 spots to fill on every event.  With 13 total gymnasts, including some non-competers, they will not have the 10-11 competitive routines on each event that many of the top schools will have to choose from, meaning they will have to put up a gymnast here and there whose goal is to manage instead of excel.

In fact, much like Michigan, the lack of depth became apparent during a recent scored intrasquad where some of the new freshmen did not show any gymnastics and the team showed only 6 floor routines. Nebraska might be safe enough for routine numbers if they were to keep the whole team healthy, but that never happens to anyone.  If they find themselves scraping the gym for routines, it will be down to veterans Lora Evenstad, Janelle Giblin, and Brittany Skinner (along with Jamie Schleppenbach’s vault) to carry the team into 9.9 territory with confidence and make up for some inexperienced scores in these lineups.

Because they have so many competing gymnasts to replace from last year’s team, it’s hard to envision Nebraska having a repeat 4th place performance.  The top schools are all trading up, increasing their scoring potential significantly from last year.  Nebraska will more likely be in the position of trying to tread water, focusing on replacing the scores they lost from last year instead of improving upon them.  They surprised in 2011 during a relatively weak year across the nation, but it will take an even bigger effort to do it again in 2012.

There Will Be Costumes

There are a lot of wonderful things to say about UCLA gymnastics.  The very best is that, no matter the situation, it’s always a show and they always commit to that show, a show complete with costumes, characters, motifs, and sometimes even a tragedy.

Yesterday, UCLA hosted the “Meets the Bruins” event.  It’s like an intrasquad, but with more greatness. Other schools show routines.  UCLA unveils performances.  Some people hate that about them.  These people are no fun, and I don’t want you hanging out with them anymore.

No show is complete without a grand entrance:

Come on, they carried her onto the floor.  How can you not love that? 
This routine is completely different than I expected Val to put together for Mattie, but it’s excellent.  It’s a great lesson that spins are choreography rather than something than can be (or should be) placed into a separate category.  We see so many routines that are more like “OK, I did my dance, now I’m going to do my spin.”
“Oops, I almost accidentally did my floor routine in high heels.”  #uclagymproblems

Can we convince Aisha to get her tumbling down this year so we actually get to see this routine in competition?  Fortunately, UCLA locked in Gerber II for 2013-14, so we get 4 more years of this.

UCLA is posting a whole slew of videos at the BruinGymnastics youtube page, complete with an identifying bars skills tutorial (“Gienger!”).  Don’t try to watch the videos with that UCLA all-access player. It’s useless nonsense.

#7 Oregon State Preview

Because of their surprisingly weak performance in the national semifinals last year, it’s easy to forget that Oregon State was the in-form team and a popular dark horse pick heading into the postseason last year. They performed tremendously at the Pac-10 Championships, exhibiting well-polished gymnastics with confident landings to beat a Bruin team that was just starting to peak.  But it was that very confidence that deserted them during national semifinals.  The gymnastics got tense, and uncharacteristically weak meets from Britney Ranzy and Olivia Vivian put them just behind Utah and well behind their potential.

It would seem, then, that Oregon State should be a top 5 favorite in 2012 as long as they avoid a collapse during championships, but the off-season transfer of Britney Ranzy to LSU has dramatically changed the complexion of the team.  For the most part, Oregon State recruits and cultivates gymnasts with elegant line and clean gymnastics who excel on bars and beam but who lack the dynamics on the power events.  Ranzy filled a major hole on this team by bringing that raw power and scoring potential to vault and floor. She was sticking that Yurchenko full and scoring 9.9 almost every week.  Her two events were the biggest improvement between Oregon State 2010, a team that barely snuck through regionals on a tiebreak over a collapsed Georgia, and Oregon State 2011, the #3 regionals seed.  Without her (or the graduated Becky Colvin) the prospects on vault in particular look unfortunate.  They’ve had to lead off vault with 9.6s in the past, and we hope it doesn’t happen again.

Not to completely shortchange Oregon State, though, they do still have a number of impressive, high-scoring routines that should help them be competitive, namely on the uneven bars.  Leaders Olivia Vivian, Leslie Mak, and Makayla Stambaugh all bring crisp execution and confident swing to the event, giving the team a strong chance to retain the title of best bars team in the country.  They will need to put up 49.4s by the end of the season to help make up for vault.

Beam is a bit of a mixed bag for the Beavers, but less because of form and more because of depth and consistency.  Stambaugh is very strong on bars and floor and useful on vault, but her lack of consistency on beam makes her a less compelling choice.  Even when she hits, it’s a nervy nail biter, yet she had to be in the lineup last year.  Even so, it’s difficult to classify beam as a weakness for Oregon State when they have Leslie Mak anchoring.  Mak is among the very best beamers in the country and likely would have defeated Sam Peszek at event finals last year had she hit.  She makes it easy to ignore the fact that she has only a gainer full dismount and is fully deserving of 9.9s.

Mak, Stambaugh, and Vivian will be the backbone of the team in 2012, each competing on at least three events with Kelsi Blalock, Brittany Harris, and Stephanie McGregor filling in some other holes early in lineups and getting 9.800-9.850.  This isn’t quite enough to contend, and the team will have to find 2 vaults and preferably 2 floor routines from somewhere.  After the transfers of Ranzy and Leilani Alferos (to Cal), they brought in a bunch of new gymnasts to help fill out the team.  The freshman class totals 6 in all, but it’s hard to imagine any of them completely satisfying what the team needs.  The original NLI signers, Chelsea Tang and Cerise Witherby, would be expected to have the most impact as both have been successful at the JO level.  They will have the skill set for NCAA (unlike some of the walkons who have clean gymnastics but just can’t compete with difficulty) and can certainly make lineups for the team, though it would be hard to proclaim them future scoring leaders.

