The 2013 season was ultimately a disappointing one for Utah. While a final placement of 9th isn't exactly a shameful finish all things considered, it is the worst in the school's NCAA history, so I think that counts as a discouraging result. Of course, if you're Utah, you take pride in the fact that you've never finished lower than 9th, which no other school can claim, rather than depression that the record used to be 7th. Regardless of how much silver lining you try to weave, however, 2013 won't be a year for the memory banks.
Yet, there is every reason to believe this team will improve its lot in 2014. Of primary importance is the fact that they lost no seniors at the end of last season, providing the luxury of staying with what has worked and trading in what hasn't for shinier, more impressive models (presenting, Beam Rotation 2.0, now with more hitting!) There is no need to work against the loss of important routines, which is quite the enviable position. The injury returners Corrie Lothrop and Kailah Delaney, and freshman Baely Rowe, can simply be slotted in wherever they can boost the team's scoring potential.
This increase in options was apparent at the Red Rocks preview, though I should mention that I missed the second half of it. I was entirely unconcerned about this breach of NCAA fandom because, well, it's Utah. All the routines will obviously be up on youtube before I even have time to frown, right? But no, only vault and bars are up, the events I already saw. What is this, Marsden? I don't even think I know you anymore. As a result, my beam and floor awareness is a little less defined than it might have been otherwise, but we'll endure somehow. Let's dive in.
Vault was a little bit all over the place for Utah last year. It often provided a strong score into the 49.4s, but the early half of the lineup also suffered from amplitude and secure-landing issues that were not always apparent in the team score because Tory Wilson and Georgia Dabritz would save a strong overall number with their 9.9s. As for Tory Wilson, the girl can land a vault, and when she sticks, she'll be minimum 9.900 and in contention for 9.950s. Dabritz is never far behind her in 9.9 land, but crucially Dabritz and Wilson may have to do less lineup saving this year because they'll be rejoined in the back of the rotation by Kailah Delaney, who was getting 9.9s every week during her freshman season. The introduction of a third likely 9.9er means that team scores greater than 49.4 seem exceptionally attainable, even with 9.825-9.850s from the first three gymnasts.
There are multiple options for those first three spots, and I could see any of about seven gymnasts rotating through them. Baely Rowe has a strong block on her yfull and gets good height, so I'd like to see her get a shot, and while Lothrop didn't vault during the preview, her improved Omelianchik was looking clearly 9.850 during her brief stint last season and also provides a different look in the lineup, which I always appreciate. Damianova is the strongest of the other returners from last season's vault, so I anticipate seeing her often again this year. She can get high 9.8s with a good landing.
This means that the 9.825s from the front half of the lineup last year (Lofgren, Del Priore, Tutka) can all become realistic backups or early lineup contenders, along with Kassandra Lopez, so the team may not have a use a few of those lower 9.8s this year. The competition for spots has increased dramatically, which can only help the scoring potential.
Bars was one of the weaker events for Utah for most of last season, with big event scores coming occasionally but being strange and often worthy of a side-eye. (That 49.600 . . . ) Sticking certainly helps get those 9.9s, but Utah tends to have more concerns like feet and release amplitude than some similarly ranked teams, which gives the rotation a more 9.850 impression.
The Utes had kind of a hilariously poor showing on bars at the preview in that everyone fell, but that doesn't seem too likely to indicate falls during the actual season. We may see one early-season bars disaster again this year, but it shouldn't be a thing. The highlight video above doesn't include these routines with falls, which is why it's so short. There wasn't much else to use.
In general, I expect to see much of the same lineup from last season. Corrie Lothrop will come in for Tory Wilson immediately, and Baely Rowe presents another option and should see time, but I expect those to be the basic routines we see. Dabritz will anchor again, but I still hold out hope that we will see the comaneci in the regular season this year to give her routine a standout quality. It's way better than the jaeger. Damianova, Lopez, Hughes, and Hansen all look primed for mostly 9.850s again with a couple periodic journeys to 9.900. The reintroduction of Lothrop provides a potential upgrade of about .050-.075 over last year's group, but otherwise I expect a similar bars landscape.
These teams and their balance beam situations. I feel like I always have to take a deep breath before thinking about it. At Nationals, Utah came to beam needing a 49.250 to make Super Six, and it was never going to happen. The Utes were just too depleted to contend on beam last year, having to throw anyone who could do a halfway 9.7 routine into the lineup just to get by. A couple crucial additions this year should make the beam landscape decidedly less horrifying. Right away, take Lothrop and Rowe and put them in for Wilson and Tutka. Just do it. Right now. Isn't everyone's blood pressure already starting to feel less critical? See, it gets better.
Otherwise, keeping the rotation the same is probably the best option. Dabritz has had hitting problems for two years now, but she needs to be in this lineup. Even if Utah gets the consistency under control, they'll still be searching for 9.9s, and I maintain that potential is in Dabritz somewhere. Lofgren also periodically got 9.9s last season (though may have more trouble doing that if she's not the anchor), and Lothrop will be 80 breaths of fresh air for consistent 9.875s. Lopez and Hughes are both fine 9.8s to have around, though I think Hughes can still aspire to more than that. Beam will not suddenly be a huge score for Utah this season, but I can see hit rotations for 49.2s becoming the norm, which is something that happened only twice all of last year.
Floor was one of the strong events for Utah last year, and it's another event receiving a touch of a boost. At the end of last season, a few of the early routines went on walkabout for 9.6s for some reason, but mid-9.8s rising toward 9.9s should be the expectation for this lineup. It wouldn't be terrible if the lineup remained the same, and the scores would probably be fine, but there are now several more options to play around with. It may take some time for Lothrop to get back to floor given her injury, but she was such a crucial member of the lineup in the past that they will certainly want her back if she's at full strength again. She can come in for Lofgren, who was fine for 9.8s last year but doesn't have the scoring potential of the rest of the team.
Tutka emerged last year as the leader for 9.9s, Wilson brings that huge DLO power, and Dabritz has two E passes and has often gone into the 9.9s herself. Expect strength from those three to be joined by Damianova who, while not owning a powerfully impressive routine, is crazy clean in that double back. It's nice to have a variation of looks and styles, which she provides for the team. Tumbling-wise, it's a healthy, pretty deep rotation that won't lack for potential 9.850s. Expect Utah to be competitive with most teams here for 49.4s throughout the season.
Utah is usually a good bet to make Super Six, considering that it almost always happens. Last year notwithstanding, this is still Utah. As the rule goes: when in doubt, pick Utah. When doing my preseason rankings, I struggled between Michigan and Utah as to which team to put 6th and which to put 7th, and that was my primary reasoning for Utah in 6th. The Utes find a way. Michigan and Utah are gymnastically similar in many ways this year, so I'm eager to see how both teams start. It should be interesting to watch how they compare throughout the season, especially since both are probably going to be sitting on that Super Six cusp area, striving to see which team can just be a little more acceptable on beam.
At home, expect regular 197s. Utah can probably do that based almost entirely on vault and floor, supported by hit bars and beam rotations. Obviously finding how to solve a problem like beam is the biggest concern, but to get those huge scores when it matters, it will come down to proving the ability for stick for 9.9s on both bars and beam. The best teams will be able to do that several times in the rotation every time out, and that will be what it takes to emerge victorious from that LSU, Utah, Michigan, Georgia, Stanford pack.