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?

2012 NCAA Schedule

The NCAA season is just a little more than a month away, so it’s time to look at the road we have ahead of us.

Below is a schedule of the major meets that will be important to follow in 2012.  At first glance, a few important things jump out:
1) Note the scarcity of meets during the first weekend.  Alabama, Michigan, Oregon St., Stanford, and Nebraska (among others) won’t compete until the second week.  Because of this schedule, most of these schools will be competing every weekend through conference championships without a break.  Pacing and resting major contributors will be paramount.  UCLA and Georgia may benefit by having that crucial week off at the end of the regular season.
2) Stanford only competes at home three times, two of which are their first two meets of the season. This means they will have to rely heavily on road scores for their RQS, which can be a risky little game.  (On the other hand, they will be incredibly reliant on their freshmen this year, and with the injury history there, the sparse schedule of only 9 total meets could be in their best interests.)  
3) There is a strong degree of difficulty overall.  Each of the top teams has at least 3 (and usually 4) meets against other top programs.  Even schools like Oklahoma and Nebraska that don’t have built-in challenges against strong conference rivals have loaded their schedules.  This means that nearly every weekend has at least one interesting matchup.

2012 NCAA Schedule – All Times PACIFIC (deal with it)
Week 1: January 6th-8th
Friday – 1/6/12
4:00pm – Florida @ NC State
4:00pm – Cancun Classic – (Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, Arizona, Iowa, San Jose St.)
4:30pm – Denver @ Georgia
Saturday – 1/7/12
3:00pm – Oklahoma, Bowling Green, Wisconsin-Oshkosh @ Kentucky
Sunday – 1/8/12
2:00pm – Utah @ UCLA
Week 2: January 13th-15th
Friday – 1/13/12
3:00pm – Ohio State @ Michigan
4:00pm – Illinois @ Florida
5:00pm – Denver @ Nebraska
5:00pm – Kentucky @ Arkansas
5:30pm – Georgia @ Alabama
6:00pm – Utah State @ Utah
7:00pm – Oklahoma @ Oregon State
Sunday – 1/15/12
2:00pm – UCLA @ California
TBA – Quad Meet @ Stanford
Week 3: January 20th-22nd
Friday – 1/20/12
4:00pm – Florida @ Kentucky
4:30pm – Nebraska @ Iowa State
5:00pm – Georgia @ Auburn
5:00pm – LSU @ Arkansas
7:00pm – Oregon State @ Arizona
Saturday – 1/21/12
4:00pm – Alabama, Michigan State @ Penn State
4:00pm – Michigan @ Minnesota
5:00pm – Oklahoma, Utah State, Centenary @ Texas Women’s
Sunday – 1/22/12
2:00pm – San Jose State @ UCLA
2:00pm – Washington @ Stanford
Week 4: January 27th-29th
Friday – 1/27/12
3:00pm – Illinois @ Michigan
4:00pm – Arkansas, Maryland @ Florida
5:00pm – Alabama @ Auburn
5:00pm – NC State @ Oklahoma
6:00pm – BYU @ Utah
7:00pm – UCLA @ Washington
7:00pm – Stanford @ Oregon State
Saturday – 1/28/12
1:00pm – LSU @ Georgia
4:00pm – Missouri @ Nebraska
Week 5: February 3rd-5th
Friday – 2/3/12
3:00pm – West Virginia @ Michigan
5:00pm – Nebraska, Minnesota, Centenary @ Oklahoma
5:00pm – Auburn @ Arkansas
5:30pm – Florida @ Alabama
6:00pm – Georgia @ Utah
7:00pm – Oregon State @ Washington
Sunday – 2/5/12
12:00pm – Oklahoma @ Arkansas
12:30pm – Stanford @ UCLA
Week 6: February 10th-12th
Friday – 2/10/12
4:00pm – Alabama @ Kentucky
4:00pm – LSU @ Florida
4:30pm – Arkansas @ Georgia
5:00pm – Perfect 10 Challenge – (Oklahoma)
5:30pm – IGI Chicago Style – (UCLA, Illinois, Missouri, Boise St.)
7:00pm – Oregon State, Sacramento State @ UC Davis
Saturday – 2/11/12
4:00pm – Michigan, Washington, Southern Utah @ Nebraska
Sunday – 2/12/12
1:00pm – Utah @ Arizona State
2:00pm – Stanford @ California
Week 7: February 17th-19th
Friday – 2/17/12
3:00pm – Utah @ Michigan
4:30pm – Oklahoma @ Missouri
5:00pm – Florida @ Auburn
5:30pm – Arkansas @ Alabama
7:00pm – UCLA, California @ Oregon State
Saturday – 2/18/12
1:00pm – Kentucky @ Georgia
4:00pm – Nebraska @ Minnesota
TBA – Metroplex Challenge (Stanford)
Week 8: February 24th-26th
Friday – 2/24/12
4:00pm – Georgia @ Florida
5:00pm – Alabama @ LSU
5:00pm – Michigan, Texas Women’s @ Oklahoma
5:00pm – Nebraska @ Arkansas
6:00pm – Stanford @ Utah
7:00pm – Boise State @ Oregon State
Sunday – 2/26/12
2:00pm – Arizona State @ UCLA
Week 9: March 2nd-4th
Friday – 3/2/12
4:00pm – Michigan, North Carolina, Centenary @ Penn State
4:30pm – UCLA @ Georgia
5:00pm – Alabama @ Oklahoma
5:00pm – Minnesota @ Arkansas
6:00pm – Oregon State @ Utah
Sunday – 3/4/12
12:00pm – Florida @ Nebraska
2:00pm – Arizona, California @ Stanford
Week 10: March 9th-11th
Friday – 3/9/12
3:00pm – Georgia @ Michigan
5:00pm – Oregon State, Texas Women’s @ Denver
5:30pm – Missouri @ Alabama
6:00pm – Nebraska @ Utah
TBA – Stanford @ Arizona State
Saturday – 3/10/12
3:00pm – Arkansas, NC State @ West Virginia
Sunday – 3/11/12
11:30am – NC State @ Georgia
2:00pm – Oklahoma @ UCLA
Week 11: March 16th-18th
Friday – 3/16/12
3:00pm – Michigan State @ Michigan
4:00pm – Utah @ Florida
4:30pm – Arkansas @ Missouri
5:00pm – Iowa State @ Nebraska
5:30pm – North Carolina @ Alabama
7:00pm – New Hampshire, Seattle Pacific @ Oregon State
Saturday – 3/17/12
1:00pm – Oklahoma @ Ohio State
Week 12: March 24th
Saturday – 3/24/12
12:00pm – Big Ten Championships (@ Iowa)
1:00pm & 6:00pm – Pac-12 Championships (@ Utah)
1:00pm – SEC Championships (@ Georgia)
2:00pm – Big 12 Championships (@ Oklahoma)
Week 14: April 7th
Saturday – 4/7/12
1:00pm – NC State Regional
2:00pm – Arkansas Regional
2:00pm – Illinois Regional
4:00pm – Washington Regional
4:00pm – Auburn Regional
5:00pm – Utah Regional
Week 16: April 20th-22nd
Friday – 4/20/12
TBA – NCAA Semifinals
Saturday – 4/21/12
TBA – NCAA Team Finals
Sunday – 4/22/12
TBA – NCAA Event Finals

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama