UCLA had to be disappointed with finishing 4th at a home Championship last year, especially when the preseason outlook was so promising, but considering the injury trials presented to them throughout the season, managing a 4th place finish was a solid result. Without Peszek, without Lee, without Larson, the Bruins got as much as they could from the lineup they had, squeezing out every last drop of depth they could muster. They just didn't have enough big routines to contend for a win.
Expect the 2014 team to be nearly unrecognizable from the group we saw last season. Whereas for most teams we're talking about filling one or two holes per event, UCLA has to reconstruct a full half of its lineup. Challengingly, it's not just about finding routines that can work in competition, it's about finding the 9.9s to fill the colossal absence of Vanessa Zamarripa. That's why Sam Peszek's return is so vital. She's the one who can step into those lineup spots and get the 9.9s on every event to help this team keep pace with last season. Especially without the Peng, it will fall to Peszek to be the star every week.
UCLA is bringing in a hearty freshman class with Jennifer Pinches, Hallie Mossett, Angi Cipra, and Mikaela Gerber, but because there are so many openings in these lineups and because UCLA is perpetually recovering from sixty-five injuries, don't expect the depth problems we saw last year on events like vault to dissipate. It's going to be one of those UCLA journey seasons again, with a lot of life lessons, equal parts beautiful and frustrating.
Vault was always going to be strange this year without Zamarripa. She is the team's identity on this event, so vault rotations are going to feel incomplete or incorrect for a while without her Yurchenko full because we are so used to that one spectacular piece of gymnastics finishing off the rotation and, especially last year, saving an adequate score. From the 2013 lineup, the Bruins are returning Olivia Courtney, a tube of chapstick, and a piece of damp construction paper. There's little to go on. This is where the depth and injury concerns were most apparent last season, and the team may not exactly be flush with vault choices again in 2014. For other teams, we're talking about 8 and 9 solid options and scores in the 49.4s and 49.5s, but for UCLA it's a little bit of, who's on this team now? And does she vault?
The keys will be Peszek and Courtney. They must anchor for 9.9s and are capable of covering up potential depth concerns with their big scores to help remain at least in sight of the best vaulting teams. After those two, the most crucial routines will likely end up being from the freshmen Pinches and Cipra, both of whom have the potential to be competitive scorers who eventually step into that 4th up, 9.875 role. Elsewhere, Dana McDonald and Syd Sawa have vaulted for 9.8s before, and Sadiqua Bynum has learned a Y1/2 that will see competition time. I fear for options. Who's going to have to learn a Yurchenko full in a week this season? What they need here is a hearty dose of Mattie, but we can't assume that's ever going to happen. Actually, what they really need is to invest in a platinum blonde wig and a convincing fake nose to introduce Flordyn Flieber, a new walk-on from SCATS who enjoys horseback riding, baking cupcakes, and the films of Ryan Gosling, and has a Yurchenko 2.5 no one knew about.
While UCLA is returning a few more bars routines than vaults, there is still need for a big infusion of talent because Zamarripa did a lot of carrying the team last year, Zam-standing her way to 9.9s. Even though Peszek is least known for bars, she can and will return with a batch of strong, late-lineup 9.875s. Still, she's not the huge scoring leader on bars that she is on the other events. Thankfully, Olivia Courtney has been training a toe-on tkatchev, and she needs it. Her routine has been looking a little lackluster since they removed her same-bar release, but if she hits a strong tkatchev and sticks her dismount the way she can, she will be worthy of the end of the lineup as well.
We should see several other returners from last season make up the remainder of the lineup. Sophina DeJesus impressed me last year with how much she improved from early-season crazy legs to Championship 9.9s. Danusia Francis similarly impressed by making the lineup because I didn't think we'd see her on bars at all. And then there's Mattie Larson. She must compete here and must give away fewer handstands. She's too talented to get these 9.750s. She needs to be getting 9.850 minimum. Hallie Mossett is my sleeper pick on bars with those big releases, and Pinches should get time as well because she has the skills (and because we just need to see her as much as possible).
I go back and forth with UCLA on bars because I don't see that go-to, reliable big score in the group without Peng. There are lots of borderline strong routines, but nothing amazing. They could put together enough 9.875s to get 49.3s but may struggle once other teams start scoring 9.950s.
The UCLA beam relationship is a unique animal. The Bruins have well-documented tribulations on this event of the like we see from many teams, but the potential for beautiful work is always so high that I'm often misguidedly optimistic about their chances. The possibility to be exceptional exists here, and getting big scores on beam will be a crucial facet of UCLA gaining ground on similarly ranked teams.
The Peszek/Francis duo is as strong a one-two punch on beam as any team can manage (matched only in scoring by the Sloan/Macko smackdown in Florida), and they are consistent. They'll get 9.9s and hit almost every time out. Now, let's talk about the Danusia dismount. She's training a transverse aerial + layout full dismount, which is wonderfully original, perfect, and terrifying. It's risky not only because of the difficulty of the transverse aerial as a standalone skill but because she also needs to make the connection to fulfill the composition requirement and start from a 10. Be excited that she's doing this, but also be wary that if it does not turn out to be pragmatic in terms of score, they may have to get rid of it, especially if she struggles to stick the full (or gets knocked for landing position or a long pause before the aerial). The team may be in a position of needing a score from her first and foremost, even if she has to go boring to get it.
Beam has been the highest scoring area for Mattie Larson over the last two years, so even if she is a little all over the place occasionally, we should see periodic 9.9s. I don't love the gainer pike dismount, but whatever makes her feel safe at this point. I'd certainly take DeJesus back in the lineup as well, and Angi Cipra works quite well on beam, which was the unexpected surprise from her. I thought she was just a vault and floor girl, but her beam work can be stellar if they get her hitting. We'll probably see an early-season revolving door for two spots in this lineup, with lots of exploring depth during away meets, including Mossett, Ellette Craddock, hopefully Mikaela Gerber at some point, and even Olivia Courtney, though she may be glad for the opportunity not to have to compete beam. This lineup has a definite chance for 49.400, but just as much of a chance for 48.400. If they can get a couple solid early routines for 9.850 (where are Niki Tom and Mizuki Sato when you need them?), and then let Peszek and Francis do their thing, they'll be in strong shape.
One of the problems for UCLA on floor lately has been that they best dancers have not been the best tumblers. The dancers have struggled to make the lineup, and the choreography therefore has not stood out the way we would expect from UCLA. This year, we can hope that DeJesus, Francis, and Cipra all manage to make the lineup to bring that performance flair. Peszek is also coming into her own as a performer these days, and Sawa has been given by far the best routine of her career this season, so there's reason to expect a bit more engaging floor work this season.
Courtney and Peszek will anchor this rotation with big tumbling and scores, and there is at least the hope for E passes throughout the rotation. Sawa and Francis are both training double arabians that look like they need a lot more time, but we can hope to see them at some point. Sawa has received 9.9s many times in the past. Sadiqua Bynum has learned a DLO that, in training, looks better than any of the double tucks and double pikes she threw last year, and Pinches has been quite a secure tumbler who should make appearances as well. A comfortable amount of options should exist on floor, so the depth monster has clearly been appeased a little bit. I'm encouraged that UCLA will be quite competitive here with the rest of the country for 49.4s.
The continuing injury saga of Peng Peng Lee along with some of the concerns over vault and bars have dropped UCLA back a touch from the pack at the top of the rankings. If any of the current Big Four teams (Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, and UCLA) looks like the injured, elderly gazelle falling to the back of the herd, it's the Bruins. We've got some Tigers chasing them through the savanna licking their chops. I'm aware that the previous sentence reflects an inconsistent understanding of biomes, but go with it.
The are reasons for trepidation, and this very well could be one of those Bruin seasons where they're ranked 8th all year long but then are suddenly amazing at Championships. That usually seems to happen, so it's fair to bet on it happening again. They will seem like the easy team to upset right until they aren't. The crux will be fulfilling that beam potential and finding the vaults. This is clearly a 197 team, but the freshmen must get healthy and get in two or three lineups a piece for the team to have enough depth.