#9 Georgia Preview

More of this, please.
The narrative surrounding Georgia has largely been one of negativity since they failed to make Super Six for the second consecutive year under Jay Clark, and that negativity contributed to their record low preseason ranking of #9.  While this ranking is not necessarily unfair or unwarranted, the Gymdogs have some bright spots for 2012, and there is reason for at least measured optimism as we head into the season.
This optimism comes largely from the fact that the team is improving.  It’s easy to forget that they were a much less talented and much more injured group in 2011 than they were in 2010, and yet the final result was much better in 2011.  While Jay receives more than his fair share of criticism in NCAA circles, he deserves credit for that and for doing what he could with a team that was just not Super Six-caliber.  While they did not perform up to their capabilities at championships, fourth place in their semifinal was a victory for this team given their injuries and the results from the previous year.  If they can actually stay healthy, they can expect much more than 195.450 in a national semifinal in 2012.
At a minimum, the team has to replace 7 routines from last season: 4 from Cassidy McComb and 3 from Hillary Mauro.  However, there are a number of competition routines from 2011 that have not graduated and yet still need to be replaced.  We see several early-lineup gymnasts across each of the apparatuses score in the 9.700s not because they’ve made mistakes but because they don’t really deserve to score any higher than that.  The 2012 season may be the time we finally accept that even though Christa Tanella was an elite and went to WOGA, she’s a 9.750 as an NCAA gymnast.  Can the team afford to be content with those scores again this year?  Not if the goal is higher than #9 in the country.
One gymnast who will be relied upon as a major replacer is Kaylan Earls, who had to sit out last season after tearing her Achilles.  She is a powerful tumbler, and it remains to be seen how well she will come back from that injury on vault and floor, but she deserves to make those lineups at her best.  We haven’t seen her compete in a while because of that injury, but form issues do keep her from standing out on beam and bars.  If she can prove solidity, though, Georgia will need her on beam.  They are trying to give her a Hindorff to help her be effective on bars, but if they can get Ding, Davis, Nuccio, and Worley up to scratch on that event, the team will not need Earls to be a star.

There is no question that Chelsea Davis should be competing the all-around for this team if everything goes to plan.  The biggest question with her is always injury, and she came into fall practice carrying yet another one – this time a strained elbow.  The bar routine above got her on the world team in 2010, and her skills there should earn a serious helping of huge scores in NCAA, as should her exceptional cleanliness across the board.  In fact, Davis’s biggest weakness as an elite was a lack of difficulty on the other events, often necessitated by the back injury that has prevented her from doing back handsprings. With the lower difficulty required in NCAA and the greater options for competitive routine competition, she should be able to accommodate and overcome this problem.  
Sarah Persinger doesn’t have any “Oooh, Aaah” routines the way Chelsea Davis does, and while there are weaknesses on each event that will prevent her from being a late lineup performer, she should prove to be valuable to the team.  When watching her gymnastics, it is easy to see a poise and line that could be the making of a very impressive NCAA gymnast in the future.  For now, she looks like she will be a solid 9.8 gymnast who will be in the hunt to replace some of the 9.7 routines mentioned above.

As we see, there is certainly the potential to both replace and improve upon the routines lost from last season, even if it means constructing some sort of gymnast-shaped hyperbaric chamber for Chelsea Davis (Georgia has hyperbaric chambers in their budget, right?).  Although, as important as getting these freshman routines ready for competition will be for Georgia, the single biggest determining factor in their success will be one Shayla Worley.  
(Please note the self-control utilized to refrain from posting the bar mount fall and instead focus on what she is capable of.  It was a struggle.  Make those struggles victories.)
We know that she’s 9.9-capable.  We’ve known since she was elite that she would be 9.9-capable on three events in NCAA, and yet over the course of two seasons she has not been able to get there with any kind of consistency.  Certainly, much of this is due to injury, but even more of her lack of effectiveness has been due to mental blocks and lapses.  She spent all last season struggling with a beam dismount that should theoretically be easy for her.  (Much like McCool’s bars in 2010, her beam dismount became a problem that materialized early but was never really solved by the postseason.  The ability to make changes and solve problems midseason is a necessary skill this coaching staff needs to cultivate for the future.)  Shayla is a junior now.  No one else is going to carry the load.  She has to be a scoring leader.   
In the event that Shayla remains on her current course, the onus will fall to seniors Kat Ding and Gina Nuccio to provide the highest scores.  While we certainly expect them to do that anyway (even though they are both injury factories themselves), they are not all-arounders and can only have so much impact on the success of the team.  It will take all the power of a consistent Shayla, healthy and high scoring freshmen, and a sturdy Noel Couch at the beginning of the lineups to make this team as successful as it needs to be.  There are quite a few ifs in that group, and if I had to bet, I would not bet on Georgia being among the most successful teams at championships (though I would expect them to get there).  Still, all of those ifs ensure that this will be a fun journey to watch unfold.   

