#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.

#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.   

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama