What have you done for me lately? In April, Florida finally, finally broke through, climbing back from consecutive beam falls in Super Six to become the fifth team to win a national title with all the tears and confetti and celebrations that come with it, but that was eight months ago. The glory of 2013 is the past, the stuff of banners and trophy cases. Now, it's a new season, and the Gators are in the exact same position as every other team, a heap of potential trying to live up to its capabilities, starting at zero.
The 2013 team was the most talented group of gymnasts Florida has ever put together at one time, and one of the biggest challenges Florida faces in 2014 is that the statement is still true. The 2013 Gators remain Florida's best, and the 2014 Gators will certainly and deeply feel the absences of Marissa King, Ashanee Dickerson, and Randy Stageberg in their lineups. The gymnastics will not be as big this year as last year, and there are places where we can expect a loss in scoring potential (places named vault and floor). However, as we learned at Super Six, Florida was a fall better than any other team in the country last season, so this team can afford to lose some big scores and still remain the atop the rankings and still be better than the rest of the teams. The margin does appear to be tighter than it was last year, though, which should make for a true postseason battle that doesn't need a fall in order to get exciting.
In making up for those lost routines, Florida will be getting some important routines back from returning gymnasts, with Alaina Johnson and Bridgey Caquatto both available in the all-around this year. The freshmen Silvia Colussi-Pelaez and Claire Boyce should also aid in this endeavor, and we can expect them to appear in a couple competition lineups and provide acceptable backup routines on every event. Let the event exploration begin.
Of primary importance, we are all poorer for not having Marissa King's Tsuk 1.5 with us anymore. Civilization continues to crumble, and everything is just the worst. As a result, Florida's vault rotation will be 64% more drab this year, but on the bright side of life, the fact that King's vault was often woefully undervalued means that the Gators are not in as much of a hole scoring-wise as we might expect for a team losing such an excellent piece of gymnastics. Can they find a new 9.875-9.900 to slot in? Probably, or at least something close in the 9.850-9.875 area. It won't be nearly as impressive as King's vault, but the net scoring loss should be smallish, even if the net emotional loss is incalculable. Have I mentioned that I liked that vault?
Of the people who are still around, Kytra Hunter. The end. The only question about her Y1.5 is whether she'll get a 10 this season. Bridget Sloan will be similarly fantastic for regular 9.9s, and Alaina Johnson should be a third high-scoring stalwart, much as she was immediately last year after coming back from a fairly long injury layoff. Those three vaults are enough to be getting on with, but to be near the top spot in the country on this event, Florida will need a couple more high-scoring vaults in the 9.875+ territory in the first half of the lineup. Mackenzie Caquatto is the likeliest story as a fourth vaulter, even if the team is conservative with her numbers again this year and keeps her out of the lineup full time until later in the season. Her distance and amplitude are superior to the rest of the options, so she needs to be there.
Elsewhere on the team, Colussi-Pelaez, Boyce, Rachel Spicer, Bridgey Caquatto, and Kiersten Wang can all vault for at least a 9.800 if called upon. My choices for the remaining spots would be B Caquatto and Wang as I think they have the most potential, but it's a close race. Wang reinjured her groin over Christmas, so if she is not able to come back, all of the other realistic contenders should have a shot at that final spot. Without the big vaults from King and Dickerson, we may not see those 49.6 days from Florida on this event this year, but regular 49.4s should still be a comfortable, common score once the lineup is together.
Once again, the Gators make their best case for the title on bars. Bars also happens to be the event where they are losing the least since Stageberg didn't do bars and Ashanee had already been bumped from the lineup by the end of last season. Nearly everyone is returning, and no team is going to be able to match the scoring from M Caquatto, Sloan, and Johnson. Oklahoma will probably come closest, but expect Florida to be the #1 bars team for the majority of the season. For each of the big three at the back of this lineup, 9.900 is a regular, fine score. It's a yawn. They can, and expect to, do better than that every time and receive 9.950s for sticks.
In the front half of the lineup, Florida has a whole mess of options. Nine members on this team do bars, and all nine could conceivably come in for a 9.850 at some point. Kytra Hunter stepped up her bars game to a massive degree last year with a sack of 9.900s and should be here again every week doing the same. That she's still only the fourth-best bars worker on this team tells you everything you need to know about the situation on this event. Hunter won't be far behind the scores the top three are recording, and while there could be some competition for the remaining spots, Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto and Bridgey Caquatto seem most likely. BDG has the precision to get 9.9s, and B Caquatto's release amplitude and difficulty puts her a step above. Boyce and Our Lady of Perpetual Stalders, Colussi-Pelaez, are both legitimate contenders, though may be just a tad behind in the DLO department.
Last year, I predicted that Florida would get a 49.7 on bars at home at some point during the season. They peaked at 49.675 like losers, but I'm doubling down on my prediction and going for the same thing this season. A home 49.7 on bars will occur in 2014, and 49.5s will occur a lot.
If there was a trouble apparatus for the Gators last year, it was beam. Beyond the Super Six issue, they had falls here and there throughout the season, many more than in 2012. Still, they were one of the top teams on beam last year anyway and have a good case to remain one this year, especially with the 9.9ish likes of Mackenzie Caquatto and Bridget Sloan leading the scoring parade.
I'll be interested to see if Sloan remains in the second position this year on beam and floor. It was a savvy decision by Florida to put her in the second spot last season because it forced the judges to go very high very early in the rotation, which is always good news for a team's scoring. In her case, there was little risk of an early-lineup underscore because she's The Bridget Sloan. You don't underscore royalty. Sloan won the national AA title from the front half of the lineup, which is remarkable. No one else could have done that. Florida also had the luxury of making this choice because there were plenty of other 9.9s that could still go at the end of the lineups. Will they feel comfortable enough with their other 9.9s to do the same thing this year?
Hunter will be back, and while this has always been Alaina Johnson's question mark event, I would also classify her as one of the top six beamers on this team who should be in the lineup. That's a solid four, but in a bit of a trend, there will be competition for the final two spots. Spicer has been a regular toward the beginning of the lineup during her Florida career, but she's not necessarily a given to return. Colussi-Pelaez of transverse aerial fame (though it's doubtful we'll see it during the season unless she goes last and throws it after five others have hit) and Bridgey Caquatto seem poised to step into the remaining spots with beautiful beam work. Rhonda doesn't like to alter the beam lineup much unless forced to, so we may not see much from backups this year, but BDG is pretty on this event and Claire Boyce looks like a competent fill-in if necessary.
As was correctly pointed out in the comments of the Oklahoma preview, the Florida floor lineup is going to have a somewhat different identity this year without the big passes from King and Dickerson. I don't think we'll see a major regression in quality, but fewer 9.9s seems inevitable. There will be several contending teams getting 49.5s on this event, and Florida cannot afford to give up too much ground to them. The bars advantage should provide some cushion, but it will not be enough to overcome a sluggish floor. I don't think this will be a sluggish floor, but how well they replace the King and Dickerson routines is something to keep an eye on.
Hunter's tumbling will certainly get her into the 9.950 family again this season, and she should contend for the floor title. She's not a choreography queen, so I appreciate that the coaches have given her a unique middle pass because it lends a level of creativity the routine would lack otherwise. I also quite enjoy what Sloan is doing this year, and one of the best qualities to her routine is that she makes the "boring E" pass, the front double full, not boring. It's too well executed to be boring.
Alaina Johnson will finally get a chance to perform her floor from last season, and Bridgey Caquatto looks primed to return as well. She was quite successful once she came into the floor lineup last year, though her 9.925-9.950s in the anchor position in the postseason reflect score building as much as anything that happened on the floor. Colussi-Pelaez seems a fair bet for the front of the lineup, and there are a couple routines in the maybe pile from Boyce and Spicer, or Wang if she is able to return into floor shape. Ideally, we'd see Mackenzie Caquatto here, who would be a standout scorer if she competed, but they have kept her off floor lately to preserve those porcelain ankles and keep her healthy for the other events. We'll see if there's a need to risk it this year, perhaps if the depth situation becomes a concern.
From the moment the 2012 season concluded, the Gators have been the favorite in NCAA gymnastics. The rankings may fluctuate, but reality hasn't. They were the favorite all through the 2013 preseason, 2013 season, and 2014 preseason, and it remains true. The strength of Sloan, Hunter, Johnson, and the Caquattuses cannot be matched by any other team, and there are enough standout supporting routines to keep the lineups deep and healthy. At the moment, Florida has the most believable route to a title and is returning the most 9.9s of any other team. To follow that believable route, a big advantage on bars will key, as is having Hunter's and Sloan's scores keep the team on pace with the best schools in the country on vault and floor. If that happens, Florida appears in good shape to repeat. They just need to stay healthy. There are some long medical histories among the stars on this team.
Phew. And there we have it for the previews. I hope they have been enjoyable and informative. The season is now officially allowed to begin.
I also want to make a quick mention of how useful the charts section of Road to Nationals has been in putting these previews together. It has been an invaluable source for fact-checking my impressions of past scores and trends.