#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.

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#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.

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama