#1 UCLA Preview

While it was certainly unusual to see defending champion Alabama ranked #2 in the preseason poll, it’s hard to argue that a team with UCLA’s talent level should be anywhere but #1 in 2012.  In 2011, they were not a championship-caliber team.  Without Vanessa Zamarripa or Sam Peszek for half the season, this depleted group had to rely on routines from Brittani McCullough and Tauny Frattone on their weaker events where they ideally should not have had to compete.  That UCLA even managed to place second is a testament to this team perfecting the art of maximizing its potential.  Without a significant chunk of star power, UCLA had to get 9.9 routines from unexpected places, like the two that Sydney Sawa put up in Super Six.  What makes UCLA more dangerous in 2012 is that they will also have that deep stable of stars from which they can draw those top scores.

The most exciting change for UCLA this year will be the return of Vanessa Zamarripa who, at her best, churns out 39.600 performances like it’s nothing.  Coming off an Achilles tear, it would be foolhardy to assume that Zamarripa will be back to that level immediately.  As we learned from Ask the Bruins, she is not back on floor yet.  This is probably the event where she is least necessary to the team, so it’s not a major blow if she’s unavailable at the beginning of the season.  They will certainly need her come postseason, but Zamarripa is not as important to the floor lineup as Hopfner-Hibbs, Peszek, or Larson. UCLA will need her abilities more so on vault and bars, where she appears to be on track.

Zamarripa doesn’t run away with the “most exciting change” category because UCLA is also debuting freshman Mattie Larson.  Larson has become one of the more beloved elites of recent years because she covers both the “artistry” narrative and the “we love you even though you fell at Worlds” narrative. Combine those with her genuinely elegant execution, and the judges will be itching to give her big scores on each event.  Aside from staying healthy (she’s an AOGC elite, so knock on Sequoias), Larson’s biggest job in 2012 will be to undergo a successful headcase-ectomy.  Over the years, she never showed her best gymnastics on international assignment and very publicly lost her mind at team finals in 2010. When thinking about UCLA’s best possible lineups, Larson has an asterisk next to her name because she will have to develop and prove the ability to hit under pressure in a team environment, otherwise all the talent in the world is irrelevant.

The other scholarship athletes for UCLA this year are Cassie Whitcomb and Dana McDonald.  McDonald is a clean vault and floor specialist.  She will probably see some competition time early in the season, but it’s hard to imagine her making March and April lineups unless she has to step in because of injury.  As for Whitcomb, no surprise, she’s already dealing with injury.  With the depth on this team, there’s no need for her to be contending in the all-around, and she wouldn’t make all the lineups, anyway.  Her biggest asset will be her bar routine, where she stood out as an elite with her toe point and good CGA flat hips.    

While beam was the most discussed weakness for UCLA last season (and we’ll get there in a minute), if you were to watch a meet without looking at the scores, you would say that bars was just as much of a problem.  Though the award for Most Overscored Lineup is always a very tough category, with all the top teams getting some degree of overscoring at home, I would give the 2011 title to UCLA on bars.  We have to give some credit to them for once again maximizing potential and sticking landings at the end of the season, but this lineup was not particularly strong and often got charitable scoring.  This was never more clear than when Hopfner-Hibbs performed her straddled double layout dismount with a lunge forward and still got a 9.9 from one judge.  On a championship team, Peszek and Hopfner-Hibbs are early-lineup workers at best on bars, not anchors.  This will have to be fixed in 2012, which is why Zamarripa, Whitcomb, and Monique De La Torre will be so important.  Ideally, Lichelle Wong would also make the lineup, but she is still training that double front 1/2 dismount that they scrapped last season because she couldn’t compete it without significant deduction, so she’ll have to work that out to make the top six. Wong somehow always seems to find a way to not be in lineups she should be in.

For the last two seasons, Val has had to place some of her top workers at the beginning of the beam lineup to give the team some stability because too many falls were happening.  Last season, neither Frattone nor McCullough should have been in that lineup in April, but there was no one else more reliable to use.  While they were able to avoid a fall in Super Six, it was not one of the prettier rotations.  In 2012, however, there is actually some room for optimism.  A core group of Peszek, Hopfner-Hibbs, Gerber, Zamarripa, and Courtney should actually be more reliable than we’ve seen from them in the recent past.  If Larson can prove consistency and make that lineup as well, we shouldn’t have to spend too much time pretending that Frattone and Wong are able to hit in competition.

As is the case with the other top three teams, vault and floor don’t look to be much of a problem.  The team is very deep on vault, and Zamarripa, Frattone, and Courtney will give them a banner end to that rotation, all 9.950 capable.  On floor, there is a bit less depth, especially if some of the top scorers aren’t ready to compete right away, but as a team they have more than enough talent and potential, in addition to the general goodwill towards Val’s choreography that will keep them scoring well.  Expect UCLA to have an early meet where they have a couple falls and another where they have 18 OOBs, but this lineup should still match or exceed Florida and Alabama when all the pieces are in place.

Like Florida and Alabama, UCLA has definite leftover weaknesses from 2011 that need to be addressed in order to be capable of winning the championship.  They will not be able to rely on the talent of their gymnasts alone and will have to find hit routines on beam and cleaner routines on bars.  However, if I’m picking a preseason favorite, I have to go with the coaches on this one and put UCLA at #1.  While Florida’s group of Johnson, Caquatto, Hunter, Dickerson, and King can probably match UCLA’s group of Zamarripa, Peszek, Larson, Hopfner-Hibbs, and Courtney, the difference-maker for UCLA is the 9.9 potential coming from outside the notable names.  Florida isn’t going to get many 9.9s from outside their group, but UCLA has Frattone on vault, De La Torre (at least) on bars, and Gerber on beam who are going to be just as important as the all-arounders.  Of all the teams, UCLA has the highest scoring potential from outside the top tier of athletes, which can make the difference for them in April.

#2 Alabama Preview

It wasn’t a smooth path to the title for Alabama in 2011.  They started the season disastrously, particularly on bars, but by April, it was the lack of notable weaknesses relative to the other teams that won them the national title.  While we can point to the balance beam for Florida and UCLA or to the floor for Oklahoma as the weakest piece, once Alabama established consistent lineups on bars and beam, they were able to deliver hit performances on each event without the specter of counting a fall looming over them.  Even after Kayla Hoffman fell on beam in Super Six, we knew the next two were going to hit because they were the solid Bama we’ve come to expect.
However, with their most dangerous competitors improving, Alabama cannot expect to deliver the same performance in 2012 as they did in 2011 and still win the title.  They will have to match the others’ improvement.  Unfortunately for them, of the top three teams, they face the biggest graduation blow in losing Kayla Hoffman.  Hoffman was a huge contributor on three events (while she competed beam as a senior, she was never really a beamer), and they will have to find a gymnast to replace that potential.  The most likely candidate is Ashley Priess, who missed last season with yet another injury and is expected to return to the all-around this year.  Even though Alabama has Priess training all events, that’s a risky little game given her injury history.  It may be advisable to have her focus on bars and beam, where the team is less deep and where she can have the biggest influence on the team score.  There is no question that she is capable of delivering excellent scores on vault and floor as well, but can her body hold up to training those events, and is the risk worth it?
The good news for Alabama is that they will not have to rely solely on Priess to try to regain what they had last year.  
Kayla Williams is their biggest new recruit, and the 2009 world champion on vault will be expected to contribute immediately.  The gym change to Cincinnati ended up being an excellent choice for Williams as Mary Lee went to town on some of her weaknesses.  Improvement in those areas will be of great help to her in NCAA.  But while her bar work has improved in the last two years, she was certainly not recruited to compete that event.  She was recruited because of vault and floor, but it will be important for Alabama not to take those events for granted.  The leaps still need work, and the Yurchenko 1.5 she competed in L10 was in the good-but-not-amazing category because she usually landed in a significant squat.  This is not a massive problem, but we hold higher expectations for a world champion.  She needs to be 10-capable on her championship event.  She wasn’t recruited to get a 9.850 on vault.  It will take time to make her into an excellent NCAA gymnast.  She probably won’t be the big star immediately, but she has more than enough potential to get there over time.

Joining Williams in the freshmen class are Kaitlyn Clark and Brooke Parker, both of whom were in that group of secondary elites from the early part of this quad along with Georgia Dabritz, Annette Miele, Morgan Steigerwalt, Rebecca Clark, and their teammate Kim Jacob.  Alabama will certainly be hoping to get equivalent performances from these two as they did from Jacob in her freshman year.  Clark had back surgery in the offseason, which has set her training back and limited her to bars and some beam, but they will hope to have her return to competing on her better events at some point this season.

Of potential concern to Alabama is that they have recruited a bunch of gymnasts with similar skill sets over the last two years, and that skill set doesn’t include particular strength on the bars.  This makes the return of Ashley Priess even more important to add stability at the end of that lineup and bring in those 9.9s.          

Other than Priess, Stack-Eaton, and Sledge (who has a wonderful double layout dismount but was buried at the beginning of the lineup last year to add stability), the team doesn’t have big bar routines, and Stack-Eaton can be touch and go sometimes, especially with that dismount.  Sarah Demeo and Kim Jacob were solid contributors in 2011, and I expect that to continue, but I’m not sold on them as scoring leaders on this event.  While Alabama can probably get by on this event in 2012 in the 49.250-49.300 area, the strengths of this team, particularly the freshmen and sophomores, appear over-stacked on vault and floor with less depth and scoring potential elsewhere, meaning they will be extra reliant on Stack-Eaton and Priess this year (and then what happens in the future or in the event of injury?)

That being said, Alabama is in the advantageous position of having their biggest weaknesses be potential weaknesses should injuries or problems arise.  Many of the teams ranked below them have weaknesses that are glaring and not conditional.

The upside of having a potentially lopsided team is that Alabama is very much set on vault and floor and (especially if they do get Priess back to strength on those events) will have six gymnasts performing in competition who should all go 9.850 with the possibility of going 9.900.  They won’t be worried about putting up leadoff scores that they will hope to drop as they can be confident counting scores from any number of gymnasts.  Even on beam (where they will still have to experiment to find a lineup that works), they should have enough gymnasts capable of competing and showing strong difficulty.  A commitment to difficulty (they have a couple double pike dismounts) will help them here as well.

As in the case of Florida, it would not be a surprise if Alabama repeated and won the title.  They have enough potential 9.9 routines to do it.  However, aside from the concerns about getting Priess back or the depth on bars, Alabama may also become the victim of simply being outclassed by other teams.  How many times have we seen them put together a very strong team that finished 2nd or 3rd because they just weren’t as amazing or as flashy as another team or because they had great 9.9 routines, but no one was standing up and wanting to give them a 9.950?  Looking at this group, there is just a feeling that Alabama’s best gymnastics would be less impressive than Florida or UCLA’s best gymnastics.  If Florida has another Florida postseason, and if UCLA has another beam hemorrhage or succumbs to injury, I fully expect Alabama to win the championship, but the quest for the title this year may not be entirely within their control.

#3 Florida Preview

Let’s just cut to the chase.  Florida was the best team in the NCAA last year, and it wasn’t close.  For all the discussion about Alabama and UCLA stepping up at the right time (which they did), Florida had no business losing the title.  That they didn’t even make Super Six is an even greater and more interesting disappointment.

Much has been made about Florida peaking at the wrong time and showing their best gymnastics in January and February instead of March and April.  Rhonda has clearly taken this criticism to heart.  She pushed the team’s training schedule back 4-6 weeks this year in order to put them in a better position come championships.  Whether this will work remains to be seen.  It will be fascinating to watch their January meets to see if they look like the January Florida we’ve become accustomed to or if they look more like early-season UCLA.

While poor performances in January may be alarming to the team (and it will be interesting to see how they might respond mentally to losses since they are used to starting the season with such strength), a bad result or two is likely the best thing that could happen to them.  The two major issues that knocked them out of championships in 2011 (struggles on the beam and an inability to produce top routines under pressure) both appear to stem from a lack of competition adversity during the season.

Because the beam problems didn’t truly start to manifest themselves in an alarming way until SEC Championships, the team had little time to experiment with lineups or correct these issues.  Mahlich suddenly felt new pressure to hit, which made her very tentative and induced the falls, and the rest of the team was relatively unfamiliar with performing in a must-hit situation.  Worse beam outings early in the season would have made this scenario less foreign and would have told Rhonda exactly who could be relied upon to hit when necessary.  In addition, after the beam disaster at championships, the gymnasts tried too hard to stick their landings on vault and bars and ended up with worse scores because of it. Familiarity with performing after a poor rotation may have given the gymnasts a calmer demeanor and more ability to produce the gymnastics they had prepared.

For all of the issues we saw at the end of last season, Florida can still make the argument that they are the most talented team in the country.  In particular, returners Alaina Johnson, Mackenzie Caquatto, Ashanee Dickerson, and Marissa King will be relied upon on 3-4 events each and are all capable of massive scores.  Johnson would have been the undisputed top all-arounder in the country last year had it not been for lower scores on the beam, but she is capable of 9.950s on 3 events.  Caquatto proved herself a reliable 9.9 gymnast across the board, even coming off a long elite season in 2010.  She’ll have to get healthy, stay healthy, and continue improving on her performance ability under pressure.  She’s come a long way over the years from being the girl who could never hit beam, but she needs to keep getting more confident and not allow those 9.7s to creep in when she’s nervous.  Dickerson is so powerful on vault and floor that a 9.9 has become an expectation.  She’s scored well on beam in the past, but it can still be a struggle with leg form and consistency.  That 8.450 at regionals will haunt her beam performance for a while.  King is the national vault champion and is capable of the above floor performance.  Enough said.

The four stars by themselves would be strong enough to go up in the 3 through 6 positions on most events and contend for a national title, but they will be joined by standout freshman Kytra Hunter, who will be expected to contribute in the all-around as well.  She’s amazingly powerful, and her tumbling is always insane.  If they can manage her dance elements, she can bring in huge scores.  Bars was a significant weakness for her as an elite, but she’s still a Kelli Hill gymnast.  With a simple routine that doesn’t show off missed handstands, she can be a solid early contributor.

New gymnasts Kiersten Wang and (potentially, so has been said) Rachel Spicer would be standouts on other teams.  They will be necessary at times during the season, especially if Rhonda experiments with her depth early on, but with the five gymnasts mentioned above it will be hard for them to make too many lineups come the postseason.

Florida has no reason to worry about vault or floor.  Johnson, Caquatto, King, Dickerson, and Hunter will all be 9.9 capable on both those events.  That’s a lineup right there, as long as they bring in a competent scorer in the first position, not a placeholder whose score they’d rather not count.  In 2011, some of their leadoff gymnasts were notably weaker than the rest of the lineup, which was fine when everyone hit but became a problem when the score had to count.  This team is better than a 9.775 leadoff.

King and Dickerson are both capable on bars and can perform routines early in the lineup or whenever necessary, but they will not be standouts.  While Johnson and Caquatto can carry the team, the graduation of Alicia Goodwin creates more uncertainty in this lineup, and Florida will need at least one more strong score to be competitive.  This is where freshmen can step in and make the lineup if they prove competitive.  
As for beam, the issue is less about the number of competitive, possibly excellent routines (they will have many) than it is about who can hit.  Expect a lot of experimentation with this lineup and a lot of opportunities for the depth to show (or not).  Even though we can expect the stars to perform here as well, those lineup spots are not guaranteed if they perform tentatively and give us those 9.7s we saw last postseason.

When it comes to the top 3 teams this year, there are no guarantees.  Any one of the three could take the national title, and it would not be a surprise.  It’s hard to argue with Florida’s lineups, and predicting some 49.500 rotations this season is not farfetched.  They have the capability to be even better than they were last year, but it will take fixing the cracks we saw exposed so publicly at the end of 2011.  Rhonda’s willingness to make changes to her preparation schedule is an encouraging sign because Florida cannot expect to do the same things as last year and win this time, especially not with the improvements around the country.  They’re ranked #3 for a reason.  There are significant questions about their ability to make those changes and fix those problems.  But if they do, it will take superhuman performances from UCLA or Alabama to beat them.

Intrasquad Roundup

Teams have finished up their December intrasquads and are breaking for the holidays.  Coaches have given their teams specific “we can’t officially make you train but here’s what you better do over break” instructions and will hope that their gymnasts return in recognizable condition to prepare for the first meet. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what some of the teams have been up to in the past week or so.

Georgia has posted a new episode of We Need to Talk about Kevin (Copp) containing highlights from the recent intrasquad.  Of note:

  • Chelsea Davis has been fully gymdogged out (it’s a real word…now) with the glitter and the ribbon and the temp tattoo.  We’ll just have to deal with it.  We didn’t see too much from her except the vault, which is her weakest event.  She lacks competitive amplitude.  I’m interested to see bars most of all.
  • Kat Ding is a gem.  She rates them at an 8.5.  I love the use of .5, like it’s a real scale, and her ability to resist the “I’d give us a TEN!” snap reaction.  She knows her teammates aren’t up to her level.  Still, it’s Georgia, so adjust for inflation.  How dare they show us that stuck beam dismount and make us want her to compete beam even though we know she’ll get like a 4 in competition.  
  • Jay is worried about the team’s fitness coming back from the break.  Apparently, he got his hand stuck in the cookie jar at 1:30.    

Our updates from UCLA have been sporadic.  They had the “Meet the Bruins” event, which wasn’t a real intrasquad (it was weirder and better), and now we have videos of only some of the gymnasts on only two events.  I’m not really surprised.  
They actually look well prepared on vault.  Hopfner-Hibbs and Peszek don’t have the same distance as the others, but they are both capable of sticking landings sometimes (as we see in this video), which should even out the scoring.  A presumed lineup of Hopfner-Hibbs, Peszek, Larson, Courtney, Frattone, and Zamarripa (with occasional routines from alternates Wong, De La Torre, McDonald, and Gerber) will be very difficult for any team to beat.  They have enough depth that they won’t miss Sydney Sawa’s competent vault.
Florida held an intrasquad on December 9th.  Kytra Hunter looks strong and Alaina Johnson looks on point.  Ashanee looks about as enthusiastic as usual.  Marissa King’s double layout is a dream.  Given that these are highlights, it’s difficult to draw real conclusions from the performance, but the Gators seem on track.  Although, those dangly little half-hearted streamers are a little too reminiscent of when Mary trashed the gym on Seventh Heaven.  Don’t pretend like you don’t get the reference.
Oklahoma has a highlight reel with a few full routines on each event.  The article is a breath of fresh air when K.J. doesn’t pretend like her other freshmen are going to make lineups.  This is unusual among NCAA coaches.

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama