#1 Oklahoma Preview

The final preview. We’re going on fumes now. Soon, I won’t have to use the word potential again for a whole year. Confetti. And also the meets will happen. That’s fine too, I guess. Michigan is already out of the gates, winning Cancun with a 196.975, led by Artz and Karas 9.9ing all over the place. That’ll do. Arkansas counted multiple falls. That won’t do.

Roster
Brown, Natalie – Sophomore – BB, FX
Capps, Chayse – Junior – VT, BB, FX
Catour, Stefani – Sophomore – N/A
Craus, Samantha – Sophomore – UB
Hemry, Reagan – Junior – UB
Jackson, Ali – Sophomore – VT, FX (possible UB, BB)
Jones, Charity – Junior – VT, UB, FX (possible BB)
Kanewa, Maile – Senior – VT, FX
Kmieciak, Keeley – VT, UB, BB (possible FX)
Lehrmann, Nicole – Freshman
Lovan, Kara – Junior – VT, BB, FX
Marks, Alex – Freshman
Price, Hunter – Senior – VT
Scaman, Haley – Senior – VT, UB, FX (possible BB)
Thompson, Megan – Freshman
Turner, Nicole – Senior – FX
Wofford, McKenzie – Junior – UB  
 
Recent History
2015 – 3rd
2014 – 1st
2013 – 2nd
2012 – 7th
2011 – 3rd
2010 – 2nd

2016 Outlook
OK, Sooners. The coaches have spoken, and it’s your turn to win this year. The coaches poll is binding. Weirdly, Oklahoma underperformed at Super Six last year, something we’re not accustomed to seeing from this team when not ravaged by injury, though I wouldn’t really use that as an indicator for how things will go this season. As has been the case every year since the breakthrough in 2010, Oklahoma ranks among the top couple favorites for the title, and given the team’s penchant for starting quickly, Oklahoma is the best bet to spend the lion’s share of the regular season at #1. The difference between being an easy Super Six bet (a given) and a title favorite this year, however, will lay in the team’s ability to manage its sudden Dowellessness and overcome the depletion of the bars lineup, something Oklahoma has proven quite adept at in the past.

Winning this season will be more challenging than it has been in the past couple years because the Sooners have suffered a net routine loss from that 2015 third-place result, putting them in a position of now having to do more with less. Success in 2016 will be borne from developing existing routines into 9.9s they haven’t been so far.

Key Competitor
Which brings me to Charity Jones. Jones came to Oklahoma at the tail end of those years when we were still sort of concerned about whether the team had enough power to wake the judges up out of their 9.850 comas (we were so young then). She was supposed to be a huge part of a power renaissance but has been perpetually MIA since then, competing just a bars routine or vault here and there at the very end of seasons. Now without Dowell, with Kanewa still on the comeback trail, and with a class of newbies more likely to make a mark on bars and beam, the team will be exceptionally reliant on someone like Jones to fill out the power-event lineups with competitive scores that keep the Sooners on the 49.5-everywhere track that has made them perennial title contenders. 

Vault

Brenna Dowell’s 1.5+ vault repertoire would have been an asset this season, so it’s natural to expect some dip in the scores without her. Still, Oklahoma retains enough important vaults that this should still be a top-5 vaulting team. (How many teams have I declared top-5 vaulting teams this year? Is it more than 5? I’M THE BEST.) Haley Scaman remains the star. She downgraded from the 1.5 for the scores a couple years ago, but she spent a whole season getting 9.875s for that 1.5 and can upgrade back to it no problem. It’s worth it for her to go for the 1.5, but we’ll have to see how well she scores for it compared to the 9.900-9.925s she could still get for a full this season. The landing must be there to make the 1.5 valuable. Ah, the strategy of it all. Regardless, it will be the important score in this lineup, along with Ali Jackson, who performed her 1.5 all last season and comfortably scored into the 9.9s for it.  

The remaining places look to be filled by fulls, unless the new values finally get Hunter Price into the lineup for her handspring pike 1/2. She’s been borderline-lineup her whole career, so perhaps this will boost her into the group. Or perhaps not. The roster boasts more than enough options for fulls, so we’ll just have to see who is the stickiest and amplitudiest, who can get into the high 9.8s and challenge for 9.9s instead of staying stuck at 9.800. Ideally, you’d have Kanewa on vault because her full is the best of the rest. Healthy Kanewa would be a lock for the lineup, and I’d definitely take Jones for her power (she did a DTY back in the JO days) and Capps for the way she opens out of that full. The team will also have fulls from Kmieciak, Marks, Lehrmann and Lovan that could all realistically go, so depth isn’t an issue. The only issue would be getting stuck with too many vaults in the middish, lowish 9.8s (as many teams will because of the lowered values). Scaman and Jackson sticking for 9.950 is critical.

Bars

We don’t usually expect events to look sparse for Oklahoma, but this one does. Relatively. Because otherwise critical contributors like Capps and Lovan won’t be used on bars, there aren’t as many options. In fact, the Sooners return just four people who competed even a single bars routines last year. The rest are “well, I guess she could,” which will make the bars rotation in the opening meet against LSU the one to watch. Obviously, much depends upon Wofford. She is the most refined and impressive bars worker on the team and has developed into a pretty reliable 9.900-9.950. Without the luxury of a Dowell or Spears to help her out, she’s going to have to get at least 9.900 pretty much every week.

Scaman and Kmieciak will both also return to the lineup, and because of Oklahoma, they’re precise enough to hit 9.900 here and there. Though they’re also more susceptible to a 9.825. Bars has been a 49.500-level strength for a while now, which means everyone gets a 9.900, so to keep Oklahoma within sight of that lofty goal, Lehrmann and Marks need to become not just options but reliably significant scores. Both do have the skill set and surplus toe point to become exceptional bars workers and fit right into this lineup. Mark just joined the team recently, so we’ll see how long it takes to develop that routine, but bars was Lehrmann’s best event in JO, so look for her to get serious.

The other returner is Ali Jackson, who can definitely be used and did score a couple 9.8s last year, though the toes and release amplitude aren’t quite at the level of a usual Oklahoma bars routine. Perhaps her stellar tuck full dismount will still get her in there. She’s definitely a possibility, as is Jones who competed bars for 9.8s in the past, though I’m rooting for Hemry to finally get a spot. She doesn’t have much difficulty and wouldn’t be a BAM 9.9, but she possesses beautiful qualities and has been patiently waiting in the corner for 9.9s to go away for years now to get her shot. It’s reasonable to expect a touch of score loss from last season without Dowell, Clark, and Brewer since people who couldn’t crack the lineup in 2015 now have to perform, but this roster still has more than enough oomph to make bars competitive as long as the freshmen do their parts. This is also Oklahoma, so Nicole Turner will suddenly start doing bars and get a 10. 

Beam

The Sooners experience a similar level of routine loss on beam without Clark, Brewer, and Sorensen, but there are so many more 9.850+ options spilling out of the reserves bench that it seems foolish to be in any way concerned about Oklahoma and beam. Oklahoma’s identity is beam, and I could go into trying to explain why with aesthetic arguments, but the actual reason is that it’s just better. It’s better than the other teams. Oklahoma had a 49.530 RQS last year, which is insane for beam and can’t ever be the expectation, but this team is capable of challenging somewhere near that mark and continuing to star during a season of impressive beam potential all across the country.

Obviously, Chayse Capps’ beam routine is more important than anything you’ve ever done in your life, and now that she’s not doing the mid-routine poop squat anymore, I’m 100% on board. She’ll step one centimeter and get an automatic 9.9+, and Kara Lovan’s pristine legs have never heard of a deduction before, so she’ll get her share of 9.9s as well. Kmieciak has been the leadoff for forever and usually gets a 9.850 in that spot, though her routine is just as capable as most of the others of scoring 9.9. Everyone else in this lineup is going to be a new kid on the block, but there are plenty of kids. It’s like a sister-wife cult ranch of beamers, except not creepy. Now, the most beautiful and highest potential routine of the remaining crop comes from Wofford, but since I have given up expecting her to have the consistency to make this lineup, I’ll turn my attention instead to the freshmen. Lehrmann stood out in her JO career for giving away very little in built-in deductions, so I would be surprised if she doesn’t become a stalwart in this lineup. I’m also slightly obsessed with Alex Marks’ style and potential on beam, so keep an eye on her to become one of those sudden Oklahoma beamers. Then there’s Natalie Brown, who has lovely work, and Jones and Jackson who could get in, but let’s talk about Haley Scaman.

Scaman is in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Brandie Jay to see who can be the biggest three-event star who suddenly figures out beam in her senior year to become one of the nation’s top AAers. For Scaman, like Jay, it’s not an ability issue but a consistency issue, so we’ll see if she pulls it together. The team would be better for it because she has an extra level of splits and 9.9-potential (for a non-wobbleburger) than the other backups, but it hasn’t happened so far.

Floor

The reveal of the Oklahoma floor routines is now an anticipated event on par with the reveal of the UCLA floor routines, so I’ll take a moment to point out my feelings. Obviously, everyone will be losing their bacon about Chayse Capps, not just for the engaging choreography but also for the endurance feat it will be to commit to this routine and all the tumbling at the end of a competition. But I have to say I think I’m on the Ali Jackson train this year. Love it. Of course, they’re not all going to be hits (Jones’ routine is fairly dorky and the dreaded knocking-on-the-door mime has made a comeback in Lovan’s routine), but—and not to get overly Valorie on everyone—there’s enough thematic intent and commitment in the routines that I have an opinion about all of them, and that’s what makes routines like Oklahoma’s and UCLA’s memorable and worth discussing. (Blah, blah, blah, not exclusively, other schools, blah blah blah, before the letter bombs start.)

But let’s be clear, this lineup is the Haley Scaman show. She’ll contend for 10s and regularly go 9.950 again this season. The other sure bets for the lineup include Lovan, who has perfected the “I’m mounting with a rudi and still outscoring you, how’s your E pass?” routine, and Capps and Jackson. Both Capps and Jackson are capable of 9.9s but have at times struggled with landing control and received scores unbefitting their regal statuses. Capps is in the middle of an epic will-they-won’t-they with her mercurial DLO (Capps/DLO are like the Ross and Rachel of NCAA gym), and Jackson’s landings fell apart last postseason for 9.7 after 9.7 after 9.7. It was on floor that Oklahoma gave away the title last year with poor landings in spite of going 49.5s all season long, so keep an eye on how those critical passes develop.

Floor, among all the events, is also where a resurgent Jones will prove the most valuable this season, especially while sans Kanewa. Most of the other lineup options look to be in the pretty/low difficulty/twisty club (Brown, maybe Lehrmann and Marks), making Jones stand out even more with her very comfortable full-in. Hers has always been a potentially significant routine for the team, and in the absence of Dowell, she needs to jump into that role.

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#2 Florida Preview

It’s almost here! False start weekend is nearly upon us, with Michigan, Arkansas, and Iowa off on a Cancun vacation with a gymnastics meet in it (1/2, 7:15 ET/4:15 PT) and Central Michigan getting started on Sunday (1/3, 1:00 ET/10:00 PT). For the rest, there’s still time, but if you haven’t yet picked your fantasy gym team, pull your life together because the deadline is Sunday. I really need to work on my draft order. It’s a shambles.

Roster
Baker, Kennedy – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Boren, Alicia – Freshman
Boyce, Claire – Junior – UB, BB, FX
Caquatto, Bridgey – Senior – VT, UB, FX
Cheney, Amanda – Freshman
Dagen, Lacy – Freshman
Dancose-Giambattisto, Bianca – Senior – UB (possible BB)
Ernst, Peyton – Freshman
Fassbender, Ericha – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Frazier, Morgan – Senior – N/A
Hiller, Ashley – Freshman
McLaughlin, Grace – Sophomore – BB (possible UB, FX)
McMurtry, Alex – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB (possible FX?)
Sloan, Bridget – Senior – VT, UB, BB, FX

Recent History
2015 – 1st
2014 – 1st
2013 – 1st
2012 – 2nd
2011 – 7th
2010 – 5th

2016 Outlook
Three consecutive championships and a predominately (though not entirely) intact roster pretty much tells the story for Florida, a team that should consider anything other than a fourth title an unacceptable result this season. The two serious questions about the Gators’ chances in 2016 concern their ability to replace Kytra Hunter’s scores and the new coaching staff/absence of Rhonda Power, but with a freshman class talented enough to bring its own respectable bag of 9.9s and what is basically an all-star team of the nation’s top assistant coaches now at the helm, neither of those would be particularly convincing excuses for not winning. That’s not to say Florida is guaranteed to continue on the same not-losing path, but at this point there’s no good reason to expect real regression.

Key Competitor
Alicia Boren. It is essential this season that Florida find a person (or combination of people) to replicate what Kytra brought on vault and at least come close to replicating what she brought on floor, along with shoring up an occasionally too 9.850-9.875 beam lineup. With Ernst in the process of putting herself back together post-elite, that responsibility will primarily fall to Boren. She’s quite capable of being that gymnast, and her abilities on the power events should place her toward the end of both lineups right away. She is among the critical freshmen in the nation this year because without her replacing those lost scores, the Gators won’t have the comfortable collection of surplus 9.9s that has led them to success—even on just OK days—these past four years and will feel the pressure from Oklahoma and Alabama.

Vault

Florida started slowly on vault last season, to some extent by design, but was ultimately able to deliver a 49.450-49.500 lineup replete with enough 9.9s to rank consistently among the top few vaulting teams. That should continue this year led by four vaulters who all look like reliable 9.9 options. Sloan, Boren, and Baker each have a 1.5 to keep the Gators at a competitive SV level, the most appealing aspect of these 1.5s being that they’re not “possible, maybe, she has in the past” vaults like many I’ve discussed in these previews. They have them, and they’re good. McMurtry appears to be staying with the full, even though she could do more, which is a sensible choice because her full is among the few that can still go 9.900-9.950 this season. Expect more stuck yfulls to score 9.950 this year because it’s not THE TEN. The judges won’t be as guarded about giving a yfull a perfect score because a perfect 9.950 doesn’t stand out nearly as much as a 10.

Those four are locks and should keep this lineup on pace at 49.4 in spite of the SV decreases and loss of Hunter. Perhaps a half tenth to a tenth lower than last season, but not much more than that. The question is the remaining two spots, which were a bit of an issue last year and look entirely up for grabs right now, especially if Ernst doesn’t come along right away. With this roster, they’ll be able to produce perfectly fine 9.8s for any remaining spots, but the scoring onus will remain on the big four. Fassbender was borderline-lineup all last season and seems a fair bet to have a bigger role this year. As for Bridgey, she’s pretty much always in this lineup but has become progressively more troubling on vault as the seasons go by, getting taken out of the lineup for a while last year and ultimately falling in Super Six. Bridgey’s important scores are bars and floor, so if other compelling vault options present themselves, it may make sense just to take her off the event to avoid any issues. If the chance does arise, look for possible lineup upset bids from Hiller and Cheney who both performed quite respectable fulls in JO. 

Bars

The bars lineup remains the most intact from last season, so we should have pretty much identical expectations to the scores Florida received in 2015. Bridget Sloan is the Bridget Sloan of this lineup, always getting at least 9.900, then in line for a 9.950-10.000 depending on whether she sticks and whether it’s one of her bail-legs days. Sloan is on a streak of 22 consecutive bars routines scoring at least 9.900 (and she was only as low as 9.900 four times in that span) and a streak of 37 consecutive bars routines scoring at least 9.875. She hasn’t scored lower than that since a fall on January 13th, 2013. So she’s OK at bars.

Sloan’s #2 is Bridgey, who isn’t quite as likely to score 9.9+ because she’s somewhat less consistent on the landing, but she still reaches 9.900 pretty regularly. With those two hitting, Florida’s bars shouldn’t be scoring under 49.400 and can believably go 49.5s. For my money, this is the best bars lineup in the country. (Really going out on a limb there.) The interesting one to watch will be McMurtry, who has commenced Operation Haters To The Left in response to that time she scored a surrealist fantasy of a 9.950 in Super Six and we all got lost in a sandstorm about it. She’s suddenly pulling out a high, well-executed Ray that exists now and could help complete her two-year transformation from “a little Brestyan’s-y” to bars star. With the Ray and her dismount, there’s no reason to think McMurtry won’t continue getting 9.9s this year, especially if Jenny maintains Rhonda’s lineup strategy, but we’ll get to that more on floor.

In the opening acts of the lineup, Jam Buddhist is also good for 9.900 occasionally and at least 9.850 pretty much every time. KBakes (stop trying to make KBakes happen) also emerged as a constant last year, though she has more potential on bars than the 9.800-9.850 scores she was getting. I’m hoping she can step up 2 the streets to the 9.9s this season. Ideally, Ernst will join them to be yet another 9.9 possibility since bars and beam should be her events, but if not, there are plenty of other 9.800+ choices. This is Boren’s weaker event, but she’s not bad at it; it would be nice to see Grace McLaughlin make a lineup at some point; and Fassbender and Boyce (barring injury) have been reliable backups on bars as late.  

Beam

Florida scored well on beam last year, because Florida scored well on everything last year, but it was the team’s least memorable event and most likely to suffer from a case of the blahs/phew-we-didn’t-count-a-falls. A lot of that came from not having Sloan for a chunk of the year. She was wildly vital to the lineup and will remain so this season. With few other auto-9.9s, because beam, it’s that much more important for Sloan to go, “side aerial, double full, I’m the winner!” and collect her 9.925. For this to become a standout event and score with the impressive lineups the other top teams will be trotting out, however, Florida needs another consistently huge score, so let’s turn our attention to Peyton Ernst. She’s a beamer, always has been, and this is her critical event. It’s also the only event we’ve seen her on in the training videos, so everything works out. If Sloan is going to have a partner in beam crime in 2016, it will be Ernst.

Ernst will be particularly important as Claire Boyce tries to return from a hip injury. Boyce has been a find on beam for Florida and has scored some critical 9.9s over the last couple years, so while she works to come back, others have to pick it up. Let’s hope Kennedy Baker gets it together because she should be one of the top members of this lineup. She’s Kennedy Baker. She lost her spot in the middle of last season after falling several kajillion times on her wolf turn. So…just take out the wolf turn and then everyone’s a winner, right? Right. Boren is a solid powerhouse on beam, and another who sees a double back dismount as a walk in the park, so pencil her in along with McMurtry. McMurtry occasionally had a case of the nervies on beam last season, but more often she was in the very usable 9.850-9.875 ballpark. Those six would be an impressive lineup, but there are also backups/occasional competitors/consistency stopgaps in the likes of Fassbender, McLaughlin, and ideally Cheney who is quite nice on beam and should put together a routine with few deductions. I’m also still holding out for a hero in BDG, but the wobblies and the fallsies always seem to keep her out of the lineup.

It’s a good beam team, with the potential to be a great beam team if health, consistency, and the Jenny Rowland beam magic all do their part, but this is one event where Florida doesn’t look to be in the top, you know, one in the country. Keep an eye on this early in the year because if Florida is nailing beam for 49.4s and 49.5s, it’s going to be a long season for everyone else.

Floor

While Kytra Hunter was an all-around champion, it’s not a debate as to which of her events will be the most missed. It’s floor. That DLO, forever in our hearts. Florida can expect a bit of a dip from the “oops, we got a 49.600” floor rotations of last season without Kytra’s ability to cough and get a 9.975, though the back of the floor lineup remains quite healthy. Kennedy Baker’s piked double arabian actually doubles as a flu vaccine, and then Bridget Sloan. You know. They’re both almost as likely to score 9.950 as Hunter and will push Florida’s floor right toward the top of the heap once again. Boren has an excellent full-in herself and will fit right into the Sloan/Baker club with her fair share of 9.9s. Those three can take on any other floor trio in the country, so there’s really no need to worry. I know you were extremely worried.

Now, let’s get to the Bridgey conundrum. The most interesting part of Florida’s first meet against TWU will be finding out whether the new staff will indeed continue Rhonda’s much-criticized and much-effective decision to put Bridgey in the anchor spot, getting her a money bin full of 9.950s in spite of being not as good at floor as certain other people. Yes, it ends the floor rotation on a bit of a low, but making Bridgey the floor anchor and making McMurtry the bars anchor won Florida three championships, so it seems like kind of a no-brainer. But you never know. Plenty of other coaches haven’t caught on to this strategy in spite of, um, hi. So it’s something to watch. Those Bridgey 9.950s certainly help the team total, and she certainly wouldn’t be getting so many of them in the third spot.

What do we do about the other two spots, though? I’m not really sure. As long as these other floor routines are 9.850, everything will be fine because of the scoring strength of the main four. Florida is not in need of another star, but with Claire Boyce’s injury status, there are some Wang/Spicer spots open to be won. Fassbender seems like a pick since she’s the new Wang/Spicer (always 5th-7th on the depth chart on any event, ready to fill in), but there may be an experimentation fight to fill the lineup out. This roster has enough solid double pike routines that it won’t be a problem, but those solid routines still need to be found and cultivated into 9.850s. 

#3 Alabama Preview

Roster
Armbrecht, Abby – Freshman
Bailey, Katie – Junior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Beers, Lauren – Senior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Brannan, Mackenzie – Sophomore – VT, UB, FX (possible BB)
Bresette, Jenna – Freshman
Giancroce, Angelina – Freshman
Guerra, Ari – Freshman
Guerrero, Nickie – Sophomore – BB (possible VT)
Huang, Amanda – Freshman
Jetter, Amanda – Junior – UB, FX
Loeb, Jennie – Sophomore – N/A
McNeer, Keely – Junior – VT, UB, BB
Rickett, Avery – Freshman
Sanders, Mary Lillian – Junior – N/A
Sims, Aja – Junior – UB, BB, FX
Sims, Carley – Senior – VT, FX (possible UB, BB)
Valentin, Mackenzie – Junior – VT, FX
Winston, Kiana – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX

Recent History
2015 – 4th
2014 – 4th
2013 – 3rd
2012 – 1st
2011 – 1st
2010 – 3rd

2016 Outlook
Alabama enters 2016 as an obvious Super Six pick and one of the top few contenders for the championship, a deep roster that should be able to improve on the quality of last year’s team. Among the first-tier teams, that’s a claim that really only Alabama can make this season, which is probably the best argument for potential glory at this point in the year. Alabama performed well in 2015, right on track with the quality we expect every year, yet was always one notch behind the very best schools. The biggest scores were just out of reach. Even though the losses of Clark and Williams put a dent in Alabama’s scoring potential, between the injury comebacks of Winston and Bailey and the large class of freshman contributors, Alabama has gained more scores than lost and should be a more convincing contender for the title this time around.

Key Competitor
Kiana Winston. She’s the secret weapon this year and basically counts as a bonus freshman since she wasn’t able to come back fully last season. Winston was recruited to be an anchor-star for this team, so as the likes of Clark and Williams make way, it becomes more important for Winston to take up that mantle. To truly challenge Florida and Oklahoma (and not simply keep pace with last year’s performances), Alabama needs an extra injection of 9.9s across three or four events that wasn’t around last season, and Winston is the most likely to provide that. If she’s truly back and actually healthy for five consecutive minutes, she has both the power and execution to be a top all-arounder.

Vault

I’m interested to see how vault develops for Alabama this year. Because it’s Alabama and vault, the score needs to be a big deal, but the coaches have some decisions to make about difficulty. A number of people on the roster are capable of 1.5s, but Lauren Beers is coming off an offseason of surgeries and is a bit behind on vault and floor, while Mack Brannan, Nickie Guerrero, Ari Guerra, and Abby Armbrecht have all performed 1.5s in the recent past but lately have been working fulls. I’d expect to see 1.5s from at least a few of them this season, but in the case of someone like Brannan, she went down to the full last year because it was the better score. We’ll have to see if the 0.05 boost changes that or if the full is the still the more prudent vault. Regardless, there’s a sufficient mix of huge fulls and potential difficulty on the roster to see this as a 49.350-49.400 event again. The question is how consistently the 1.5s show up and if they help/are necessary. 

In addition to these vaulters, Carley Sims and Keely McNeer both scored well enough for their fulls last season in early lineup positions and should be able to go into the 9.8s again this year. I’d certainly add Winston to that mix along with perhaps Bresette, giving the team a healthy crop of powerful, high-amplitude options. And then there’s someone like Kenzie Valentin, who was an important vaulter for Arizona but hasn’t been close to getting a look for Alabama. Does having a 10.0 vault help her stock? With the cloud of difficulty looming over everyone this year and Alabama’s added depth, it may be tougher this season for past vaulters like Katie Bailey to make it back. She’ll be one of the choices, but it’s a serious 11-12 competitor fight, which means the team should be able to pick the very best 9.850+ fulls to go along with the 1.5s that do emerge.

Bars

Given the abilities and career track record of the gymnasts on this deep roster, Alabama shouldn’t really have a problem on bars this year, but as with many of the other teams across the country, Alabama has been bleeding bars 9.9s and counting a few too many 9.8s over the last year or so. Those 49.275s at nationals last year were not competitive enough, leaving at least some room for further stuck-in-the-49.2s worries this season. How much will we be missing those big, nailed Sledge/Clark/Jacob DLOs, or will the talent deliver? 

Jetter was supposed to be the next bars leader, but issues in landing that terrifying double front have rendered her more a supporting 9.850 than a scoring star, which means the duty falls to Kiana Winston this year to elevate the lineup. She has 9.9s in her, and with the official Bars Queen scepter still sitting unclaimed on its plush red pillow, the opportunity to begin her dynasty is there for the taking. Other occasional 9.9s will come from Katie Bailey and her famous full-out and Lauren Beers, who has suddenly become a bars worker late in her career and can power her way through a solid routine, though leg breaks and steps on her own double front can bring the score down. When those four have their dismounts clicking, this lineup will be strong and won’t have an excuse for going under the 49.3 plateau, but I am concerned about stepping to 9.825s.

The biggest factor making me bullish about Alabama’s chance this year is the fight for lineup spots on every event, and bars is no exception. Aja Sims has been a constant in this lineup for two seasons, but it’s one of those inexplicable routines that makes me feel like I’m taking crazy pills because her form is all over the place and then she gets a 9.875 for some reason. McNeer and Brannan are quite precise and alternated that leadoff spot last year for 9.850s, and both could comfortably jump into any remaining lineup spots themselves. This freshman class is not really a bars group, but bars has been the strength for Amanda Huang in her JO career, and Ari Guerra absolutely has the potential to put together Sarah DeMeo-style Alabama power routine at some point. While any of these nine could go, the biggest thing is finding a couple weekly 9.9s to get out of the medium scores. I nominate Winston and Bailey.

Beam

Talk about a fight for places. Just as a dearth of truly impressive bars routines is a theme in NCAA this year, the potential for an exceptional beam lineup carries through most of the top teams this year. This is not a season in which we should tolerate watching a lot of 9.825 blah beam. The talent is better than that. For Alabama, while the scores and consistency weren’t always so much with the great 2015, that beam lineup was the most pleasantly watchable Alabama beam team in quite a while, and the options have only increased this year, which should help extract the fallsies and wobblies, leaving only the goods. Whichever six are ultimately chosen, everyone in Alabama’s beam lineup will have the potential to go 9.9, and we can reasonably expect 49.400 for hit meets. 

This will, however, be a very challenging lineup to make. The star of the group is Aja Sims. None of the form crazies from bars carry over to her beam routine, where she shows exceptional splits and big difficulty that can go 9.950 multiple times per season. Keeping it going, Katie Bailey and Keely McNeer are both fluid in their work with a terminal case of the pretties. At various times, they have been held down to 9.850 by performing in the opening spot, but in wobble-free routines, they’re capable of more. Beers and Guerrero both made the lineup last season and perform with the more dominant, break-the-beam style we associate with Alabama, as does Ari Guerra, who would seem like an easy bet to join the lineup if there weren’t so many choices. For instance, Winston, who has seriously developed her splits, toe point, and form in the years following her elite career. Hers can be an important beam score, though I’m really rooting for Armbrecht’s smooth and elegant beam work to make the lineup as well. And that isn’t counting Huang, who is supposed to be a bars and beam specialist, and Giancroce, who has some memorable style. Jeepers. Too many talented options this year to end up with a lineup that goes 48.950/49.200 at nationals. There will be no need to keep using an inconsistent routine.

Floor

Alabama had a couple strong floor routines in last year’s lineup, which consistently scored well, but the departure of a couple wow routines from the previous season was pretty apparent as the Tide always came in a tenth or so behind the big 49.5ers. While very good (4th in the country, so it’s hard to complain), it wasn’t quite the dominant event Alabama’s floor is known for being. This year will probably be similar-to-slightly better, 49.350s and 49.4s, though expectations might elevate depending on how much Winston and Guerra are able to contribute. Guerra is a floor powerhouse with a huge DLO, and while Winston’s leg-injury history is cause for some restraint, she too has a DLO along with that same all-element proficiency from beam. If they join Beers and Carley Sims every week, this lineup starts to become much more competitive with the likes of LSU/Florida/Oklahoma for the best-in-the-country crown. It will be the DLO sisters this year, as Sims and Beers can both be expected to go 9.900 again for their “THIS DLO” themed routines.

For the remaining spots, Bailey, Brannan, Jetter, and occasionally Aja Sims have all proven the ability to go at least 9.850-9.875 every time and should see opportunities, with Brannan and Jetter usually the most likely to hit the 9.900 mark. Those eight provide enough options that the rest of the double-pike-a-thon roster will probably just act as backups, though Bresette did have a big double arabian back in the day, and while Valentin hasn’t done much on floor for Alabama, she does have a double front, so that’s always worth a mention. The key to success is probably Guerra since her specialty is floor, so if she emerges as a star, the state of the lineup will be strong. 

#4 Utah Preview

Roster
Delaney, Kailah – Senior – VT (possible BB, FX)
Hughes, Breanna – Senior – VT, UB (possible BB, FX)
Lange, Haley – Senior – N/A
Lee, Kari – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Lewis, Tiffani – Sophomore – VT, UB, FX
Lopez, Kassandra – Senior – UB, BB
McNatt, Shannon – Freshman
Merrell, MaKenna – Freshman
Muhaw, Erika – Freshman
Partyka, Samantha – Sophomore – VT
Rowe, Baely – Junior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Schwab, Sabrina – Freshman
Stover, Maddy – Sophomore – BB

Recent History
2015 – 2nd
2014 – 8th
2013 – 9th
2012 – 5th
2011 – 5th
2010 – 6th

2016 Outlook
The Utes couldn’t have hoped to do any better than they did at last season’s Marsden farewell celebration tour when the 49.5s suddenly poured straight out of the sky, but in the cold light of an onrushing 2016, things look very different. The holes in this roster are suddenly large and everywhere. Basically, Megan and Tom have to reconstruct half a team, and by necessity, returning gymnasts will be expected to compete events they weren’t making last season. That’s usually a recipe for regression, so don’t expect the same result as in 2015 (though no one really expected it in 2015 either).

The 2016 team we saw at the Red Rocks Preview does possess enough depth to put together competitive lineups, but without too, too many stars/stars-in-the-making, this looks like another season in which Utah will have to workmanlike-9.850 the other contending teams into submission to make it back to Super Six. That strategy has worked plenty of times before. The mission for Utah is to show more depth, constancy, and durability through whole lineups than Pac-12 peers UCLA and Stanford, who will have more 9.9s but may struggle to fill out the entire lineup with competitive scores.

Key Competitor
One underclassman who did emerge as a new bright light amidst that Dabritz/Lothrop ticker-tape parade of a 2015 season was Kari Lee. Most significantly, she brought an elevated level of extension and refinement that had been missing from the beam lineup, but she also has an exceptionally clean and stickable full on vault, a 9.900 floor routine, and a sufficiently usable bars routine that may actually be needed this year. Suddenly this season, she has become the most impressive gymnast on the roster, and she’ll have to lead the charge in creating the big nest of new 9.9s Utah needs to succeed in 2016.

Vault 

Vault was a tremendous strength for Utah last season, pushing the team right into the vicinity of a title with a whole host of 9.925s and controlled landings (that survived all the way to the championship instead of disappearing around February!). In 2016, however, there’s more reason to question Utah’s viability as a vault powerhouse because of the changes in roster and start value. Kailah Delaney is the one remaining member of the 9.950-a-trons, and while she will once again be an essential component of the lineup, her vault remains a full. That means she’ll be looking at something closer to 9.875-9.900s most weeks, useful scores but not dominant scores.

The member of Utah’s team who will benefit the most from the new vault values is Breanna Hughes. I remember when Hughes first arrived at Utah and I was all up in her 1.5 being a centerpiece of the vault lineup. That never happened even a little, but it has always been a solid vault and one that she stuck in the RRP. This is finally her year to become a vaulter. The coaches should put her difficulty 5th with Delaney 6th to push that Delaney score up as much as possible. Note that you’re going to get very sick of me complaining about vault lineup orders this season. MaKenna Merrell also had a 1.5 in JO, though she showed just a full in the preview, which makes sense because the full was only OK. I’m not sold on her difficulty or placement in the lineup as yet. She might get Hughesed for a while.

The rest of the lineup will be fulls, unless McNatt and her Omelianchik materialize. Kari Lee will certainly be back for 9.850-9.875s since her full is second-best to Delaney’s. Beyond that, a collective of 9.825-9.850 fulls will compete for the remaining three (or so) spots including Lewis, Partyka, Rowe, and Muhaw. It’s a solid contingent, but losing the Dabritz and Wilson vaults will most certainly be felt in the scores. I still like this lineup for an RQS around 49.350, but it doesn’t look like the 49.5s of recent days.

Bars

I should probably refrain from writing this section because reality has proven that I just don’t get it with Utah’s bars and the scoring. It eludes me. Right now, I look at the nine or ten options Utah has on bars this year, and they all look around 9.800-9.850 to me. Which means they’ll go 49.600 at nationals. But still, it seems inevitable that the Utes will experience a noticeable drop-off post-Dabritz because, you know, there’s not another auto-10 just hanging out on the roster. Given the lost routines, ending up a couple tenths lower than last year’s bars scores seems a realistic outlook.

A lot of these routine options look pretty similar right now, so expect some mixing and matching with the ultimate lineup spots determined by stickability. The stalwarts should be Lopez, who has been a bars constant for a thousand years and has always scored well, and Baely Rowe, who was a reliable 9.850 all last season. Across the whole team, though, Rowe’s bars work looked the most improved at this year’s preview, with a better finishing position on her full turn, tidy legs on the bail, and a stuck DLO, so I could see her scoring higher this season. As for the new ones, I’m most looking forward to seeing Sabrina Schwab develop as a bars worker. She has the best line and toe point on the roster, so if they can put together competitive difficulty for her with a dismount she can stick, she’ll be a future bars star. In the present, she at least needs to be an integral early-mid lineup piece.

The remaining merry band of 9.8s is large enough to allay any depth worries. Tiffani Lewis will be a thing. Her tkatchev is now a jaeger this year, which is a shame because I enjoyed her tkatchev the most on the team (Utah’s tkatchevs tend to look a little clunky and lack the counter-rotation the best ones have), but her routine should score about the same as last season. Breanna Hughes didn’t have a great year on bars in 2015 and often got stuck in the 9.7s, so she’ll have to fight for the leftover spots with the likes of Lee, Partyka, and Merrell. While bars does look like a perfectly fine 49.200-49.250 event, this is now a lineup without showcase routines, and that can be a recipe for getting stuck in the 9.825s. 

Beam

Beam has been an issue to varying degrees for Utah for several centuries now, almost costing the Utes the season at regionals last year and, even on better days, often getting stuck in the 9.800 purgatory of meh. Among the underclassmen, however, Utah is going through a medium-level beam renaissance that should provoke greater expectations both for scores and elegance this season. Beam will still be abjectly terrifying in terms of consistency without Lothrop, but multiple members of the lineup have real 9.9 potential, even away from home.

The sophomores Lee and Stover will have to be the da Vincis of this renaissance. Lee’s fluidity and precision make her the best beamer on the team, and while Stover struggled with a case of the wobblies and got too many 9.7s early in the 2015 season, she can be just as strong and should emerge as a lineup leader this year. It has taken Baely Rowe a little while to become the beamer she was supposed to be when she started, so while she still has the occasional hilarious fall/wobble, hers is a more reliable score these days. Those three will be the core of the lineup and three best scores, but I like the freshmen Merrell and Schwab to join them to augment beam away from 49.150-49.200 and toward 49.300s. Both have the line and potentially not-awful splits to develop into constants. They did look extremely tentative and terrified about all of life’s ills in their performances at the RRP, but that happens. If they can work through it, they could even help make beam almost a strength for Utah. I said it.

For any remaining spots, just roll the dice and see who ends up the most consistent because it all looks a little too scary right now. Though I do need to give 100 self-aware bonus points to Breanna Hughes for picking beam music with the lyrics “I’m a little unsteady.” We know. We’re all in this together, Breanna.

Floor

Oops, the floor lineup’s gone. Where did it go? Floor was a huge event for Utah last season and a reliable 49.4+ most weeks, but every single person has left now including the auto-9.9s from Dabritz and Tutka. Don’t expect last year’s performance to carry over into this year. Floor will still go 49.4 sometimes because the best schools always do here and there, but it won’t consistently be the same strength without that pack of dominant floor performers and big bang-bang landings. 

Continuing the theme, Lee becomes the de facto leader of this lineup as the best returning score on the roster. Her triple full is a consistent, if staggered, landing, and by not giving away much in the dance elements, she’s good for a 9.900 for any mostly controlled routine. I also expect Tiffani Lewis to emerge as a serious score on floor this season. She was a clean, early-lineup double pike last year, but she has since added a pretty solid full-in and seems to be on track toward becoming the new Tutka. I’d expect those two to lead, but Rowe will necessary again and Delaney has always been pecking around the vicinity of this lineup. She may finally get her chance with all these new spots opening up. Among the freshmen, Merrell will also see some time, and Schwab showed plenty of floor potential as a JO gymnast. If Lewis is to be new-Tutka, then it looks like Schwab is being made into new-Damianova, the one with the simpler “I’m being artistic” D-pass routine who can get scores through cleanliness.

As on the other events, there are a bunch of 9.8y looking options for any leftover spots, which is one of the reasons I still like the Utes to have a good season. They have retained a worthwhile and complete batch of usable options to fill out the lineups with room to spare. There’s Partyka, Hughes, yada yada yada. Stover has good twisting form. I actually thought Lopez looked the best of the rest in the RRP, which was surprising since she has made this lineup a grand total of never before. I’ll be rooting for that one. Love a senior making a lineup she never has before.

#5 LSU Preview

Roster
Cannamela, Julianna – Freshman
Ewing, Sydney – Junior – VT, BB, FX
Finnegan, Sarah – Freshman
Gauthier, Michelle – Senior – backup BB, FX
Gnat, Ashleigh – Junior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Hambrick, Myia – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Kelley, McKenna – Freshman
Li, Lauren – Sophomore – backup VT, UB, FX
Macadaeg, Erin – Sophomore – VT, BB
Moran, Kylie – Sophomore – N/A
Priessman, Lexie Lee – Freshman
Savona, Jessica – Senior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Szafranski, Kaitlyn – Freshman
Wyrick, Randii – Senior – UB (backup VT, FX)
Zamardi, Shae – Junior – UB (backup FX)

Recent History
2015 – 10th
2014 – 3rd
2013 – 5th
2012 – 9th
2011 – 20th
2010 – 9th

2016 Outlook
LSU enters 2016 wallowing in the aftermath of an extremely disappointing collapse at nationals last year (THE FRESHMAN LOST HER MIND) and, much more significantly, the departure of the class that lifted this program back into the big time. So, some trepidation about this season is understandable. It seemed that LSU would be relying on a super-talented, but often MIA and legs-made-of-dust, freshman class to have a shot at repeating the top-three quality of the last couple years. Very dangerous territory. Thankfully, the complete and solid-for-December lineups LSU put up in the preseason showcase (without Priessman and Kelley) were very reassuring as to the status and competitive ability of the returning core of this team. LSU is a Super Six team even if the big-name freshmen aren’t able to deliver significant numbers, and will challenge for the title if they are.

Key Competitor
I’m going with Ashleigh Gnat. Gnat spent the first two years of her LSU career hanging out around the 4th spot on her main events, a prominent contributor on whom the team relied for scores but not necessarily the lineup leader or an absolutely essential score. When she had the occasional bad one, Courville and Jordan (or Hall on floor) were there to pick up the slack and save a great rotation total. Without them, Gnat will be expected to anchor multiple lineups and get 9.9s on vault, beam, and floor every single time, which is a new role and a new level of responsibility. In the absence of Courville, she has to become a Courville to keep LSU on track. 

Vault 

Under ideal health circumstances, LSU’s vault lineup will be Gnat, Priessman, Savona, Ewing, Kelley, and Hambrick. That’s a serious 49.4+ group even without the benefit of Courville’s mile-long vault (the start-value change also mitigates LSU’s vault losses since Courville and Jordan wouldn’t have scored as well this year anyway). Gnat continues to vault the DTY, which is developing into a US-elite level DTY that would provoke a tropical storm of Amanar rumors were she elite and competing it at Classic. She’ll be the head vaulter for the Tigers, and let’s hope the new values adequately reward her difficulty now instead of giving her a 9.875 every time and placing her on par with average yurchenko fulls.

When Priessman is able (she’s expected to return on at least bars by mid-January), she’s more than capable of producing a 10.0 SV since her Amanar remained only somewhat terrifying all the way through 2012, after which she was completing DTYs quite easily. Complementing those two will be Savona and Ewing, who both made their way into the vault lineup last season with sufficiently powerful 1.5s that will be even more valuable this year. With what should be four 10.0 starts and two other strong fulls, this lineup boasts both the difficulty and the execution to be a top-four vaulting team. At least. For the remaining fulls, I’d go with Kelley for her power and Hambrick for her incredible perfect perfection made of perfect. Her vault is a total joy and one of the few that qualifies as artistic. She can still hit 9.900 with a full this year.

When any of these six aren’t available, both Cannamela and Macadaeg have perfectly acceptable fulls (Macadaeg has nice pop but isn’t as steady on the landing) that should be able to score into the 9.8 range themselves and keep everything on track.