Tanya Chaplin has shown an ability in the past to get excellent gymnastics out of unheralded gymnasts, and she will need that this year to prevent Oregon State from being a one-event wonder that has trouble contending with the better teams in the power department.  It will be interesting to watch for her January lineups to see who she is trying out and who is rising to the challenge.

#8 Stanford Preview

While the increased parity in NCAA women’s gymnastics has been overstated in some quarters, everyone can agree that postseason results are certainly not the foregone conclusion they once were.  The best evidence for this evolution is how exciting regionals day has become in recent years as we all switch from meet to meet, follow the scores, and watch for which top team will be the latest to miss out on championships.  While Florida pulled through by the thinnest of margins after the tension of that Boise State beam rotation last year, Stanford was not so lucky and rode a truly dismal performance right out of contention.

I made the comment in an earlier post that the team had to count a fall and therefore missed out, but that doesn’t tell the whole tale.  Stanford found themselves in a rather weak regional and could easily have pulled through even with the two falls on beam.  However, in their regional performance, 13 of 24 scores fell below 9.8, and they had a grand total of one 9.9.  Even if they hadn’t counted a fall, they still wouldn’t have broken 196.

Stanford got into an advantageous position in the rankings last season (#4 regionals seed, #2 for most of the season) largely on the strength of their 9.850 routines.  While UCLA and Alabama were falling all over the place early on, Stanford kept scoring in the mid to high 196s to jump ahead of nearly everyone else and look like a contender.  This was an illusion.  They were very consistent, but they never had the big scoring routines to take them far, even if they had made championships.

A quick look at the returning gymnasts for 2012 bears this out.  Stanford will have Ashley Morgan and Alyssa Brown on 3 events; Nicole Pechanec, Shona Morgan, and Nicole Dayton on a couple events; and potentially a routine from Jenny Peter.  While this group is capable of popping up with a 9.9 here and there (with Ashley Morgan’s floor the biggest potential routine), each of them would be very pleased with that score in competition.  That’s the difference between this group and a championship team.  On a championship team, the 5th and 6th gymnasts expect 9.9s with the potential for 9.950.  A 9.9 is regular. It’s not a peak performance.  For Stanford in 2011, a 9.9 was a treat, not an expectation.

If Stanford is going to have those expected 9.9s in 2012, it will fall to the stellar freshman class to get it done.  There’s not really a dud in this group.  Kristen hit the jackpot.  She just has to keep that jackpot out of the hospital.

If you were to design a gymnast to excel in NCAA, she would look a lot like Ivana Hong.  She has those wonderful GAGE basics, an elegant line, and strong skill variety and difficulty across all events.  Seeing Ivana compete for the first time in over 2 years is one of the most anticipated events in the new season, but it is that lack of competition that causes some trepidation.  Does she have the competition confidence back?  (Did she ever really have it?)  Has she changed?  If all goes to plan, she should be a late lineup worker on all events.  As an elite, bars became her most discussed weakness, but routine composition will be her friend.  Without a stalder full and a tkatchev, and with a dismount that works for her, she should perform exceptionally.  

Samantha Shapiro’s body just couldn’t handle being a senior elite.  She suffered injury after injury and ended up having the career of your average second-tier elite, which is a discredit to her talent level.  She’s been conspicuously absent from Stanford’s training videos (just a few skills on beam with a wrapped ankle), but as we’ve seen in short spurts, she is capable of wonderful gymnastics.  Depending on her health, it may be prudent to limit her numbers on the leg events and focus on getting her into competition shape on bars and beam (which would be a shame, since her floor work is a delight).  Remember when she was supposed to be the next great hope on bars?  As a senior, her handstands deteriorated along with her body.  Getting that routine precise should be a major focus.
    
Becky Wing is another one we haven’t seen in a while, but the joy of watching her gymnastics is undeniable.  She was an Olympian in 2008 and will bring that experience along with her excellent line and presence (and the bangs) to this Stanford team.  Unlike the two above, she hasn’t been put through the US elite system and therefore should have a better chance of staying healthy for longer periods.  Vault is a weakness (she’s British), but beam and floor are her best pieces and we should expect her to contribute consistently on them.  Hong and Shapiro will get more attention, but Wing may end up being just as important.
The team is also bringing in Pauline Hanset this year who, if the recent training videos are any indication, is going to be a sturdy necessity.  Balancing all the team’s eggs on Hong and Shapiro’s legs is a rickety proposition.  Hanset will be expected to stay healthy and consistent to keep the team afloat when needed, though it’s hard to imagine her bringing in the 9.9s.  Her handspring pike 1/2 on vault will provide good diversity in that lineup.
I didn’t speak much about Stanford in my discussion of where the 9.9s will come from because they just have too many unproven entities (at least in an NCAA context).  They will be relying on freshman for at least half of their competition routines (potentially more), and we haven’t seen any of those freshman compete in over a year.  Certainly, the potential is there.  Judges will want to throw 9.9s at Ivana Hong like rice at a wedding, but putting the majority of the scoring responsibility on freshmen with significant injury histories will not be easy.  Stanford fans can only sit back and hope for health and greatness.

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama