October 29, 2013

Freshman Meet and Greet: Oklahoma

When this 2014 signing class started to take shape for the Sooners, it became clear that this class would signal Oklahoma's official entry into a new category: favorite. This is no longer the group of plucky little underdog overlooked Level 10s supporting an elite or two already put out to pasture by the wider gymnastics community. These are many of the top recruits in the country, and the 2014 Oklahoma roster is stacked. It's no longer adorable when Oklahoma finishes second at Nationals like it was in 2010. It's an expectation.

The Sooners will benefit from a huge infusion of depth this season, losing Brie Olson's 3.5 routines (beam was always touch and go) but gaining five gymnasts capable as a group of putting together something like 11-14 routines that could at least contend to make competition lineups. There are some fascinating decisions ahead. It could be another year of few AAers and a bunch of people each contributing on two events. Even someone like Taylor Spears may not get a ton of time as an AAer because . . . does she make this vault lineup now? Let's begin.

McKenzie Wofford was a standout junior elite for a couple of years early in the last quad. She wasn't simply a member of the second tier of elites but was legitimately discussed as a potential future bars solution who could compete at the highest levels. Then, she had some #WOGAProblems and gym switching times, and it became clear that Level 10/NCAA was the ultimate path for her. She did hang on to compete elite in the 2012 season and scored well on bars but wasn't in a position to hit the other events well enough to qualify to Trials. This year, she competed as a Level 10 and finished 4th in Senior C at Nationals, winning bars and placing highly on beam.

Vault - 2012 elite

Bars - 2013 JO Nationals

October 25, 2013

Freshman Meet and Greet: LSU and Michigan

In part 2 of the freshmanification of our general college gymnastics consciousnesses, I'm looking at the four new LSU Tigers and the pair of new Michigan Wolverines for the 2014 season.

Coming off a very important finish last year, half a point off the national title, LSU will be feeling quite confident about how few routines the team is losing and how much opportunity there is for improvement on that result. Expect this new crop of freshmen to do more than simply replace the few missing vault and beam routines. There should be enough quality coming out of this group of four to allow some of those nail biter routines from last year to become backups.

An important theme for both of the teams in this post is that nasty little wretch of a log, the beam. For LSU, I would feel confident in only Courville and Jordan as locks to return to that lineup. The rest of the spots are up for grabs for whoever can show a 9.850. There is room (and need) for some new blood. Let's begin.

The newbie with star power is Ashleigh Gnat, and she certainly has the familial pedigree for us to expect big things. She won both vault and floor in Senior D at JOs last year, so yeah, LSU recruited another vault and floor champion. We're all surprised. But what makes her such a gain is that, in spite of the few routines LSU is losing, she can still make the lineup on every event and be among the scoring leaders on several of them. 

October 20, 2013

Freshman Meet and Greet: Florida and Utah

Before we get to today's business, a bit of commitment news. I don't usually pay too much attention to the various commitments we hear now unless they're for the upcoming season because I don't have the energy to consider 2018 a year that exists yet. This news, however, is a fairly prominent. Here's what happened:

So, Lexie Priessman was standing in the hallway when Georgia walked by, and Lexie went, "Oh my God, I love your championships. Where did you get them?" and Georgia was all like, "They were Suzanne's in the 2000s," and Lexie was all like, "Vintage! So adorable." Then, Georgia walked away, and Lexie went, "Those are the ugliest effing championships I've ever seen."  

That's exactly how it went down. All of which is to say that Lexie Priessman has switched her verbal commitment from Georgia to LSU. And the changing balance of power in women's college gymnastics continues. Priessman had planned to defer until after 2016, but we'll see if that's still on. Sometimes we have Mattie Larson situations where people are going to defer until after the Olympics, and then . . . nevermind. Rio is going to be a fairly long shot for Priessman. She's already behind the likes of Biles, Ross, and Maroney (and a healthy Elizabeth Price probably) in terms of Olympic likelihood, and we still have three years of new seniors to go.

But now to the main business of the day: beginning to look at this year's freshmen and where they might contribute for their teams. Today, I'll start with Florida and Utah (paired for no other reason than that neither team has very many freshmen and they can fit together in a single, non-behemoth post), but I'll go through most of the major teams over the next month or so.

Unless they are prominent elites, we're often blind when it comes to judging how a gymnast might fare in college, going off of a few routines from JO Nationals here and there, which makes it challenging to develop a complete picture before they compete. Usually at this point, it's just about evaluating general style, basics, and skill set.

The Gators are down more routines this year than in the past couple years and are bringing in Claire Boyce and Silvia Colussi-Pelaez to fill in the gaps. Boyce was a junior elite in 2009 and 2010 before dropping back to L10 for the 2012 season, and Colussi-Pelaez continues to be a senior elite, competing for Spain at the most recent World Championships in Antwerp.

As is true for all the incoming gymnasts with elite experience, they have the skill sets to compete on any event (except we need to talk about these bars dismounts) and could be used basically anywhere. The question comes whether they have the quality to break into lineups on a team as strong as Florida. 

Though Florida has lost King, Dickerson, and Stageberg, some of those spots will be filled by Alaina Johnson's AA return and Bridgey Caquatto's potentially increased contribution, as well as someone like Kiersten Wang, who has been on the cusp of several lineups for two years and could use this opportunity to break in fully. We'll get into that more in the full team previews in December. For now, the Gators are looking at maximum two openings per event, in some cases one, and in some other cases zero. On bars, for instance, Johnson, Caquatto, Sloan, Hunter, and BDG are all returning, and that doesn't take into account Caquatto 2 and Wang, who should be right there as well, so the freshmen may be on the outside there. Overall, I expect the contributions of these new freshmen to be about in line with what we've seen from Wang and Spicer the last few years, early lineup or solid backup on multiple events. Let's take a closer look.

Claire Boyce
2011 Elite Qualifier - All events

October 13, 2013

Tenths above Average 2013

You may very well have spent this weekend watching NBC's broadcast of Worlds, not because you hadn't seen the competition already but as a kind of anthropological experiment. It's extraordinarily important for us to see how other cultures like NBC behave in their natural habitats so that we may begin to understand their seemingly bizarre choices and value systems.

The broadcast also helped us add "circumspect" and "contingency" to the list of words to which Tim Daggett does not know the meaning. In addition, please remember the moment Al saw Simone's tuck turn on beam and said, "Now that's a connection!" Nope. F-. That is an individual skill. It frustrates some people, but it makes me exceptionally happy every time. 

Now that's a connection!

Of course, this residual Worlds coverage is just a distraction from the real issue at hand, beginning to prepare for the NCAA season, but the NBC broadcasts always do raise the important issue of the power of narrative and truth through repetition. So many times in gymnastics, a statement will be put forth, and then either because it makes for a good story or simply because it is repeated so many times, it becomes "common knowledge" regardless of its basis in truth. We need look no further than "Aliya Mustafina is a diva," which came up again this year. It's an easy Russia narrative, repeated until it becomes fact through exposure rather than fact through evidence. 

This happens all the time. "The Worlds judges love that international look." Do they? What is the international look–tall, thin, and Russian or multiracial? And is there any evidence that the Worlds judges love that? I've never seen numbers backing that up, and certainly not from any recent competitions. Chellsie Memmel, Vanessa Ferrari, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Bridget Sloan, Aliya Mustafina, Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles. What standard of international look do they all meet, exactly? And yet, "international look" remains a thing solely because people say that the judges love it, even though there is no evidence that they do.   

Admittedly, this has nothing to do with the completely inoffensive and value-neutral NCAA statistics I'm about to present, but it's an issue that has been on my mind lately, and in a broader sense, it's the reason for my overall emphasis on numerical analysis of gymnastics. A deep look at scores and statistics is so important to gymnastics, especially right now when we have access to more information and more perspectives than ever before, because numerical truth is the antidote to antiquated thinking and inherited nonsense beliefs. The more numbers and evidence we get out there, the less likely the conversation is to be dominated by uninformed claims and irresponsible storytelling. Numbers work to give credit to the ones who deserve it rather than the ones who fit a preconceived story or expectation.

NCAA women's gymnastics is certainly not immune to the supremacy of narrative, and we often see dominance of stories and impressions over reality. We often hear "she's improving so much," or "she's working so hard," or "she's a veteran leader," rather than "her scoring and hit rate merit inclusion in this lineup." The truth is in the scores. They help clarify everything and separate out the noise and chatter.

So, without further ado, some numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with anything I just said.

As a way of transitioning between the 2013 NCAA season and the 2014 season, I'm looking at how much scoring value each team is losing from the gymnasts that left after last year. Sure, we can say, "this team is losing 12 routines" or "this team is losing 4 routines," but that doesn't adequately reflect the individual importance of each of those lost routines. The better way to assess the overall value of those routines is by comparing those lost scores to what we would expect from an average replacement gymnast.  

A 9.800 is the basic, normal score. It's the unremarkable, fine performance, the baseline score from which contending teams will look to improve throughout the season. A 9.800 is akin to meeting but not exceeding expectations. No top team wants to be counting 9.800s at Championships, but they're never the end of the world. Once scores go into the 9.7s, they become problems.

If we assume 9.800 as the baseline score, we can gauge how much value each of the teams is losing from gymnasts who graduated or left after 2013 by replacing those graduated scores (as measured by season RQS) with 9.800s and seeing how much the team score differs. The tenths above average score is how much the team score would decrease this year if all lost routines were replaced by 9.800s. For example, the UCLA Bruins would see their team score decrease by 0.868 if the Zamarripa, Wong, Pritchett, Baer, and De La Torre scores from last year all became 9.800s this year, from a 197.200 team RQS to a 196.332. The 0.868 represents how much value over 9.800 the injury returners and newbies for UCLA will have to contribute to maintain the level from last season.

-The rankings include the current top teams in the country, except Utah is not included because no gymnasts left. The Utes' score is 0 because they have nothing to replace.

-Gymnasts are included if they made the final postseason lineup for the team. The exceptions to that are Randy Stageberg and Marissa Gutierrez, who obviously would have been in the postseason lineups had they been healthy and whose absences will have to be dealt with this season.

-In cases where a gymnast competed an event in the postseason but her RQS was below 9.800, I excluded that routine because the score is not significant enough to be viewed as a routine that needs to be replaced. For the most part, we expect teams of this level to be able to come up with a 9.800 to slot into a lineup.

-If a gymnast competed in the postseason but did not have an RQS, I used the postseason average instead to get the best view of contribution to the team. 

Tenths above Average:

1. UCLA – 0.868
Vault - 0.275 (Zamarripa 9.970, Baer 9.890, Wong 9.815)
Bars - 0.253 (Zamarripa 9.843, Wong 9.875, De La Torre 9.843)
Beam - 0.105 (Zamarripa 9.880, Wong 9.825)
Floor - 0.235 (Zamarrpa 9.925, Pritchett 9.910)

Losing Zamarripa was always going to be a massive blow, but the savior for UCLA this year is that Peszek, Lee, and Larson can come back into the lineups. Otherwise, replacing all those scores from last year would be an exceptional challenge for a class of freshmen to do alone. Throw in the potential scores for the three injury returners, and maintaining that quality becomes a realistic expectation. Beam is the area of least loss for UCLA and should be a prime spot for improvement over last year given the quality of the group coming in. 

October 6, 2013

Worlds Reflections and Looking Ahead

The World Championships are over for another year. Breathe. Relax. Maybe have an entire pie. You've earned it. It's an emotionally draining experience that you need to talk over with some food. True science: Watching an Aliya Mustafina training session is the equivalent of running a 10K. You lose a lot of fluids and need to replenish. Here are my reflections about Worlds, as well as some notes about what's to come.
  • On the men's side, I have to say that I'm being less of a disgrace to my sex and getting more into men's gymnastics these days. I think part of the reason is that I don't know the code all that well. I'm like Shannon Miller doing the commentary during the 2012 Olympics. I'm really proud of myself for knowing what a Tippelt is, and that's about it. I don't have a working knowledge of a lot of the deductions (at least the ones that are men-specific and aren't universal gymnastics deductions), so I can enjoy the gymnastics without seeing only deductions. In women's, all I see are the mistakes. 
  • Kohei won again. Yep. OK. Heh. It's such a tough position because we expect everything from him. At this point, he can be interesting only by screwing up. His excellence is no longer news. We're just waiting for him to make a mistake so we can start paying attention. 

  • Sam the Ham, Lord Dancy Pants, had a medal within his grasp in the men's AA, then America-ed his HB routine to finish 6th. That, however, was beside the point because his dancing became the star. It was a serious talking point like it was something unusual. Maybe I've just spent too much time watching NCAA, but my reaction was "Yes, constant dancing, this is normal." You know Bridget Sloan saw his land speed record for podium dancing and was like, "Puh. Child's play. I dance more than that before vault." But honestly, if you didn't compose a chair-based interpretive dance to the between-rotations music from Worlds, then I understand nothing about you. Mine is about the changing of the seasons and loss of innocence. You'll probably cry.
  • Epke Zonderland used the applause-o-meter to win HB over Fabian Hambuechen. (Did you notice Fabian watching Sam Mikulak throughout the competition trying to pick up tips on how to be more hammy? Love it.) It's impossible to be mad at darling Epke because everything about him is a Dr. Seuss character: his face, his last name, his hair. He's basically a truffula tree. In fact, it's a little known truth that Oh, the Places You'll Go! was actually written about Epke's legs. "You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go."