The coaches' poll for 2014 will soon be upon us, followed by one of my favorite gymnastics holidays, Making Fun of the Coaches' Poll Day. In anticipation of this momentous occasion, I submit my own preseason ranking list.
Keep in mind that this is not a prediction of April results but an assessment of where teams stand at the current moment. As always, treat this list as brilliant and perfect. (Note: I rank only 15 teams instead of 25 because once we get into that 16-25 range, so little separates the teams that trying to rank them with respect to one another would be based entirely on reputation and nothing.) Let us commence.
Yes, Rhonda, you're the winner. Being the defending champion affords Florida first claim to the top spot, and their argument is convincing, especially the Bridget Sloan and Kytra Hunter parts. Without Marissa King and Ashanee Dickerson, don't expect the Gators to be quite as strong in 2014 as they were in 2013, but they don't need to be in order to win. The Sloan, Hunter, Alaina Johnson, and Mackenzie Caquatto quartet remains the most formidable group of four gymnasts in the country, and
they will have a healthy enough dose of supporting routines to make 49.450s on each event seem like a far easier prospect than it has any right to be. 198s? Sure.
It's finally time to promote the Sooners from the #4 spot. The team that came two vault landings away from snatching the title from Florida last season has added an exceptionally talented freshman class to help assemble what I see as the strongest team in the program's history. Oklahoma of 2014 should be able to improve on both its strengths and weaknesses, incorporating even more gracefully energetic work into bars and beam and injecting a bit more raw power into vault and floor to help make the amplitude goblins go away. They have the 9.9s. The question is, are there enough 9.950s to win a national championship?
Kim Jacob, Diandra Milliner, and Sarah DeMeo are poised to take over the starring roles that have long belonged to the Ashleys, Priess and Sledge. They have been groomed well for the part, and we can expect 9.9s to blossom all over the place for that trio on two to three events apiece. Now congratulate me for going two whole sentences discussing Alabama's prospects for 2014 without mentioning bars. For Alabama to reign at the top, they can't be the short handstand sisters and will likely need three consistently 9.9-caliber routines to avoid falling behind. This will not be a year where they can rest on vault and floor. Freshmen, you have your mission.
On paper, UCLA was right in the same pack as Oklahoma and Alabama going into this season in spite of the several thousand lost routines, but the continued injury saga of Peng Peng Lee has pushed the Bruins back a touch. They probably needed her routines to contend, and this now puts immense significance on the comeback of Sam Peszek. For UCLA to have any chance, she must be the queen of scoring, which of course she can be. There are a number of enticing routines on this team, as there always are, but they will have to prove they are more than a smattering of nice routines here and there. There's a Zamarripa-shaped hole in the doors to Pauley, and someone needs to fill it.
If you're in the market for a team to root for, you could do worse than LSU. The potential for this team is tremendous, coming off a historically strong year and retaining nearly all their routines (and adding a couple important ones). The judges lap up their power gymnastics, but while improvement was displayed on both bars and beam in 2013, the Tigers still need to take another step on those events to be nationally competitive and hope to meet or improve on last season's 5th place finish. It can't be a 49.300 one week and a 48.950 the next. We need to see consistency from week to week, and beam must become more than simply the Rheagan Courville show.
Utah was a decent beam rotation (49.250) away from knocking UCLA out of Super Six last year, but a decent beam rotation the Utes could not muster. Still, the fact that they're not losing routines, only gaining, means there's reason to believe they should improve their lot. Corrie Lothrop and Baely Rowe will act as a tourniquet on that beam rotation, and Kailah Delaney should provide the third strong vault to make that a more competitive event. It's a smaller team this year, so there won't be too much room for error and injury in these lineups, but it's a team that looks on the road to improvement.
Speaking of roads to improvement, Michigan's 2013 was a joyful resurgence, and enough of the core to that team has been retained to make a repeat of last year's result seem entirely plausible. Led by Joanna Sampson, the floor and vault lineups should be world class and keep Michigan competitive with even against the very best teams. Two concerns: maintaining last season's strength on bars without Martinez and Zurales to get those 9.9s, and everything about balance beam. Just everything about it.
There was a time when losing Worley and Tanella wouldn't have seemed like a particularly big deal, but the improvements they made in 2013 now make their departures that much more significant. The big question surrounding Georgia this season is whether the team can find the gymnasts to make up for them out of a fairly untested freshman class. Brandie Jay and Brittany Rogers did their jobs in helping Georgia emerge from the depths and return to Super Six last year, but if Georgia is to repeat the result, these two will need to be even more effective this year as all-around stars banging out 9.9s each week.
Would you look at this team? Ivana Hong,
Sami Shapiro, and Kristina Vaculik are being joined by Rachel Daum,
Sophia Lee, and the McNairs. That's an entirely disrespectful amount of
talent that we should expect great things from, but this is Stanford.
There will be eighteen injuries, or an avalanche, or the entire team
will just disappear into a time vortex. Something will surely happen.
Still, they should be brilliant (much better than 9th, really), and expect to see a lot of
routines from these new ones who will help raise Stanford's game in the
power department and offset the Morgan and Dayton losses.
The total meltdown from Regionals last year stings, but this team still boasts Emily Wong, Jessie DeZiel, and some of the best vaulting in the country. That can carry them a long way and pick them up out of some of the rather sizable holes left on the other events, particularly beam. As is always the case, this is not remotely a deep team, so immediate contribution from last year's injured freshmen and new potential star Ashley Lambert is a must.
It would be easy to dismiss Minnesota's
run to 8th place in 2013 as a sweet one-year story, but I see no reason
that level of success shouldn't continue at least as far as another Nationals showing.
As a freshman, Lindsay Mable emerged last year as a star on a team that needed a
star, and new Gedderts' refugee Rachel Haines should provide an extra boost
to some of the lineups that need it this season.
12. OREGON STATE
The encouraging sign for Oregon State is that this freshman class is the strongest they have had in four years, boasting the likes of Maddie Gardiner and Kaytianna McMillan who can be significant scorers. They must be because after losing Mak and Vivian in 2012 and Stambaugh and Jones in 2013, the Beavers have a sudden dearth of stars. In fact, they are returning just one routine with an RQS over 9.865 from last season. Those scores will have to come from somewhere new.
Auburn is another team moving into a new identity as a legitimate second-tier contender (an identity that should maintain for several seasons), and the significant scoring potential brought by Bri Guy and Caitlin Atkinson, as well as a parade of new gymnasts capable of filling gaps, should help continue last year's run and make mid-196s a realistic goal.
Katherine Grable is a senior now, so if Arkansas is going to make any type of run, this is the year to do it. After this, those 9.950s go bye bye. The huge scores she can bring in make Arkansas interesting and potentially competitive, but to be more than interesting, the team needs a supporting player to play the role Grable played to Jaime Pisani during the 2012 run. The lack of a second big AA scorer, especially now without Borsellino and Lewis's 9.875s on floor, will hurt the Razorbacks.
I was set on fourteen teams I would include (I think there's a gap after 14 before the rest of the teams), but I'll just throw perennially overlooked Denver out there for the 15th spot because why not? I always manage to forget this team exists, and then it will quietly show up as a third seed at a Regional. Most of the top performers are returning this year, and Moriah Martin and Nina McGee can provide potent scoring at the end of lineups to manufacture solid 196s.
A number of other teams are bustling around that #15 spot: Ohio State should manage a better year this year, adding occasional JO standout Tenille Funches; Illinois made Nationals last year, but looks to struggle without Weinstein in 2014; Ditto the struggling comment for Penn State without Musser and Merriam. Also, keep an eye out for the emerging sentimental favorite of the NCAA fandom, Cal. Cal is not a top 15 team yet, but a very talented group of incoming gymnasts should encourage significant improvement over last season, which was itself an improvement.