#10 Michigan Preview

Take a good long look because you won’t be seeing these for a while.
Unfortunately for Michigan, when discussing their 2012 season, we’re talking more about what they’ve lost instead of what they have.  Most importantly, they’ve lost Kylee Botterman.  The team will miss her, and we as fans will miss her.  Though I will not miss the way the Michigan PA announcer said her name.  That will haunt my nightmares.
Trying to replace the national AA champion would be difficult enough, but the team has also lost Jordan Sexton, Sarah Curtis, and Trish Wilson, making a repeat of their 2011 Super Six performance seem like a near impossibility.  What’s more, now that former signee Morgan Steigerwalt has . . . had a change of plans and is now at Arizona State, the team is fielding only 11 gymnasts this season, with only 2 new freshmen trying to replace the 4 contributing graduates.  
Freshman Sachi Sugiyama performs an excellent Yurchenko 1.5 that should help boost the vault lineup.   She fully rotates the vault with confident landing, and the increased difficulty over the more common full should help elevate the score.  On floor, while she doesn’t have tremendous difficulty, she performs cleanly and can also contribute.  I’m not sold on her bars capabilities.  She has too many leg separations and missed handstands to be relied upon to score well.  This could be a problem for Michigan, as she is stronger on events where they already have at least a little more depth with gymnasts like Natalie Beilstein, Katie Zurales, and Reema Zakharia.  Where are the bar workers?  

The other incoming freshman, Annette Miele, competed elite for Parkettes in 2009 and 2010, which has given her the basic skill level and difficulty to be a necessary all-arounder for this team in 2012.  She doesn’t have a standout event, but her abilities on bars will be required to fill those holes in the lineups. She also competes a solid enough Yurchenko 1.5 on vault to be usable.

In all, the Wolverines have lost 13 routines from last year’s Super Six lineups, so even if these freshman were both to compete the all-around, the team would still have to rely on returning gymnasts to compete events where they did not make the lineups last year — a dangerous proposition especially if in involves letting Natalie Beilstein even look at the beam.  They will get Brittnee Martinez back on all events after competing only bars in 2011, so that will help beef up these lineups in some areas.  Even so, there are many questions on this team, especially on bars where Martinez and Shelby Gies are the only returners and on beam where losing Botterman’s consistency means that other performers will have to step up in ways they have not yet shown.

There are no seniors on the team this year, so this group will have two years to find a way to win.  It may just be that this is a building year until they can fill out the team next year and become more competitive and experienced.  As it stands, they will be relying on scoring leadership from juniors Beilstein, Martinez, and Zurales.

Beilstein can certainly put up 9.900s on her two events, but does struggle some with consistency on floor. Zurales also brings in good enough numbers on two events (vault and beam in her case), but once again does not compete bars.  Martinez can go in the all-around, and while she will anchor the team on bars, she proved during her freshman year that she is usually a contributor in the 9.8 range rather than the 9.9 range on the other events.  They will need (very possible) improvements from her to be more of a scoring leader as a junior.

Still, the team is not completely lost.  With this group, they should be able to muster the gymnasts to go 9.875+ in the 5th and 6th slots for most meets.  The biggest challenge likely will be finding gymnasts who can go in those 3rd and 4th positions and not be satisfied with 9.775s.  This team would probably be competitive enough in a 4 up, 3 count format, but their downfall will come from needing six strong routines on every event.  We haven’t yet seen where those will come from.