Bars

Bars is the worry event. While the Tigers have more than enough 9.800-level gymnasts to put together a workable lineup, they’ve been bleeding bars leaders for the last couple seasons in Morrison and now Courville and Jordan, leaving the team with mostly supporting characters and few stars. Conclusion: Sarah Finnegan. Finnegan has the toes, handstands, and general “she’s Sarah Finnegan” to become one of the strongest bars workers around, especially now that she can get rid of a few of those pesky elite skills that gave Elfi a case of the post-diarrhea moans at 2012 Trials. Finnegan will need to become the new 9.9er. Priessman must also contribute, though her bars execution score in elite was not always so much with the great. Still, paring down to NCAA skills should give her something cleaner that can be a definite mid-lineup routine if not necessarily a starring routine the way Finnegan’s should be. On twitter, Yosemite Clark took a short break from being the whole problem to post a video of her routine, which was fine if a little whippy in the DLO and a little leg-breaky in the pak.

These freshmen must boost the competitiveness of this group since LSU doesn’t return very many natural bars workers. There is Zamardi, who developed into a good 9.850-9.900 last year after being MIA her freshman year. Zamardi’s double arabian dismount still scares the bejesus out of me, but she has proven a consistently countable score. Wyrick will also return to the lineup. Hers is not a memorable routine, but she doesn’t give away much in form and can go 9.900 at times too. With those four, LSU can be on track for 49.300, which is perfectly fine. Beyond them, however, the team will be relying on people who might prefer if the bars would just go crawl into a corner and die, like Savona and Gnat. Both contributed for 9.800s last year but have enough leg and angle issues to keep their scores below what a championship team should be getting. Hambrick is another choice (but she struggles with consistency), Kelley has a routine although it’s also not her event, and at some point Cannamela should develop into either a solid 1st/2nd routine or a safely usable reserve. Enough people exist to stay above water, but the question is how often this lineup will get stuck in the 9.825-9.850s/49.200s, especially early in the season if Finnegan and Priessman aren’t all that right away.

Beam

The loss of Courville and, especially, Jordan introduces a lot more terror and drama into the beam lineup this year. How many times did Jessie Jordan save everything in the 6th spot? LSU’s biggest mission on beam this year is finding a new queen bee who can hit even when everyone else is terrible. Theoretically the team still earns enough lovely points to make this event a huge asset, but can they survive the rotation or will they fall into a pit of lava a la nationals? 

This is why Gnat must develop into a rock as an upperclassman. She has a tendency to get a little 9.7y in important moments and was one of the falls at nationals, and that has to go. She must be the solid lineup savior in case any member of the triumvirate of perfect finds that she’s just feeling too beautiful to stay on the beam that day. Obviously, by triumvirate of perfection, I mean Finnegan, Macadaeg, and Hambrick. The style, the elegance, the Kathy Johnson moans! Hambrick and Macadaeg both had hitting problems last year, but they’re lovely, give away almost no built-in deductions, and must return to the lineup. Finnegan is still doing the triple wolf, because she just wants to hurt me, but I suppose I can allow it since hers is not horrible looking. Regardless, she’ll be the same woodland beam heiress she always has been and will get a 20 every week.

I’d definitely take Priessman for another spot and then conduct an American Gladiator-style joust between Ewing and Kelley for the remaining place. Those are seven serious options and huge potential scores. When Lexie Priessman is the 5th person I mention on an event, you know it’s good. If they can actually figure out hitting, they can score with any team and should be right up there with Oklahoma and UCLA.

Also a couple notes from the preseason showcase: 1) Jessica Savona looked good. Where did that beam routine come from? Even the splits were solid. She might cause an upset by knocking out Ewing or Kelley or an inconsistent member of the triumvirate. 2) Every switch side was super crooked. Fix, please.

Floor

It’s LSU and floor, so even though Hall, Courville, and Jordan are no more, don’t expect the team to fall off in any significant way in 2016. Sure, there may not be anyone getting Hall 10s, but in time, this roster should develop enough 9.900-9.950 options to remain among the strongest floors in the country. The freshmen can be just as good as the departing routines. For both Priessman and Kelley, floor is the obvious specialty. It was Priessman’s floor tumbling and secure landing of difficult acro that had her on many people’s Olympic forecast during her larval stage, and Kelley is just a concentrated rubber ball of DLO/Mary Lou energy. That extreme-facial-reactions LSU judge is going to fall into the sky about McKenna Kelley. When healthy (and Kelley is supposed to be back to full strength for the beginning of the season), these two late lineup powerhouses should rack up the 9.9s.

The other members of the 9.9 brigade will be Gnat and Savona. Early in Gnat’s career she struggled with tumbling pass consistency, but last year she was a weekly 9.9 (ending the season on a streak of nine consecutive floor scores of 9.900 or greater, which is pretty impressive). As for Savona, the majority of her floor routines are worthy of 9.900, though last season she was getting stuck with some 9.850s in the first spot. Promoted back out of that spot this year, she should score pretty close to Gnat. These four will keep LSU in the 49.4s. Ewing competed consistently last season, so count on her to return with her front 2/1 and acceptable twisting form, along with perhaps Hambrick or Wyrick. Both of them competed in the preview and are opening with E passes this season, making it pretty likely that LSU will have six E-pass floor routines this season. As for Sarah Finnegan, she got the requisite “she’s the artistic one” Jessie Jordan choreography this year, though there are sufficient floor options that the team will have the luxury of saving Finnegan for bars and beam depending on how bubble-wrapped she needs to be.

#6 UCLA Preview

Roster
Brow, Matteah – Freshman
Bynum, Sadiqua – Senior – VT, FX
Cipra, Angi – Junior – VT, FX (possible BB)
DeJesus, Sophina – Senior – UB, BB, FX
Dennis, Rechelle – Sophomore – possible backup UB
Francis, Danusia – Senior – UB, BB, FX (we all saw that full in Glasgow so no more pretending you can’t VT)
Gerber, Mikaela – Junior – BB, FX
Hall, Pua – Sophomore – FX (VT, please)
Honest, Janay – Sophomore – VT, UB, FX
Lee, Peng Peng – Junior – VT, UB, BB (FX, please)
Meraz, Sonya – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Metcalf, Melissa – Sophomore – UB
Mossett, Hallie – Junior – UB, BB, FX
Ohashi, Katelyn – Freshman
Preston, Madison – Freshman
Savvidou, Stella – Freshman
Shapiro, Nicki – Freshman
Toronjo, Macy – Freshman – (out with should injury)

Recent History
2015 – 11th
2014 – 7th
2013 – 4th
2012 – 3rd
2011 – 2nd
2010 – 1st

2016 Outlook
UCLA has suffered a gradual descent ever since the grand Anna Li coronation of 2010, a descent that picked up a little speed in the last year or so. 11th. The future is certainly bright for the Bruins, as the Ross/Kocian/Ohashi sparkleplosion moves closer and closer to reality, but for the present, the mission is figuring out how to improve on last season’s unconvincing result, now without Sam Peszek to go up 6th and fix all the bad scores.

Even without Her Lady of 9.900s, this remains a talented roster that should be able to put together another cusp-of-Super-Six season. A successful result for UCLA would be built on using the back half of lineups to out-9.9 teams like Michigan, Georgia, and Utah, and given the capabilities of gymnasts like Ohashi, Lee, and Francis, that’s quite possible. If all three are healthy and competing all their events at the end of the year (because apparently we live in a world of make believe), this can still be an extremely impressive team even before Kyla saves everyone just by looking at us. What’s holding the Bruins back from being a favorite right now is the selection of viable supporting scores. Who else is there besides the big three? And can they legitimately bring enough 9.850-9.900 routines to make UCLA a full competitive team rather than just a couple appealing stars and the rest? Which brings me to…

Key Competitor(s)
Sophina DeJesus and Angi Cipra. Playtime is over. These two very talented upperclassmen have underachieved so far and must do more this year for the team to thrive. On their best events, and even some of their not-best events, DeJesus and Cipra need to be scoring near the same level as Francis and Lee to give the team a nationally competitive complement of scores. Without Peszek, there’s nowhere for them to hide anymore. They must step up to fill that void and become scoring leaders, not just accessory pieces who occasionally stumble upon a 9.900, because if they don’t who else will? DeJesus has always been capable of starring on beam and floor rather than just getting a 9.800 and a [scene missing]. Floor really should be her best event, and with that Sophina spitfire routine she has this year, the lineup needs her. Cipra is currently the strongest floor worker on the team, and the Bruins now depend on her too much to be able to tolerate those occasional falls and 9.7s from the last two seasons. She has to go 9.9+, and do it every time, along with serious contributions on vault and ideally beam (her beam talent is greater than her no-routines-ever career would suggest).

We can probably put Hallie Mossett in this category as well. This trio needs to have a “by your powers combined” Captain Planet moment to unite and create that final magnificent star gymnast the team needs in order to challenge the best schools.

Vault

I count enough vaulters to form an acceptable lineup, but the real worry is going to be difficulty. Most top teams have a few vaulters who did a 1.5 in JO/elite and might be able to bring it back, but the large majority of UCLA vaulters from last season appear maxed out at their current amount of yurchenko twisting. The Bruin vault approach may end up being to squeeze all possible tenths out of fulls rather than going for a bunch of 10.0 SVs. Or, is it vault-teaching time again? Who wants to learn an Omelianchik? The answer should be everybody because it’s the best.

The options returning from last year’s lineup are predominately early lineup/backup vaults, with Cipra capable of a relatively solid-scoring full as long as the landing works out, Meraz and Honest both bringing perfectly OK 9.750-9.800 fulls, Bynum occasionally scoring well for her y1/2 (but also occasionally landing short and getting a 9.7), and Peng vaulting a very beautiful full when she’s able. Peng’s vault is gorgeous, but because of her injury history of “all of them, all the time,” it’s not the kind of vault a lineup can rely on. This returning group looks extremely 49.1 right now, so the new ones are going to have to bring it. At least a little. A little bringing. I’ve been wary about expecting too much from Ohashi on vault and floor just because the high priestess must be protected at all costs, but this lineup needs her. She must vault, as must Preston. Vault was usually Preston’s best event in JO, with a high and very clean full, so if she has sufficiently recovered from her 2015 bout with Mary Lee Leg, she’ll be an integral piece.

Let’s also take a moment to address the Pua Hall situation. Hall was a vault recruit, intended to shore up this lineup in the wake of the “we’re forcing Niki Tom to vault because there’s literally nothing else to do” years. Hall was very strong in JO and has an all-important 1.5 but vaulted a grand total of never last season. That has to change this year. This vaulting squad is too thin to have a 1.5 twiddling her thumbs. If Hall/Preston/Ohashi are actually able to boost the depth, they’ll be looking closer to the 49.250-49.300 territory than the dreaded 49.1s.

Bars

Welp, Peng already has a thumb injury, so let’s just cancel bars. The preseason thumb injury strikes a major blow to this lineup because how much bars training is Peng going to be able to do? And when? The team really relies on her here not just to be the best routine but to get those 9.950s to cancel out some early 9.800s. When available, she makes bars an asset event for the Bruins.

DeJesus is critical, even more so when Peng can’t be leaned on. Sophina needs to recover on bars this year and have another 2014 season (9.915 RQS), not a 2015 season (9.845 RQS). The form break on the gienger and the knee-eating dismount landing can hurt her scores, so it’s all the more important that she stick to try to trick everyone into forgetting that those are things. It happens. The other vital returning routine comes from Danusia. It’s a simpler bars routine, with just the double pike dismount, but she has developed into a precise and deduction-free bars worker, getting multiple 9.900s in the leadoff spot last season. The only change that needs to happen with Danusia’s bars is taking a page out of the Rhonda playbook and putting her in the 6th spot to really squeeze out those scores. Her routine is clean enough to take advantage of that. Mossett will also return with a mid-lineup-type routine, much improved post-stalder though still occasionally susceptible to inconsistency of form and getting a weird 9.6.

Ohashi went teetotal on bars for a while after shaking off elite, but she eventually returned to training and will need to use that gorgeous jaeger to be another Peng. As on all the events, her capability is astronomical, so it’s just a matter of where she is physically at this point. There’s a dearth of guaranteed 9.9s on bars, so Ohashi will need to be one. Melissa Metcalf was out last season, but she’s supposed to be a legitimate bars worker and will be called upon for real scores this year as well. If they can actually get this exact group together, it’s a 49.300 team, but we may see the same struggles in figuring out the early lineup positions as last season, when UCLA finished 11th on bars. Other options will come from Meraz and Honest, both of whom were needed last year and will likely see time this year, but again those are 9.750-9.800 routines that would ideally be backups rather than counters.

Beam

Beam is the most exciting event for UCLA by several fathoms. Even without Peszek, this is an impressive and beautiful group (if slightly more nerve-wracking, yikes) that should remain one of the top two or three beam lineups in the country. This is where UCLA can earn those big 49.4s and develop a buffer over the teams that are really happy to get a 49.1. The only problem is that it’s beam and will also sometimes be a 48.2 because of beam reasons. Still, rapidly excited clapping for the Francis, Peng, Ohashi trio.

Those three bring serious difficulty, excellent form on both acro and dance, and standout signature skills. All will be in line for 9.9+ for their best work, or sometimes not even their best work. Figuring out the other three spots, however, will be an interesting little road. There’s serious competition for those roles, enough so that the Bruins should eventually be able to settle on a consistent six that also boasts the scoring potential to get into 49.4+ range. This roster has enough beamers that there’s really no excuse for an inconsistent lineup once the season really gets going and the January “exploring depth” 194s are done. Sophina seems the most likely to take one of the remaining spots since she has proven the ability to get 9.9s, even if she sometimes gives away tenths she shouldn’t be giving away. My preference for the other two spots would be the freshmen Preston and Shapiro, both of whom showed beam series in the season preview and have great style on this event, though I still also want to see Cipra get a real shot at making the lineup. Meraz carved out a spot for herself last year because of her extremely solid work. It’s not going to be a huge-scoring routine, but it’s one of the more reliable options if consistency becomes a worry. She can Raisman out a 9.800 for them any time. There’s also Gerber and Mossett, who have competed beam at times and can both be lovely if extremely tentative and heart-attacky.

See? Options. At least 10 that the team could live with. At this point, I kind of wish UCLA could put up 8 beamers and 4 bars workers.

Floor
http://player.ooyala.com/player.js?embedCode=0wdzlpeToueK3ldYjNZPBP3ts0T-I1lD&playerBrandingId=31ae5dc1510842789fbbb8c0a9ff1535&width=676&deepLinkEmbedCode=0wdzlpeToueK3ldYjNZPBP3ts0T-I1lD&height=380

We were given a partial glimpse of this year’s UCLA floor routines already, and while it’s not the full group and is missing some of the essential routines we’ll see this year, there’s a lot to like. The issue for the last couple of years has been that the team’s best dancers, like Sophina, don’t make the floor lineup (so we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out), but for the most part these routines are sporty, energetic, and acrobatic, which I enjoy as a style. Overall, there’s too much miming and mugging for the audience for my taste—which is not usually a feature of UCLA floor routines—but it’s hard to judge that until we see them for realsies. Cipra’s routine has some of my favorite choreography in the group, but the mugging is overpowering in this one. That ringtone is also what I use for an alarm, so her routine automatically makes me feel equally furious and panicked, which I don’t think is what they’re going for. But really, who wants to be reminded of having to talk on the phone when watching gymnastics? Nightmare-themed routine. Of course, we all know the ultimate floor verdict won’t be about choreography. It will be about landings. So they get an incomplete for the moment.

Cipra needs to be the star of the floor group this year. She’s capable of getting huge scores but has often been held back by trying to add the full-in and struggling with the landing. It’s more important for her to have a routine she feels comfortable landing than it is for her to have an E pass. If she’s able to do the full-in, then great, but if not, just keep it down to a double pike and Syd Sawa her in the anchor spot. Sawa got a 10 doing that. Bynum will also be essential here. She has proven the ability to get 9.9s on floor, but she also has a tendency to throw in a short landing and can get hit for not-super-180 dance elements. Hers is not going to be a major score every single time. Danusia should also score exceptionally well and often awesome-flexibilities her way to 9.9s, though the chest-position monster can be an obstacle when she does the whip to double back. That will be something to watch.

The other three spots are open to be won. Ohashi and Sophina showed choreography in the preview, so if the tumbling is actually there and not terrifying, both should be a go for the lineup. Should. Any spots not already filled will need to be taken by the supporting cast of Honest, Mossett, Gerber, and Meraz, all of whom can dance around the 9.800-9.850 area. We also saw Pua Hall at the end of last season, going out of bounds on a seriously misguided double arabian, but she’ll be in the mix as well. It’s a potentially inconsistent group, but if the leaders like Cipra and Bynum can cut out the random 9.700-9.825s, floor should score pretty competitively, especially at home, if lacking the difficulty of other top teams. 

Edited to add that I definitely forgot Stella Savvidou was a person, but she’s now with the team as well. Depth! Depth?

