I mentioned in my preseason rankings that if Stanford is able to meet the potential of its roster in 2014, #9 is a very soft projection, and I stand by that statement. The ceiling for this team is quite a bit higher, and they have every opportunity to be much stronger in 2014 than in 2013. In 2013, Stanford met expectations by making Nationals but went out on a depressing note after an Ivana Hong injury followed by woeful bars and beam rotations.
Speaking of Hong, the official Ivana Hong color-coded injury alert system is perpetually in the yellow range, verging on ocher, but in the aftermath of her nasty Semifinal knee injury last year, she's up to burnt umber. Do we know what's going on with her now? This is NCAA, where some teams guard information about serious injuries like its a matter of national security, so it's always hard to tell where gymnasts stand (if they can). Usually we just have to check people's twitter accounts, and when they suddenly start retweeting a lot of quotes about perseverance and heart, we know everything has gone wrong. For the purpose of this preview, I'm including Ivana Hong in these events because I haven't heard otherwise. Innocent until proven guilty, or something like that.
Fortunately, Stanford fans no longer have to pretend that Hong, Shapiro, and Vaculik will all be healthy and hitting for 9.9s at the same time in order to trick themselves to sleep at night. There are big-potential freshmen worth getting excited about this year, especially because this new crop is a powerful collection that should renovate the lineups on vault and floor and prop up a few of Stanford's weak areas. We could see all-around contribution from Rachel Daum, Nicolette McNair, and possibly Sophia Lee (though we haven't seen anything from her since 2012, so it's harder to judge). Here we go.
Without top vaulter Nicole Dayton, Stanford's returning vault lineup would primarily consist of a couple yfulls for 9.825s, making it all but impossible to contend with those power vaulting 49.500 teams, which is why we can expect the largest influx of freshman routines on this event. That should be the biggest signpost as to how well Stanford is doing on vault this year. The more freshmen making it into the lineup, the better off they will be.
Rachel Daum competed a high-scoring Y1.5 in JO and certainly has the power to own a full, and speaking of owning a full, Nicolette McNair should do just that and figure near the end of the lineup as well. Her sister, Danielle, is the less heralded of the McNairs, but vault is the event on which she is most likely to appear. As mentioned, we haven't seen as much from Sophia Lee lately, but she always had a handy yfull as well. The team is getting new life on vault this year, and we could see all four of these freshmen in the rotation.
If Hong is around, she obviously has an excellent full that can go into the 9.9s, and beyond that there are a number of perfectly acceptable possibilities who can come back into the lineup like Taylor Rice, Pauline Hanset, Kristina Vaculik, maybe even Alex Archer who competed twice last year or Melissa Chuang, though I believe she is currently dealing with injury as well. These others are more in the supporting, low 9.8s category, but look how many options I've just named! Occasionally over the last few years, Stanford has gone into the 49.4s on vault, but it has always come as a surprise. If enough of these freshmen join the lineup, that score can become consistent and unsurprising.
Ah, but with great power comes . . . maybe not being so strong on bars, so this is the prime area where the Hong, Shapiro, Vaculik veteran triumvirate will still need to be the dominant scoring force in the back half of the lineup for Stanford to be competitive. The precision of Shapiro's handstands and the life-changing power of Vaculik's gienger will be required to get those elusive 9.9s. Alex Archer is a concentrated stick of potential on this event, but the scores haven't always come. Still, she should be given a shot, and Shona Morgan is always good for a leadoff 9.8 if necessary.
This is also the most likely area for Sophia Lee to make an impact on the team since she consistently finished in the top 10 on bars during her elite days. Nicolette McNair also possesses an excellent jaeger that a routine could be built around, so get the handstands together and she can be top scorer.
Bars potential isn't exactly a new thing for this team. Stanford has the tendency to be so tantalizingly 9.9 on bars and then suddenly 9.7 after a weird dismount, but there's no reason we shouldn't be seeing minimum 49.3s here by March.
Beam has been a missed opportunity for Stanford lately, especially last year. Because so many teams (even top teams) struggle on this event, the ability to consistently record a 49.4 is enough to make a season. Just look at Oklahoma. Stanford has had the talent to make beam a signature event in that same way, but it did not come together last year. Sami Shapiro no longer doing beam is a blow because she could have been brilliant, but still, look at this team. Ivana Hong is an absolute treat, Amanda Spinner is significantly excellent for 9.9s, and I've always been a great fan of Shona Morgan's performance, even though it didn't get a lot of attention last season while buried in the first position. That's an excellent core of work that most teams would love to have.
As on the other pieces, I would expect Nicolette McNair and Rachel Daum to inject some strength into this event, and while I haven't yet mentioned another member of the parade of freshmen, Carinne Gale, this was her strongest event in JO, so she could be another option. I hope to see Kristina Vaculik compete beam a lot, but this is the area where her consistency problems show up the most, so with increased options this season, the team may decide her potential is not worth the risk. Ditto for Taylor Rice. She was in a revolving door with Pauline Hanset last year as the sixth worker, both showing some strong and some nerve-wracking performances, and both can do beam but may not be called upon this year if other new options pan out.
Stanford ranked 19th on floor last season. A team cannot remotely contend at the top of the table while being 19th on floor, especially when teams like Florida are getting 49.7s in Super Six and making a 49.1 all but disastrous by comparison. Last season, it seemed like every Stanford floor rotation began with a pair of 9.7s, and that cannot continue. At least a handful of the powerful freshmen, Daum, N McNair, D McNair, Haley Spector, Lee and the cavalcade of E passes they bring (it's the year of the double arabian), must get into this lineup and hit those big passes to change Stanford's narrative away from being a bars and beam team with unfulfilled potential.
The exit of Ashley Morgan means the most on this apparatus, so we need to see that massive infusion of new scoring potential. If they manage to push at least three of these freshmen into the lineup, they can finally get out of this 49.150 purgatory, aided by Shapiro, Rice, perhaps Shona Morgan (and hopefully Hong, of course).
As you may have noticed, this is a rather optimistic look at Stanford, but the potential is tremendous on this team. Some of these lineups are going to be nearly unrecognizable from last year, in a good way. And yet, it's Stanford, so I'm unready to declare anything with any confidence. It's either going to be profoundly fabulous or a complete disaster. There is no in-between territory for a group like this. The road to 197s is fairly well defined. I can absolutely see how they would get there, but let's just say that if they start the season with a rash of 194s again, no one will be suffering from the vapors or getting out the smelling salts.
Of the teams I've previewed so far, the focus has been on the potential to make Nationals, but Stanford is the first team for which I'm not focusing on Nationals but on Super Six. There's no reason not to have that lofty goal for a team like this. I could see Stanford leapfrogging the likes of Georgia, Michigan, and Utah if everything goes to plan. And if you're a new fan looking for a team to support that isn't among the big, obvious choices, give Stanford a look this season, particularly if you don't mind heart attacks and a lifetime of dashed dreams.