Ooooh, the Beam

One of the primary qualities that separates championship teams from good teams is the ability to not only master the balance beam but also limit the damage after mistakes.  There will always be falls on the beam. While champions ensure that the fall is dropped, weaker teams get tentative (at best) or fall apart (at worst).

In 2011, the beam was even more of a problem than usual, and at championships Oklahoma appeared to be the only school for whom the beam was not the weakness.  While Alabama mastered the event enough to win the title, the beam was still the most troublesome piece for them, and they did have to absorb the fall from Kayla Hoffman during Super Six.

In examining this issue, I took a look at the beam scores for the top ten teams (as decided by me and the 2012 preseason poll) for all gymnasts going up at any point after a fall or fall-equivalent performance, meaning a score of 9.500 or lower.  The team rankings came out as follows:

Average Beam Score after a Fall – 2011 
1. Utah – 9.807
2. Oklahoma – 9.792
3. Alabama – 9.770
4. Stanford – 9.753
5. Georgia – 9.742
6. Oregon State – 9.721
7. Michigan – 9.654
8. Florida – 9.648
9. UCLA – 9.633
10. Nebraska – 9.603

Based on my assumptions, seeing Oklahoma and Alabama near the top of the list was not a surprise, nor was seeing UCLA and Florida near the bottom of the list.  Florida did not perform as many routines after falls as most of the other top teams, but the routines they did have were largely unsuccessful in the most crucial moments.

The big surprise to me was Utah’s placement at the top of the list.  Out of 33 beam routines after falls, they had a grand total of zero subsequent falls.  They are the only team of the bunch that did not have to count a beam fall at some point during the season, which is pretty remarkable.  Utah will want to bottle that quality for 2012 but also add an ability to break out of the 9.775-9.825 range in which nearly all of those scores fell.

Another interesting note: Stanford had the fewest routines after beam falls in 2011 (8), but it was having to count a fall on beam that took them out of regionals.

Individual rankings after the jump.

We can also take a look at the numbers for individuals (minimum 3 routines):

Best Average Beam Score after a Fall – 2011
1. Megan Ferguson – Oklahoma – 9.879
2. Geralen Stack-Eaton – Alabama – 9.875
3. Leslie Mak – Oregon State – 9.870
4. Natasha Kelley – Oklahoma – 9.863
5. Kylee Botterman – Michigan – 9.856
6. Kim Jacob – Alabama – 9.850
7. Sarah DeMeo – Alabama – 9.836
8. Mackenzie Caquatto – Florida – 9.819
9. Cortni Beers – Utah – 9.818
10. Hillary Mauro – Georgia – 9.814

Here we see the Oklahoma and Alabama success through the numbers.  The 5 and 6 gymnasts for both of those teams were unshakable in 2011.  Also, a special MVP award for Kylee Botterman who went up 9 times after falls last season and hit every routine.

Worst Average Beam Score after a Fall – 2011
1. Brittany Skinner – Nebraska – 9.450
2. Tauny Frattone – UCLA – 9.456
3. Ashanee Dickerson – Florida – 9.485
4. Jamie Schleppenbach – Nebraska – 9.500
5. Joanna Sampson – Michigan – 9.542
6. Emily Wong – Nebraska – 9.581
7. Brittani McCullough – UCLA – 9.585
8. Maria Scaffidi – Nebraska – 9.610
9. Kayla Hoffman – Alabama – 9.620
10. Christa Tanella – Georgia – 9.633

Poor Nebraska.  And UCLA will hope that Zamarripa and Larson can solidify that lineup in 2012.
Both Brittany Skinner and Ashanee Dickerson were the victims of scores in the 8.4s, which brought down their averages significantly.

Coaches’ Poll

The 2012 edition of the Preseason Coaches’ Poll has been released, and while we can usually file this under bushel of nonsense, this season’s poll actually provides an interesting discussion point with UCLA topping the list.

2012 Coaches’ Poll
1. UCLA (8 first-place votes)
2. Alabama (17)
3. Florida (8)
4. Oklahoma (2)
5. Utah (1)
6. Nebraska
7. Oregon State (1)
8. Stanford (1)
9. Georgia
10. Michigan (2)

Full rankings can be found at Troester.

Nearly every year, this poll is simply a meaningless exercise where the coaches crown the previous year’s champion as the preseason #1.  The only exceptions to this rule tend to happen either when the defending champion has lost a bunch of prominent seniors or when there is another team that is clearly and inarguably superior.  Interestingly enough, that exact situation occurred the last time Alabama won the title, when UCLA were named the 2003 preseason #1.  That was also the last time the defending champion was not voted preseason #1.  That 2003 decision was completely understandable given the team UCLA had that year.  This year is much less clear.

It should be noted that the coaches do appear to have attempted to follow protocol by throwing Alabama 17 first-place votes, and UCLA did only end up first by a matter of points.  Still, following tradition, Alabama should have won this easily.  Remember that Georgia was named the 2010 preseason #1 the season after they lost Yoculan, Kupets, Tolnay, etc.  If ever there was a time to question the defending champion, it was then.  (But they are also Georgia, and that meant means something).

The way this poll played out appears to indicate that UCLA was near the top of most every coach’s rankings, earning them a bunch of points even with only 8 first-place votes.  Alabama, on the other hand, must have by ranked lower by certain coaches.  How badly to you want to see every coach’s list?  I know that goes against the purpose of the poll, but come on.  It would be so great.

The controversy at the top notwithstanding, the first 3 schools are the ones who should be there, and Oklahoma is a very deserving #4.  I’m a bit surprised that Nebraska is up at 6th, having lost some important athletes (namely Erin Davis), but DeZiel is a big get for them, so we’ll see.  Stanford got one first-place vote again, but I’m more concerned for the two votes for a Kylee Botterman-less Michigan.  Coaches, we need to talk.

An Important PSA

Every year, millions of unsuspecting Americans are diagnosed with severe LFE: Lack of Facial Expression. LFE can strike anyone at any time, even those with no family history of a complete disconnect between their faces and their moods or actions.

For decades, LFE was considered an adult-onset illness, afflicting those so beaten down by the various disappointments of daily life that they lost the will to care. In the last several years, however, researchers working with gymnasts across the country have begun to identify unmistakable signs of LFE in children as young as five, children who display no noticeable response to stimuli such as positive feedback or the accomplishment of a goal. These juvenile cases of LFE tend to reach crisis around the age of sixteen or seventeen, at which point they become chronic and, some argue, irreversible. 

With more and more cases gaining national prominence every year, it is natural to wonder whether LFE can affect you or your loved ones. Unfortunately, there is no 100% reliable defense against LFE, but it pays to be aware of the signs so that they might be addressed immediately. Early symptoms include a total lack of awareness of music (sufferers often maintain complete blankness even when music is jaunty), an inability to understand the concept of beat, and a profound deadness in the eyes, as if there were no more joy left in the world. Because sufferers of LFE have no concept of emotional interpretation of music, when instructed to dance they will often simply flap their wrists up and down in a manner one scientist likened to “a T-Rex waving goodbye.” This excessive wrist flexion is a sign that the disease has advanced to a more extreme stage and that intervention is necessary.

While many people live for years with LFE, explaining away their illnesses with commonplace defenses such as “I just can’t be bothered,” “so what,” and “meh,” if untreated, the lack of expression can occasionally mutate into a permanent look of sour disappointment, a syndrome Dr. Valorie Kondos Field, lead researcher in Hitting Refresh Studies at the UCLA Institute of Calm Confidence, has termed “poopy face.” Dr. Kondos Field is one of the few experts in the country who believes that LFE, even when it has advanced to poopy face status, can be cured.

Dr. Kondos Field with patient

Many of Dr. Kondos Field’s patients suffer from LFE with severity as high as “Category 4” or “Second-Tier Elite” status. Treatment of these cases often must begin at a very primitive level. In the image to the right, taken from an intensive group treatment session, the doctor begins with mirror therapy, pointing out to patients that they possess items like teeth and eyes that may be used to communicate an attitude to others. In addition to mirror work, the UCLA Institute has also reported great strides from experiments with “stop looking like a hot mess” therapy and “Canadian exposure” therapy, both of which work by introducing the sufferer to her potential self and thereby raising expectations. If this treatment is started by the time the patient reaches late teens, Dr. Kondos Field insists that full a recovery can be made and that former sufferers might even one day become performers. Sadly, others are not so lucky.

The two cases above, captured in their natural habitats, are known as “Category 5” or “Irreversibly Elite.” Unfortunately, in cases this severe, sufferers begin to experience varying degrees of cognitive disorder and may actually refuse the recommended four-year stint in a therapy institution, convincing themselves that there is nothing wrong or that the problem will simply improve on its own. Experts say that this thinking is misguided or even dangerous, and by increasing national awareness of it, they hope to be able to eradicate Category 5 cases within the next ten to fifteen years. 

Where Are the 9.9s?

Utah will hope Georgia Dabritz can bring in 9.9s on at least two events in 2012.

There is a common refrain, especially among coaches, that any team making it to the final session has a chance to take the national title.  Well . . . not quite.  While all the teams making it that far are talented, there is often a significant gap between the top contenders and the ones who should be pleased to get through the semifinals.  This gap can be measured reliably by the number of 9.9-quality routines.  The scores from Super Six in the last two years bear this out.

2011 Super Six – Routines scoring 9.9+
Alabama – 8
UCLA – 8
Oklahoma – 7
Michigan – 4
Nebraska – 2
Utah – 2

2010 Super Six – Routines scoring 9.9+
UCLA – 11
Oklahoma – 9
Alabama – 9
Stanford – 4
Florida – 4
Utah – 4

So what does this tell us?  (Other than making it painfully clear that 2010 was a much stronger year than 2011, which we already knew because we have eyes.)  It shows that even though the scores may appear similar, as we saw when Stanford and Florida finished within .250 of Oklahoma and Alabama in 2010, the disparity in quality of the top routines is often quite large and will dictate how the championships play out.
(As a side note, Florida managed six 9.9s in semifinals and seven 9.9s in regionals in 2011, which kept them afloat despite their beam performances, as opposed to Stanford, which did not advance past regionals due to suffering from severe 9.85-itis.)

Let’s take a moment to look at some of the major teams and where they can expect their 9.9s to come from in 2012.

Alabama is losing only Kayla Hoffman, but she was bringing in 9.9s across the board by the end of the season.  Those numbers will have to be replaced, likely by a combination of Ashley Priess (UB and BB) and Kayla Williams (VT and FX).  Although, word is that Priess will return to training the all-around this year.  My first question is, why?  And my second question is, huh?  For a CGA gymnast with her leg history, this seems like an unnecessary risk since the team is already deep with sturdy tumblers like Diandra Milliner and Ashley Sledge (who should bring in their fair share of 9.9s on these events).

Other than this group, Geralen Stack-Eaton can bring in 9.9s everywhere and Kim Jacob delivered the beam performance of the championships to earn a 9.95 during Super Six.  Expect this to continue.  If Kaitlyn Clark can remain healthy, she is another who can contribute big numbers on at least one event.

While we won’t have the pleasure of watching Brittani McCullough on floor anymore, she did not have her best season in 2011.  With the talent coming in, UCLA should easily be able to replace her scores.  The solid 9.850-level consistency of Niki Tom early in the beam lineup may end up feeling like the bigger loss.

There is a tendency to automatically assume that Vanessa Zamarripa will be able to return to her 39.675 AA quality right away, but coming back from a torn Achilles at the same level is no given.  Still, if she is able to do it, she can single-handedly bring UCLA’s 9.9 total up from 8 to 12.  As for the freshman, Mattie Larson has the potential to be an all-around star right away, and the judges will be itching to give her humongous scores on floor.  Cassie Whitcomb should also provide much-needed quality scores on bars and potentially elsewhere (although see note about CGA legs above).

For the returners, Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs may find herself out of favor in the all-around with the depth coming in, but she should bring in 9.9s on two events, especially if they can figure out how to get her out of that double arabian on floor.  Sam Peszek will see a slew of 9.9s during the season on every event (even bars, if 2011 scoring is a guide), and Olivia Courtney and Tauny Frattone will contribute to a truly insane vault lineup.  Courtney will also be relied upon for high 9.8s on at least two other events.

For Florida, Kytra Hunter will be expected to step in and replace Maranda Smith’s scores (and probably exceed them), so like Alabama and UCLA, they should be able to raise the bar from last year.  It remains to be seen whether Kiersten Wang and Rachel Spicer (is she still planning to enter in January?) can perform up to 9.9 level, but the team has enough sophomores and juniors to rack up the huge scores in any lineup.

Ashanee Dickerson, Mackenzie Caquatto, and Alaina Johnson regularly put up huge AA totals, with 9.9s on at least three events, and Marissa King excels on vault and floor.  Looking at this team’s potential, 198 seems realistic for them to reach several times this season.  Their biggest issue (besides making sure those 198s happen at the end of the season) is solving the beam problem.  Where do the 9.9s come from on beam?  We don’t have a solid answer yet.  It’s the weakness for Caquatto and Johnson, Dickerson struggles with consistency, and Hunter struggles with leaps.  They all can get there, but will they?

Of all the top coaches, one could make a compelling argument that K.J. Kindler has gotten the most out of her gymnasts.  She certainly is able to get big scores out of the most unheralded group.  Case in point, when Hollie Vise graduated, everyone expected Oklahoma to fall off, but they kept up the same pace.  Their biggest elite, Natasha Kelley, is still able to anchor them with strong scores on bars and beam, and senior leader Megan Ferguson will be expected to put up 9.9s on three events.

But the biggest thing that has kept Oklahoma among the top is the sheer number of less notable gymnasts who can pop up at any moment and deliver a 9.9.  All of the sudden Kayla Nowak, or Sara Stone, or Brie Olson, or Taylor Spears will show up with a big routine, made all the more impressive because the score is never based on reputation or prior success.  Put GAGE’s Rebecca Clark right up in that same group, and Oklahoma should be contending once again.  They may still feel the lack of a strong AA force, which is why they could find themselves struggling to keep pace with the three teams above them, but expect them to be confident, solid, well prepared, and ready to step in if others falter.

Oh Georgia, what are we going to do with you?  The leadership provided by Cassidy McComb’s hairstyle (like a beacon in the dark wilderness) will be missed.  She never blew you away with form, but she knew how to fight for scores and squeeze every .05 out of her routines, something we haven’t seen from the likes of Shayla Worley and Christa Tanella.  In fact, Noel Couch is probably the best of the younger group in this area, but her form (get those legs together!) largely keeps her out of 9.9 territory.

The last class of the Suzanne era (Kat Ding and Gina Nuccio) will provide 9.9s on bars (and hopefully one other event each) as long as they can remain healthy.  Their leadership will be necessary, but these specialists are not enough to sustain a team.  The team needs Kaylan Earls and Chelsea Davis to be intact and in lineups consistently to have a chance.  Both have the potential to bring in big scores, but let’s face it, the success of this season will depend primarily on whether The Shayla can get it together.  She needs to be healthy.  She needs to be bringing in 9.9s on three events.  She needs to not fall on her bars mount.  Time will tell.

Notice that Utah is last on each of the lists above.  They are excellent at making it to Super Six, but they don’t have the major scoring potential to get much higher than that 4th-6th range these days.  Gymnasts like Stephanie McAllister, Corrie Lothrop, Nansy Damianova, and Mary Beth Lofgren are very 9.850, and each one will probably step into 9.9 territory a few times during the season, with McAllister the most frequent visitor.  That isn’t enough to contend for a championship, though, and they will need to find a way to significantly raise the scoring potential to challenge the top three teams.

The most likely candidate to do so is Georgia Dabritz whose training (seen above) indicates that she has the form and difficulty on vault and bars (Yurchenko 1.5, Comaneci salto) to reach the top level.  The return of Kyndal Robarts is also crucial, and her vault already looks exceptional.  Looking at the potential in this group, though, they appear to be a 196.500-196.750 team, with little indication (at this point) that they can move higher.

It’s too soon to tell much about other top teams like Michigan and Stanford that will be so reliant on cultivating their freshman talent.  Michigan will be concerned with somehow finding a way to make up for the loss of Kylee Botterman’s scores, and Stanford will be relying on Hong, Shapiro, and Wing to get them out of the 9.850 purgatory in which they were stuck last season.  That Stanford group has some serious potential, but will it happen?