October 28, 2012

Freshman Orientation: UCLA

I had been holding off on previewing the UCLA freshmen because there is still a degree of doubt as to what the Peng plan is. Peng Peng Lee is in the recovery phase from her summer ACL tear, and at this point it is unclear if UCLA will push to get her back by the end of the season on any event, or if this will simply be a redshirt year. It's a crucial decision because, aside from being every NCAA fan's favorite elite, Lee was going to be the integral part of Operation Enduring Canada. UCLA lost two stellar northerners in Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs and Aisha Gerber, and Lee seemed like the only freshman who could fill Gerber's leotard on bars and beam, at least until Gerber Part Deux arrives in 2013-2014.

In addition to Gerber's bars and beam, UCLA will need to find people to bring in the 9.9s that EHH was delivering on beam and floor and that Tauny Frattone was consistently posting on vault. (I'm less concerned about EHH's vault and Frattone's floor because those should be competently replaced by any number of gymnasts.) Lee would have been tasked with the major part of that assignment, but without her, the other freshmen tasked with keeping UCLA competitive with Alabama and Florida are Danusia Francis, Sophina DeJesus, and Asi Peko, each of whom will be expected to contribute multiple routines to the Zamarripa/Peszek/(Larson?) show in 2013.

Peng Peng Lee 

October 27, 2012

Freshman Orientation: Oklahoma

It was a severely depleted Sooner team that limped to a still-respectable 196.925 at National Semifinals last year, missing out on Super Six for the first time in three years. Couple the graduations of Megan Ferguson, Sara Stone, and Candace Cindell with the returns of Kayla Nowak, Rebecca Clark, and Lauren Alexander and the introductions of Keeley Kmieciak, Haley Scaman, Maile'ana Kanewa, and Hunter Price, and I think we can expect the 2013 Sooners to be a completely different animal from the group we saw compete at the end of 2012. 

The most high-profile challenge for Oklahoma this season will be finding a way to withstand the loss of Ferguson's three 9.9+ routines. In typical Oklahoma fashion, I expect that to be a team effort. I don't see one single member of this 2013 group suddenly emerging as a multiple-9.9 machine. Different stars on different events will likely help this team 9.875 most opponents to death.

While the hole left by Ferguson will be notable, I'm more interested in how this group of freshmen will contribute on Ferguson's nonevent, vault. Vault saw the most serious depletion last year (poor Haley Sorensen was put in the position of having to contribute even though no one could have expected more than a 9.700 from her). Still, no gymnasts recorded 9.9s at Regionals or National Semifinals, so even a healthy team would have been unlikely to contend with the 49.600 sisters. In addition, they have lost their best vaulter in Sara Stone, so the Sooners will need the biggest contribution from the freshmen there, and it appears they will get it.

Keeley Kmieciak was the strongest vaulter in JO last year and recorded the only 9.900 at JO Nationals with her stuck Yurchenko 1.5. Haley Scaman also has a very strong Y1.5 than can verge on excellent. Look for these two to help lift Oklahoma out of that gully of Yurchenko halves they have been sitting in recently.

October 21, 2012

Freshman Orientation: Alabama

The two-time defending champions are not the vogue pick to win a third-straight title this year. That has a little bit to do with a lack of positive reputation among vocal fans, many of whom are based in the greater Athens area, and many coaches. Tellingly, the coaches never select Alabama as preseason #1 even though it is almost procedure for Georgia and UCLA to be awarded preseason #1 after they win titles. It's a reputation that does not extend to judges, though, hence the titles.

Much of the lack of favoritism this year, though, can be attributed to a loss of talent. Last year, the team didn't feel the graduation of Kayla Hoffman particularly dramatically because Ashley Priess came back. It was mostly a wash. This year, they will feel the lack of Geralen Stack-Eaton. I foresee a season where we hear a lot of "If only Geralen were in that lineup" when the team needs a crucial 9.950 that doesn't come.

The incoming freshmen, Lauren Beers and Carley Sims, cannot alone be expected to fill those 9.900s on every event. That wouldn't be a fair or realistic expectation. The upperclassmen will have to be a little more 9.900 and a little less 9.850 across multiple events, but I'll get to that more in December when I preview the teams as a whole. For now, let's look at where we can expect the freshmen to contribute.

Lauren Beers

October 14, 2012

Freshman Orientation: Utah

Because last year's Super Six and the subsequent discussion was all about the close margin between Alabama, Florida, and UCLA, it's easy to forget that Utah finished less than half of a point behind the champions. Now, I would make the argument that a lack of proper separation between scores was a problem there (and throughout the season, and always, a point I will be sharpening for, oh, the next six months), but even taking that into account, Utah wasn't completely blown away by the top three last year.

The single biggest deficit that the Utes faced when compared to the eventual champion Alabama came on vault, which accounted for nearly half of the difference in scores. Utah fans should therefore be pleased that the new freshman class features two standouts on that event (Taylor Allex and Breanna Hughes), both of whom boast solid Yurchenko 1.5s that were consistently scoring in the 9.750-9.800 range in JO. With these two, Utah should be able to withstand the loss of Kyndal Robarts on this event and improve on last season's scores (while also featuring a refreshingly low-ish number of Yurchenko fulls).

The less pleasant news comes when we rotate to bars. The team is losing routines from both Stephanie McAllister and Cortni Beers, but only one of the new freshmen (Hughes) looks like a potential contributor on that event. Bars is not nearly as strong for Allex or Haley Lange. Someone like Nansy Damianova could come into the lineup to fill the empty spot, but it will be difficult for the team to improve too much on bars from last year, and I foresee a lot of 9.800s.

Overall, this is one of the more unheralded freshman classes of the year because there are no elites, but I anticipate these newcomers competing at the same level we have seen from Utah the past three seasons or so. Expect Breanna Hughes to be the big all-around contributor. She doesn't have a significantly weaker event, and her nice form on bars and competitive difficulty on all pieces should help her be an early-mid lineup worker wherever the Utes need.

Taylor Allex is a nice recruit for vault and floor, and I see her contributing in both places during the season. Beam is OK, but I would put an asterisk next to it for consistency. Utah has a habit of creating beamers, though, and the team prides itself on beam consistency, so we may see some of Allex there. I've seen the least of Haley Lange, but it appears (especially in her beam work) that acro elements are the comfort and dance elements are the nail biters. I do appreciate that she competes handspring vaults, but she will be the type who has to learn new skills and improve some areas of form while at Utah to be a contributor. She's not entering as a lineup-ready gymnast. The team released video during the summer of her training a double layout on floor, which is exactly the kind of development I'm talking about.

Breanna Hughes 

October 7, 2012

Freshman Orientation: Florida

The biggest news of the weekend is Lexie Priessman's verbal commitment to Georgia for 2015-2016. It seems like an appropriate fit stylistically, although who knows how the tenor of the team will change under Durante, if at all. Priessman is currently on the Olympic track, so early verbals like this are always to be taken with a hefty tablespoon of squinting.

But continuing our look at the new friends who will be gracing us with their skills this season, we turn to Florida. Of the top teams, Florida should be the least concerned about routine replacement from last season, and yet the Gators have the most accomplished freshman class of the bunch. Recall as well that Aly Raisman was going to be part of this class had that been a realistic commitment.

Last season, the Gators boasted four excellent routines on each apparatus, and Bridget Sloan and Bridgette Caquatto could certainly jump in and make that six out of six on each event (and that is not taking into account a potentially healthy Mackenzie Caquatto because I still have questions about the viability of those ankles). There should be no concerns about talent level here; health will be the biggest factor.

Bridget Sloan





Certainly, Sloan is capable of scoring 9.900+ on any event. Some of the most accomplished elite recruits of recent years still have a weaker event, but Sloan has proven adept enough on all four (even though beam has been a struggle over the years, I see her making that lineup). If all goes to plan, she will be among the prime favorites for the AA title.

We don't know how things have been going for her since the elbow injury at Trials, and while she said that there would be a significant recovery time, there are no indications that it will legitimately impede her season. The biggest problem for Sloan will be that this is not a one-off injury. She has been constantly injured for the last three and a half years. Assuming that she is going to stay totally healthy for an extended period as a Gator is a gamble I wouldn't be willing to make right now.

Injury history is the usual concern with elites coming in to NCAA, but as we saw with Caquatto the Elder last season, the Gators are deep enough that they can absorb an injury to a top contributor. That depth only increases this season. It's sort of crazy that they might not even need a healthy Sloan to win the title this year.