#7 Michigan Preview

Roster
Artz, Nicole – Junior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Brown, Brianna – Sophomore – VT, UB, BB, FX
Casanova, Briley – Senior – VT, UB, BB, FX
Chiarelli, Talia – Junior – VT, BB, FX
Christopherson, Nichelle – Sophomore – UB
Gordon, Ilana – Sophomore – N/A
Karas, Olivia – Freshman
Marinez, Lauren – Sophomore – UB, BB
McLean, Emma – Freshman
McPeak, India – Sophomore – (backup VT, BB, FX)
Sheppard, Austin – Senior – VT, UB (possible FX)
Williams, Lindsay – Senior – UB, BB, FX

Recent History
2015 – 7th
2014 – 10th
2013 – 7th
2012 – 13th
2011 – 6th
2010 – 10th

2016 Outlook
It’s time for Michigan to make it back to Super Six. I’m putting it out there. It’s been too long. The Wolverines got very close last season, much closer than I expected they would, and this year’s team is at least equivalent to that team if not slightly stronger (perhaps a bit better on beam and a bit weaker on bars to even out?). They have the AA leaders along with the 9.9 specialist contributors to make a run at it, as long as they don’t have another repeat of the viral meningitis breakdown that thwarted their exhibition meet this month. Develop some kind of advanced quarantine training facility, and this is a Super Six team. No question. The serious worry is the size of the team, as we learned from the exhibition. Michigan does have six strong options on every event—what at this point look like more complete lineups than the likes of Stanford and UCLA—but the well of backups is far from replete. They will be perpetually on the cusp of destruction should a vital injury befall them.

Key Competitor
Olivia Karas. Because the Wolverines have a relatively small contingent of contributors, they will once again be reliant on that same group of top AAers and three-eventers to provide the large majority of 9.9s. The significant change to the roster from last season is the loss of Sachi Sugiyama, and success in 2016 will largely hinge on Karas’s ability to fill the Sugiyama role in each lineup and be a major scoring leader on at least three events. She was a star in JO and is very capable of being a star in NCAA, but unlike many freshmen she will not be given the leeway to start slowly or hide behind that flimsy “acclimating to college” excuse for underperforming. The team needs her to be great from week one.

Vault

Michigan’s best asset on vault this year will be 10.0 start values. The team was fine (though not fantastic) on vault last season, but over the summer and fall, they have worked to develop a nearly complete lineup of viable, difficult vaults with full SVs. In many ways, Michigan will be the test case for whether it really is advisable to throw out new, more difficult vaults in an effort to get that couple-tenth advantage. It will be fun to compare Michigan’s results pushing the 10.0 vaults to some of the teams that opt to play it safer and maintain a predominately yfull lineup. Which strategy works better? Are teams rewarded for playing up the difficulty now, or will execution deductions on potentially less comfortable vaults negate any SV advantage, rendering fulls the better choice? If you’re a respectable dork, you’re really excited to find out the answer to these questions. 

Karas has been vaulting a high and impressive 1.5 for a while now, and Chiarelli is very capable of bumping up the difficulty on her vault without enduring much of an execution knock because of obvious Brestyan’s reasons. I’d expect those two to lead the scoring, along with Sheppard when she is able to return from yet another leg injury. Sheppard is also capable of pushing the difficulty, but leg injuries, comebacks, and all that. Just get her into the lineup doing whatever. Casanova has always been pecking around the edge of the vault lineup, but stepping back up to a 1.5 herself should tip the balance in her favor and get her into that six. She (mostly) stuck her 1.5 in the exhibition, so that’s an encouraging sign.

But that’s not all! Perhaps most interestingly, Artz has learned a front handspring, handspring front pike vault that also starts from a 10 and should be a delight to watch progress this season. This is the one that makes me a little nervous, but I don’t care because I love that vault so much. Even if Sheppard stays with the full, it’s a fantastic full that will still be one of the best scores on the team, and these five should give Michigan a healthy start toward a great vault total. It’s a potentially risky strategy by going for so many challenging landings in one lineup, but it’s also an exciting one. In the final spot, I like Emma McLean since she showed a pretty powerful full in JO, but Brianna Brown did well last season with 9.800-9.850 vaults, so she’ll be another realistic option, especially until Sheppard is ready. There aren’t many choices after that, which is somewhat unnerving, but if they can get through this year using a combination of those seven without having to eat a low score from a backup, this can be a true 49.3-49.4 lineup. 

Bars

I have a few more questions about the condition of things on bars this season. This is still a good bars team and probably a top-8 bars team, but they’ll miss Sachi Sugiyama the most on this event because there isn’t an obvious replacement waiting to take over for a 9.875-9.900. While there are enough options to round out a comfortable lineup, it’s not necessarily a strength for many of them and 9.9s may be at a premium. Brown will be essential once again as the gymnast most likely to get those 9.9s with her superior amplitude and precision through handstands. She’s the true bars specialist on this team, who provides the added bonus of being solid in the AA. Artz should also pop into the 9.9s from time to time, but the rest of the options look more likely to be 9.825-style contributors. Because of the two leaders, it’s a lineup that still should be able get 49.300, if finding it a bit more difficult to get those 49.4s from last season without a final high-scoring piece. 

I’m interested to see Lauren Marinez come into the lineup here, but more interested in her beam so we’ll get to her in a second. Casanova and Williams have also been stalwarts in this lineup for 9.800-9.850, so I’d also pick them to return; Sheppard has grown into a bars worker with humongous amplitude, though form breaks and a slightly terrifying dismount will always keep her out of the biggest scores; and Christopherson competed a couple times last season for 9.8s. The coaching staff will be able to play with pieces and see if they can induce another Beilstein/Sheppard transformation from someone. As for the freshmen, both can and will contribute bars routines this year, though it’s not the preferred event for either. Karas has added a DLO dismount to make her composition more competitive, but there still are form breaks throughout the routine. Aside from the locks, Brown and Artz, it feels like an any-of-the-above selection right now. All of these options can probably score similarly, but one of them needs to turn into a new 9.9 this year to make this an asset event.

Beam

Beam hasn’t always been a lovely ride for Michigan, and by that I mean you already died of a heart attack about three years ago. But lately Michigan has suddenly been like, “Guess who’s the most consistent beam team in the NCAA, because it’s us. So eat that.” The Wolverines didn’t score below 49 on beam at any time last year, which is insane and cause for optimism in 2016 as all of the most significant contributors return, along with some exciting new prospects. In the past, a lack of consistently huge scores has kept the lineup closer to 49.2s than Oklahoma/UCLA-style 49.5s (which totally acceptable because it’s beam and you’d take a 49.2 any day), but the additions of Karas and Marinez should boost expectations. Karas is a secure beam worker with excellent amplitude on her acro elements, and Marinez has always been completely lovely on beam. If Marinez has the confidence and consistency, she should be a majorly impressive beamer for 9.9s.

Those two will join Artz, Brown, and Chiarelli, who were the solid core of the lineup last season and all popped into the 9.9s at one time or another. Artz is the beam leader and most likely 9.9, with the added bonus that she didn’t fall once last season, and Chiarelli has done so well to become a beamer in NCAA after being distinctly not one in elite. That’s a pretty impressive foundation that will be able to compete with most other teams. For the final spot, both Casanova and Williams will be options as both were vital (and consistent) for 9.825-9.850 last year. The lineup could be any of these seven depending on who’s able to hit, and the team should feel comfortable with any of them competing. Michigan was 6th on beam last year (2nd by beam average), and I see no reason why that can’t at least continue if not improve this year if Karas and Marinez deliver the way I think they can.

Floor

Sugiyama and Parker were both essential to the floor lineup last season with occasional 9.9s (more than occasional for Sugiyama), so Michigan has some work to do to maintain the same level on floor. I expect the two freshmen to pop right into those open slots, leaving the rest of the lineup intact. The good news is that both freshmen excel on floor. Karas has impressive power in a double arabian and tumbles quite comfortably, and McLean has very high and clean D-level tumbling that should be able to minimize deductions if not necessarily stand out as a wow routine.

Certainly, expect Artz and Chiarelli return to their spots at the end of the lineup. Artz is one of the consistently best-scoring floor workers with perhaps the least floppity-legged-low-chest piked full-in across all of NCAA. She led the floor rankings for a good chunk of last season. Chiarelli has just been throwing out E passes like candy all preseason because that’s what you do when you’re Talia Chiarelli, and both should continue their 9.9ing ways in 2016. The remaining two spots will be down to Brown, Casanova, and Williams, all of whom are more likely to go 9.8 than 9.9 but can give the lineup perfectly acceptable opening routines. With potential 9.9s from Artz, Chiarelli, and Karas and supporting 9.8+ scores from McLean, Brown, and Casanova/Williams, this lineup should be able to reach into the 49.4s again this year. 

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama