While it was certainly unusual to see defending champion Alabama ranked #2 in the preseason poll, it's hard to argue that a team with UCLA's talent level should be anywhere but #1 in 2012. In 2011, they were not a championship-caliber team. Without Vanessa Zamarripa or Sam Peszek for half the season, this depleted group had to rely on routines from Brittani McCullough and Tauny Frattone on their weaker events where they ideally should not have had to compete. That UCLA even managed to place second is a testament to this team perfecting the art of maximizing its potential. Without a significant chunk of star power, UCLA had to get 9.9 routines from unexpected places, like the two that Sydney Sawa put up in Super Six. What makes UCLA more dangerous in 2012 is that they will also have that deep stable of stars from which they can draw those top scores.
The most exciting change for UCLA this year will be the return of Vanessa Zamarripa who, at her best, churns out 39.600 performances like it's nothing. Coming off an Achilles tear, it would be foolhardy to assume that Zamarripa will be back to that level immediately. As we learned from Ask the Bruins, she is not back on floor yet. This is probably the event where she is least necessary to the team, so it's not a major blow if she's unavailable at the beginning of the season. They will certainly need her come postseason, but Zamarripa is not as important to the floor lineup as Hopfner-Hibbs, Peszek, or Larson. UCLA will need her abilities more so on vault and bars, where she appears to be on track.
Zamarripa doesn't run away with the "most exciting change" category because UCLA is also debuting freshman Mattie Larson. Larson has become one of the more beloved elites of recent years because she covers both the "artistry" narrative and the "we love you even though you fell at Worlds" narrative. Combine those with her genuinely elegant execution, and the judges will be itching to give her big scores on each event. Aside from staying healthy (she's an AOGC elite, so knock on Sequoias), Larson's biggest job in 2012 will be to undergo a successful headcase-ectomy. Over the years, she never showed her best gymnastics on international assignment and very publicly lost her mind at team finals in 2010. When thinking about UCLA's best possible lineups, Larson has an asterisk next to her name because she will have to develop and prove the ability to hit under pressure in a team environment, otherwise all the talent in the world is irrelevant.
The other scholarship athletes for UCLA this year are Cassie Whitcomb and Dana McDonald. McDonald is a clean vault and floor specialist. She will probably see some competition time early in the season, but it's hard to imagine her making March and April lineups unless she has to step in because of injury. As for Whitcomb, no surprise, she's already dealing with injury. With the depth on this team, there's no need for her to be contending in the all-around, and she wouldn't make all the lineups, anyway. Her biggest asset will be her bar routine, where she stood out as an elite with her toe point and good CGA flat hips.
While beam was the most discussed weakness for UCLA last season (and we'll get there in a minute), if you were to watch a meet without looking at the scores, you would say that bars was just as much of a problem. Though the award for Most Overscored Lineup is always a very tough category, with all the top teams getting some degree of overscoring at home, I would give the 2011 title to UCLA on bars. We have to give some credit to them for once again maximizing potential and sticking landings at the end of the season, but this lineup was not particularly strong and often got charitable scoring. This was never more clear than when Hopfner-Hibbs performed her straddled double layout dismount with a lunge forward and still got a 9.9 from one judge. On a championship team, Peszek and Hopfner-Hibbs are early-lineup workers at best on bars, not anchors. This will have to be fixed in 2012, which is why Zamarripa, Whitcomb, and Monique De La Torre will be so important. Ideally, Lichelle Wong would also make the lineup, but she is still training that double front 1/2 dismount that they scrapped last season because she couldn't compete it without significant deduction, so she'll have to work that out to make the top six. Wong somehow always seems to find a way to not be in lineups she should be in.
It wasn't a smooth path to the title for Alabama in 2011. They started the season disastrously, particularly on bars, but by April, it was the lack of notable weaknesses relative to the other teams that won them the national title. While we can point to the balance beam for Florida and UCLA or to the floor for Oklahoma as the weakest piece, once Alabama established consistent lineups on bars and beam, they were able to deliver hit performances on each event without the specter of counting a fall looming over them. Even after Kayla Hoffman fell on beam in Super Six, we knew the next two were going to hit because they were the solid Bama we've come to expect.
However, with their most dangerous competitors improving, Alabama cannot expect to deliver the same performance in 2012 as they did in 2011 and still win the title. They will have to match the others' improvement. Unfortunately for them, of the top three teams, they face the biggest graduation blow in losing Kayla Hoffman. Hoffman was a huge contributor on three events (while she competed beam as a senior, she was never really a beamer), and they will have to find a gymnast to replace that potential. The most likely candidate is Ashley Priess, who missed last season with yet another injury and is expected to return to the all-around this year. Even though Alabama has Priess training all events, that's a risky little game given her injury history. It may be advisable to have her focus on bars and beam, where the team is less deep and where she can have the biggest influence on the team score. There is no question that she is capable of delivering excellent scores on vault and floor as well, but can her body hold up to training those events, and is the risk worth it?
The good news for Alabama is that they will not have to rely solely on Priess to try to regain what they had last year.
Kayla Williams is their biggest new recruit, and the 2009 world champion on vault will be expected to contribute immediately. The gym change to Cincinnati ended up being an excellent choice for Williams as Mary Lee went to town on some of her weaknesses. Improvement in those areas will be of great help to her in NCAA. But while her bar work has improved in the last two years, she was certainly not recruited to compete that event. She was recruited because of vault and floor, but it will be important for Alabama not to take those events for granted. The leaps still need work, and the Yurchenko 1.5 she competed in L10 was in the good-but-not-amazing category because she usually landed in a significant squat. This is not a massive problem, but we hold higher expectations for a world champion. She needs to be 10-capable on her championship event. She wasn't recruited to get a 9.850 on vault. It will take time to make her into an excellent NCAA gymnast. She probably won't be the big star immediately, but she has more than enough potential to get there over time.
Let's just cut to the chase. Florida was the best team in the NCAA last year, and it wasn't close. For all the discussion about Alabama and UCLA stepping up at the right time (which they did), Florida had no business losing the title. That they didn't even make Super Six is an even greater and more interesting disappointment.
Much has been made about Florida peaking at the wrong time and showing their best gymnastics in January and February instead of March and April. Rhonda has clearly taken this criticism to heart. She pushed the team's training schedule back 4-6 weeks this year in order to put them in a better position come championships. Whether this will work remains to be seen. It will be fascinating to watch their January meets to see if they look like the January Florida we've become accustomed to or if they look more like early-season UCLA.
While poor performances in January may be alarming to the team (and it will be interesting to see how they might respond mentally to losses since they are used to starting the season with such strength), a bad result or two is likely the best thing that could happen to them. The two major issues that knocked them out of championships in 2011 (struggles on the beam and an inability to produce top routines under pressure) both appear to stem from a lack of competition adversity during the season.
Because the beam problems didn't truly start to manifest themselves in an alarming way until SEC Championships, the team had little time to experiment with lineups or correct these issues. Mahlich suddenly felt new pressure to hit, which made her very tentative and induced the falls, and the rest of the team was relatively unfamiliar with performing in a must-hit situation. Worse beam outings early in the season would have made this scenario less foreign and would have told Rhonda exactly who could be relied upon to hit when necessary. In addition, after the beam disaster at championships, the gymnasts tried too hard to stick their landings on vault and bars and ended up with worse scores because of it. Familiarity with performing after a poor rotation may have given the gymnasts a calmer demeanor and more ability to produce the gymnastics they had prepared.
For all of the issues we saw at the end of last season, Florida can still make the argument that they are the most talented team in the country. In particular, returners Alaina Johnson, Mackenzie Caquatto, Ashanee Dickerson, and Marissa King will be relied upon on 3-4 events each and are all capable of massive scores. Johnson would have been the undisputed top all-arounder in the country last year had it not been for lower scores on the beam, but she is capable of 9.950s on 3 events. Caquatto proved herself a reliable 9.9 gymnast across the board, even coming off a long elite season in 2010. She'll have to get healthy, stay healthy, and continue improving on her performance ability under pressure. She's come a long way over the years from being the girl who could never hit beam, but she needs to keep getting more confident and not allow those 9.7s to creep in when she's nervous. Dickerson is so powerful on vault and floor that a 9.9 has become an expectation. She's scored well on beam in the past, but it can still be a struggle with leg form and consistency. That 8.450 at regionals will haunt her beam performance for a while. King is the national vault champion and is capable of the above floor performance. Enough said.
Teams have finished up their December intrasquads and are breaking for the holidays. Coaches have given their teams specific "we can't officially make you train but here's what you better do over break" instructions and will hope that their gymnasts return in recognizable condition to prepare for the first meet. In the meantime, let's take a look at what some of the teams have been up to in the past week or so.
Georgia has posted a new episode of We Need to Talk about Kevin (Copp) containing highlights from the recent intrasquad. Of note:
Chelsea Davis has been fully gymdogged out (it's a real word...now) with the glitter and the ribbon and the temp tattoo. We'll just have to deal with it. We didn't see too much from her except the vault, which is her weakest event. She lacks competitive amplitude. I'm interested to see bars most of all.
Kat Ding is a gem. She rates them at an 8.5. I love the use of .5, like it's a real scale, and her ability to resist the "I'd give us a TEN!" snap reaction. She knows her teammates aren't up to her level. Still, it's Georgia, so adjust for inflation. How dare they show us that stuck beam dismount and make us want her to compete beam even though we know she'll get like a 4 in competition.
Jay is worried about the team's fitness coming back from the break. Apparently, he got his hand stuck in the cookie jar at 1:30.
Our updates from UCLA have been sporadic. They had the "Meet the Bruins" event, which wasn't a real intrasquad (it was weirder and better), and now we have videos of only some of the gymnasts on only two events. I'm not really surprised.
They actually look well prepared on vault. Hopfner-Hibbs and Peszek don't have the same distance as the others, but they are both capable of sticking landings sometimes (as we see in this video), which should even out the scoring. A presumed lineup of Hopfner-Hibbs, Peszek, Larson, Courtney, Frattone, and Zamarripa (with occasional routines from alternates Wong, De La Torre, McDonald, and Gerber) will be very difficult for any team to beat. They have enough depth that they won't miss Sydney Sawa's competent vault.
Florida held an intrasquad on December 9th. Kytra Hunter looks strong and Alaina Johnson looks on point. Ashanee looks about as enthusiastic as usual. Marissa King's double layout is a dream. Given that these are highlights, it's difficult to draw real conclusions from the performance, but the Gators seem on track. Although, those dangly little half-hearted streamers are a little too reminiscent of when Mary trashed the gym on Seventh Heaven. Don't pretend like you don't get the reference.
Oklahoma has a highlight reel with a few full routines on each event. The article is a breath of fresh air when K.J. doesn't pretend like her other freshmen are going to make lineups. This is unusual among NCAA coaches.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma drew the short straw this year and were the team hit by a significant preseason injury when Natasha Kelley went down with yet another Achilles problem, sidelining her for the season. She has faced so many major injuries over the years that we have to wonder how much more gymnastics her body can take and whether she will be able to come back from this. She was limited by the right knee even before this latest injury.
In contrast to some of the other recent major injuries at top schools (UCLA losing Vanessa Zamarripa and Alabama losing Ashley Priess last year), Oklahoma doesn't have as many major contributors with high scoring potential, so it will be harder for them to manage without their anchor on bars and beam. Still, even though some have constructed this injury as completely devastating to Oklahoma's chances, they do have other strong gymnasts who can keep them in the top group of 5 or so schools. In fact, after the graduation of Hollie Vise, many expected Oklahoma to return to the second tier, but they kept pace in 2011 by getting refined, well-prepared routines from unexpected places. Now, without another well-known elite, they'll have to do the same in 2012.
Kelley had assumed much on the scoring leadership on her two strongest events (bars and beam), but now that responsibility falls squarely to Megan Ferguson. Ferguson has displayed strong scoring potential throughout her collegiate career, but she became a star in 2011 by leading the team through the postseason (not posting a score below 9.850 at regionals or championships) and performing energetic, attention-grabbing routines. Sometimes it's easy to overlook Oklahoma because they don't have the program history and don't always perform the most difficult routines, but it's impossible to ignore Megan Ferguson.
But as we've seen so many times, one star cannot make a team. Ferguson doesn't contribute on vault, and that piece could turn out to be a problem for Oklahoma, with three or four routines to replace from a lineup last year that wasn't going to compete with UCLA, Alabama, or Florida anyway. One of the major concerns on vault is the frequency of Yurchenko halfs we've seen from this team. While the blind landing makes it difficult (and difficult to score well), it's still considered a bit of a soft 10, and it doesn't necessarily stack up against schools that are performing one or more Yurchenko 1.5s. If you've just watched a Yurchenko 1.5 from Kytra Hunter, Georgia Dabritz, or Kayla Williams (or seen something from Zamarripa's stable of phenomenal vaults), you're not going to be that impressed by Madison Mooring's Yurchenko half, even if it's clean. Oklahoma's vaults could give them too many 9.825s in that lineup.
Interestingly enough, even though Kelley was the anchor, beam still looks to be Oklahoma's strongest event in 2012. They were far and away the best beam team in 2011, and that was just as much due to confident performances from Ferguson and the rest of the lineup (Nowak, Spears, Mooring, and Ratcliff) as it was to Kelley's scoring. Kayla Nowak in particular will be necessary as a solid early lineup gymnast on that event to give the team that base 9.800-9.850 (in addition to her anchor position on floor).
Oklahoma is a bit lucky in that they did not lose any hugely influential seniors after last year, so they did not enter this season with too many holes that the freshmen were expected to fill aside from solidifying that vault lineup. That means that if they can find the routines (likely a combination of gymnasts rather than a single star) to account for Kelley's scores, they may be able to keep pace with the scoring potential from last year. This will likely come from some lineup experimentation, meaning that the notable freshmen, Rebecca Clark and Erica Brewer, will be given a prime opportunity to prove their worth to the team.
Utah continues to be the most fan friendly program in collegiate gymnastics. Given the numerous training videos and free live streams of their meets provided by the Marsdens and Utah Athletics, the general fan is usually more familiar with Utah gymnastics than with most of the other programs in the country. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it cultivates a dedicated and knowledgeable fan base, not just in Utah but all over the country. It's a curse because we know the deal. We know that, on December 9th, Utah is going to look like the most prepared team in the country. We've been here before. If we didn't know anything, we would look at the routines from the Red Rocks Preview and say, "Wow, there are a lot of 9.750-9.800 routines. If they can clean up and refine, they will be great this year." Because we do know something, we understand that even though some landings and body positions will improve in the coming months, the overall gymnastics we see now is the same as we'll see in April.
That being said, this level will still probably be good enough to place in the top 6. The comparison between Utah and Romania is not a new one, but it is apt. They've perfected the science of being fine. They will go to championships, they will be one of the most consistent teams, they will capitalize on others' mistakes, and they will reach their highest achievable place. Back in the day, that highest achievable place was a championship. Then, it became more like top 3. Now, it's a 5th or 6th place finish. Going better than that is probably beyond the talent level of this team.
The biggest reason Utah will get that far is that, unlike some of the teams ranked below them, they have numbers on each event. While they won't necessarily want all of these numbers competing, they have that sought after 10-12 routines on each event from which to choose. An injury to any one of their gymnasts won't put them out of contention. The downside of that statement is that all of their gymnasts are replaceable. They don't have that star who is going to lead them on the score sheet.
Stephanie McAllister was their top all-arounder last season, but she is a 39.300 gymnast, not a 39.600 gymnast. The consistency is there, but the crisp execution on four events isn't. Of the other returners, we can expect a bunch of 9.825s from Corrie Lothrop and Nansy Damianova on 3-4 events and from Cortni Beers on 2 events (though not if that wackadoo form on bars during RRP keeps up).
The return of Kyndal Robarts will be the biggest boost to this team, particularly on vault where she performs very well. She is different from McAllister (who is solid but unamazing across the board) in that she has some really compelling qualities but some definite weaknesses that keep her from staking claim to the title of big scorer. Looking at the floor routine in the above video, we see that the leaps in particular just aren't happening right now.
Of all the top teams, Nebraska gets the least notoriety. They don't often attract the big name or elite gymnasts, and (competing in the Big 12 until this year) they haven't had the conference rivalries and built-in strength of schedule that give a team both identity and national attention. With the rise of Oklahoma's program, there was a budding opportunity for a strong, attention-getting rivalry between two of the best teams, but Nebraska's move to the Big 10 limits that a little. I still would like that rivalry to be cultivated, though, and seeing the two schools competing in a quad meet this year is a bit disappointing. The presence of other teams (especially lower ranked ones) tends to mitigate the atmosphere and excitement of a rivalry.
Nebraska was able to beat both Florida and Utah in national semifinals last year by sticking landings and not giving away unnecessary tenths, even if they didn't have the biggest difficulty or reputation. This attitude and tenacity will have to continue in 2012 because there are significant questions about the depth of the team and how that depth will or will not be able to overcome some of their weaknesses, namely the beam.
As seen in the discussion of beam strength, Nebraska was the weakest of the top 10 last year when competing after a fall on the beam. At championships, their highest score on beam was a 9.800. In Super Six, they were competitive with third place Oklahoma on three events, but ended up .5 lower solely because of the beam. With no standout performers and only 4 returners to the lineup, they will need to find bigger scores on this event from somewhere in this incoming freshman class.
There are five new freshmen this year, but the clear standout in the bunch is Jessie DeZiel. Six months ago, she would have been considered just another one of the new L10s and wouldn't have received much attention at all. But after making the elite push to compete at Visa Championships in her home state, DeZiel found herself on the Pan Am team and performed very well. In true gymnastics fan fashion, the narrative about DeZiel went from the condescension of "Aww, isn't that sweet" when she made championships to the overreaction of "She's the best gymnast on the Pan Am team" after she performed so well. To be clear, she was not the best gymnast on a Pan Am team that included Shawn Johnson, Bridget Sloan, and Bridgette Caquatto (and she would be completely overlooked if she continued elite), but she did perform with exceptional poise and confidence in Guadalajara, which will serve her very well in NCAA. Also, her Yurchenko double full is really quite excellent. They will need her anchoring that event and replacing Erin Davis's score.
There are a lot of wonderful things to say about UCLA gymnastics. The very best is that, no matter the situation, it's always a show and they always commit to that show, a show complete with costumes, characters, motifs, and sometimes even a tragedy.
Yesterday, UCLA hosted the "Meets the Bruins" event. It's like an intrasquad, but with more greatness. Other schools show routines. UCLA unveils performances. Some people hate that about them. These people are no fun, and I don't want you hanging out with them anymore.
No show is complete without a grand entrance:
Come on, they carried her onto the floor. How can you not love that?
This routine is completely different than I expected Val to put together for Mattie, but it's excellent. It's a great lesson that spins are choreography rather than something than can be (or should be) placed into a separate category. We see so many routines that are more like "OK, I did my dance, now I'm going to do my spin."
"Oops, I almost accidentally did my floor routine in high heels." #uclagymproblems
Can we convince Aisha to get her tumbling down this year so we actually get to see this routine in competition? Fortunately, UCLA locked in Gerber II for 2013-14, so we get 4 more years of this.
UCLA is posting a whole slew of videos at the BruinGymnastics youtube page, complete with an identifying bars skills tutorial ("Gienger!"). Don't try to watch the videos with that UCLA all-access player. It's useless nonsense.
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.
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.
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.
Take a good long look because you won't be seeing these for a while.
Unfortunately for Michigan, when discussing their 2012 season, we're talking more about what they've lost instead of what they have. Most importantly, they've lost Kylee Botterman. The team will miss her, and we as fans will miss her. Though I will not miss the way the Michigan PA announcer said her name. That will haunt my nightmares.
Trying to replace the national AA champion would be difficult enough, but the team has also lost Jordan Sexton, Sarah Curtis, and Trish Wilson, making a repeat of their 2011 Super Six performance seem like a near impossibility. What's more, now that former signee Morgan Steigerwalt has . . . had a change of plans and is now at Arizona State, the team is fielding only 11 gymnasts this season, with only 2 new freshmen trying to replace the 4 contributing graduates.
Freshman Sachi Sugiyama performs an excellent Yurchenko 1.5 that should help boost the vault lineup. She fully rotates the vault with confident landing, and the increased difficulty over the more common full should help elevate the score. On floor, while she doesn't have tremendous difficulty, she performs cleanly and can also contribute. I'm not sold on her bars capabilities. She has too many leg separations and missed handstands to be relied upon to score well. This could be a problem for Michigan, as she is stronger on events where they already have at least a little more depth with gymnasts like Natalie Beilstein, Katie Zurales, and Reema Zakharia. Where are the bar workers?
The other incoming freshman, Annette Miele, competed elite for Parkettes in 2009 and 2010, which has given her the basic skill level and difficulty to be a necessary all-arounder for this team in 2012. She doesn't have a standout event, but her abilities on bars will be required to fill those holes in the lineups. She also competes a solid enough Yurchenko 1.5 on vault to be usable.
One of the primary qualities that separates championship teams from good teams is the ability to not only master the balance beam but also limit the damage after mistakes. There will always be falls on the beam. While champions ensure that the fall is dropped, weaker teams get tentative (at best) or fall apart (at worst).
In 2011, the beam was even more of a problem than usual, and at championships Oklahoma appeared to be the only school for whom the beam was not the weakness. While Alabama mastered the event enough to win the title, the beam was still the most troublesome piece for them, and they did have to absorb the fall from Kayla Hoffman during Super Six.
In examining this issue, I took a look at the beam scores for the top ten teams (as decided by me and the 2012 preseason poll) for all gymnasts going up at any point after a fall or fall-equivalent performance, meaning a score of 9.500 or lower. The team rankings came out as follows:
Average Beam Score after a Fall - 2011
1. Utah - 9.807
2. Oklahoma - 9.792
3. Alabama - 9.770
4. Stanford - 9.753
5. Georgia - 9.742
6. Oregon State - 9.721
7. Michigan - 9.654
8. Florida - 9.648
9. UCLA - 9.633
10. Nebraska - 9.603
Based on my assumptions, seeing Oklahoma and Alabama near the top of the list was not a surprise, nor was seeing UCLA and Florida near the bottom of the list. Florida did not perform as many routines after falls as most of the other top teams, but the routines they did have were largely unsuccessful in the most crucial moments.
The big surprise to me was Utah's placement at the top of the list. Out of 33 beam routines after falls, they had a grand total of zero subsequent falls. They are the only team of the bunch that did not have to count a beam fall at some point during the season, which is pretty remarkable. Utah will want to bottle that quality for 2012 but also add an ability to break out of the 9.775-9.825 range in which nearly all of those scores fell.
Another interesting note: Stanford had the fewest routines after beam falls in 2011 (8), but it was having to count a fall on beam that took them out of regionals.
The 2012 edition of the Preseason Coaches' Poll has been released, and while we can usually file this under bushel of nonsense, this season's poll actually provides an interesting discussion point with UCLA topping the list.
Nearly every year, this poll is simply a meaningless exercise where the coaches crown the previous year's champion as the preseason #1. The only exceptions to this rule tend to happen either when the defending champion has lost a bunch of prominent seniors or when there is another team that is clearly and inarguably superior. Interestingly enough, that exact situation occurred the last time Alabama won the title, when UCLA were named the 2003 preseason #1. That was also the last time the defending champion was not voted preseason #1. That 2003 decision was completely understandable given the team UCLA had that year. This year is much less clear.