It's time for the Pac-12 Championship once again, that annual clash of teams who are really proud of their floor choreography and probably won't peak until June, and as has been the case for the last couple seasons, we enter the competition without a dominant favorite. Utah comes in as the top seed, with UCLA close behind, and Stanford and Oregon State nipping at them a few places back in the rankings. This event has featured some upsets in recent years, and it's easy to envision a back-and-forth affair with multiple lead changes where all four top teams at least pretend to be in the hunt for a while. Utah and UCLA have been the bigger scorers this season and therefore seem the likely favorites, but I don't expect the competition to be as clear cut as that. We have seen Oregon State save its best gymnastics for Pac-12s several times in the last few years, and Stanford often makes a sudden, late, unexpected charge during the postseason. It's going to be a competitive session.
But here's something dumb: This year, because Cal is hosting the event and elected to be in the evening session, these four favorite teams will be competing in the afternoon session, while the bottom four teams (Cal, Arizona, Arizona State, and Washington) will be competing in the evening session. Yes, this is counter-intuitive and bizarre. Or, as Greg Marsden said, "It’s complete lunacy. It’s just really stupid." Correct. Hole in one, Marsden.
I'll be at the meet, and I expect it to be exceptionally anticlimactic in that second session when the title has already been decided hours before and everyone is just waiting around for these 9.750s to finish, like in a marathon when the stragglers finally stumble across the finish line well after night has fallen. Good for them for finishing, but everyone already tuned out after the medals were awarded.
It's one of those short-sighted decisions that tends to occur a lot in NCAA gymnastics that are made solely with the immediate arena in mind (the hope of dragging in 11 more Cal fans in the evening session) at the expense of being broadcast-friendly or running a serious sporting event in a sane and exciting way.
Still, regardless of when the top seeds compete, it should be a close one. I was going to say "good one." We hope it's a good one. It could also be a mess. But I don't expect a runaway regardless, so let's break this thing down by event.
If Utah is going to win the Pac-12 Championship for the first time, it will be achieved on the strength of vault. There is no other team in the Pac-12 within two tenths of the Utes in RQS on this event, and they have recorded each of the top five vault rotation scores in the conference this season. Because the other events will be less cut and dry, Utah will want to fulfill the prophecy of RQS and build up something in the vicinity of a two-tenth advantage here, which is doable. None of the other teams have three vaulters as strong as Delaney, Wilson, and Dabritz, so if Utah is to take that big advantage on vault, they're going to need 9.950s from their final three, which we have seen from time of time this season. But, to get those scores at Pac-12s, they're going to need a couple more sticks than they have shown the past few weeks. You can never expect a 9.950 for a non-stick, especially in a postseason scenario. It happens, but you can't expect it if you're bouncing back on the landing.
Dabritz has downgraded back to the Yfull, which was expected. I'm actually surprised we saw as much of the 1.5 as we did, but Utah tends to revert back to safety in routine composition (which is also why we never see the Dabritz comaneci). It's kind of disappointing because I like to see the 1.5, but on the other hand she's more likely to stick the full. Though the decision really only pays off if she does stick, otherwise it's quite hard for her full to score higher than Delaney's and Wilson's and build the scores to the end of the rotation. (If it were me, I'd have Dabritz doing the Y1.5 in the fourth position in the lineup, ready to bump up the scores for the cleaner landings from Wilson and Delaney to follow. I always like difficulty building to cleanliness as a lineup strategy.)
The rest of vault is a bit of a mixed bag. UCLA has the biggest scorers of the rest of the group in Peszek and Courtney, who can both get 9.950 and will need it to make up for some of the landings we've seen at the beginning of this lineup. If UCLA can manage some 9.825s or 9.850s from Pinches and Mossett along with a hit from Bynum, who has been up and down, they should be in good shape. When the Bruins beat Utah on vault two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, the Bynum hit was a huge factor in that, but then she went and fell last weekend. Cameo performances from Michigan Sadiqua and January Sawa wouldn't go amiss in keeping the Bruins competitive.
Stanford can be strong on vault, but we haven't seen it nearly enough this year. With both McNairs, Rachel Daum's power, Kristina Vaculik's excellent distance, and Taylor Rice's improved full, there's excellent potential in this lineup. But, they need to continue putting the landings together and not bouncing and hopping all over the place, which tends to get them stuck in the 9.8s too often–also the problem for Oregon State. Both of these teams can comfortably put up low 49s, but it's going to take consistent 49.3-49.4 rotations to win this title. Oregon State has received a boost from Erika Aufiero the past couple weeks on vault but also shows a lot of 9.825s, which has been the Beaver story since the departure of Britney Ranzy. The added trouble for Oregon State is that they haven't shown the big event so far this year that can get a 49.5 to help overcome a 9.825 vault rotation.
In the B session, Cal will need to make a move on vault to win its group. Serena Leong and Alicia Asturias have both shown 9.875-9.900 potential this year, and Dallas Crawford and Jessica Howe provide solid supporting vaults (though Howe has been slowed by a broken toe) to give the team depth of scores and security it hasn't really had before. If one person is off, there are still possible 9.850s coming from elsewhere. Something 49.200-49.250, which they have reached a couple times on the road this year, would be very welcome and provide a nice early cushion.
Things get a little more complicated when it comes to bars because I'm not blown away by any of the Pac-12 teams on bars this year. The big scores have popped, and popped up pretty frequently, but I have concerns for each of the teams, which means that it's probably going to come down to whichever team can stick more dismounts. In a year of high scoring, the dismounts become that much more important, so even if the routines themselves are a bit [side-eye], a team could still stick a bunch of dismounts to get a 49.500 and suddenly have a major advantage over the teams that are stepsville.
Utah and UCLA come in ranked nearly identically on bars, and both teams have a number of likely 9.850s in their lineups. UCLA has a very clean opening from Danusia Francis usually for a 9.850, which helps set the tone, but much of the Bruins' success will be decided by whether Olivia Courtney can stick her dismount for a 9.900 (she's so capable of sticking that she needs to do it every week) and how everyone feels about Sophina DeJesus's gienger. The crazy legs are getting better (as they did in March last year as well), and both gymnasts will need to bring their big home scores to set up Peszek's anchor if UCLA is to win the event. If Courtney and DeJesus are doing the Ole Slop and Step, it could end up being a 49.2, which doesn't remotely help.
I'm going to be the stick police for Utah most of all because that's their path to 49.4, sticking five of six dismounts. Utah is always flirting with being nickel-and-dimed for flexed feet or amplitude or leg separations, so they need their sticks to erase that and allow Dabritz to finish them off with a 9.950.
Stanford is currently the #4 team in the Pac-12 on bars, but it's easy to make the argument that they can be the best of the bunch. It's another event where the McNairs provide a pleasing foundation, but Sami Shapiro and Kristina Vaculik should be the best 1-2 punch on bars in the conference. Shapiro can't do a lot of the events anymore and has become a bars specialist (and honestly sometimes I forget she's on the team), but her handstands and toe point remain gorgeous and put her in contention for huge scores with a stick. And Kristina Vaculik + Gienger = Done. The above routine got a 9.850. In other news, I don't even know anymore.
Oregon State was the bars master last year in winning the conference title with a 49.6 on the event that blew everyone away, but it's hard to see that happening again this year with the lineup turnover they have undergone since last season. There are still several strong routines in this lineup with Aufiero and Hannah Casey regularly providing the scores to bring them into the 49.2s or 49.3s, but if they're going to take advantage of other teams' mistakes, they'll need to do it here and they'll need to do it with multiple 9.9s from some people who have been 9.850 so far like Harris, Tang, or McMillan. Watch those scores. If they're feeling 9.875+, it could be a good day for the Beavs.
How do you solve a problem like watching these teams on beam? It's harrowing. It's a shame that they make it so upsetting for us because there are a number of individual bright spots throughout the conference who are joys to watch on beam. UCLA has the biggest not-secret weapons on this event in Peszek and Francis, which is why they can still get a 48.9 while counting a fall and why, all things being actually hit, they should be the favorite to win the event. Both can easily go 9.950, and we expect at least a 9.900 from each. The questions revolve around the rest of the lineup because I'm not sure who's even in it or why. There are 8 people who could conceivably come in, but no options are less terrifying than the others. Syd Sawa has become the anchor because one time she did one good routine as the anchor, but is that a reason? Who else is there? Mikaela Gerber? Ellette Craddock? The physical incarnation of generalized anxiety disorder? At this point, they're just hoping for four people to stay on the beam before letting Peszek and Francis do their thing, but given the balance beam situation in this whole conference, that could be enough.
Now, it's time for an important sidebar with Stanford. Hey, Stanford. You should be amazing on this event. Amazing. Work on that. With Shona Morgan's brilliant leadoff routine, followed by solid, crisp gymnastics from Nicolette McNair and Amanda Spinner and improved consistency from Vaculik, the 49.4s should be flying off the shelves for this team most weeks. I'm still expecting it. On a strong day, Stanford can stay within an acceptable margin of the other teams on vault and bars, but to win the title, they'll need something 49.5ish on beam, and that's realistic. They have the beam workers to do it sitting right there in front of them. This is the absolute event to watch for Stanford because 1-6 they can set themselves apart with difficulty and quality the other teams don't have, but if it's a wobble day, it's hard to imagine them coming back from that on the other events without a heaping of help from a couple teams.
Maddie Gardiner is another one of those joyful beam standouts who populates the otherwise nerve-wracking rotations in the Pac-12, and the fact that Oregon State has exceeded my expectations by being the #7 beam team this year is a result of her excellence along with Chelsea Tang's solidity to bring them to 49.2s. If Oregon State wins this title, it will be a surprise, but it was a surprise the last two times Oregon State won as well, so there's that. And if they do manage to win or challenge, beam can be one of their sneaky events where they don't seem particularly flashy, but they creep in with 9.850s, pass up teams making mistakes, and suddenly look dangerous.
I've saved Utah for last of the big favorites because I feel like I've said everything possible about Utah on beam this year a hundred million times already. It's scary. There's often a lot of tight gymnastics. And they need to hit. Just hit. They need to squeeze every tenth possible out of this lineup. I can't imagine any team winning while counting a fall because that would mean it was a truly sucky meet, so Utah just needs to get it over with, hit, and let the other events do the talking. If it's a good day on the other events, they could even get by with a 49.100 or so on beam.
For the teams in the B session, it will solely be a matter of who hits the most routines. None of these teams have been able to break out of the 49.1s this season, so getting five people to stay on the beam could be the major asset in winning the session. Arizona has hit the 49 barrier the most this season, and has some elegant potential on the event even if consistency is a fleeting friend. In particular, Shelby Edwards is one to watch here if you're looking for some less-heralded routines to keep an eye on.
Floor is probably the most wide-ranging event of the four at this meet because it is a boon for some teams and an unexpected enemy for others. Usually, we anticipate beam being the problem event while most teams are able to put together enough double pikes for a rotation of 9.850s on floor, but it has been quite the struggle for a few of the Pac-12 teams so far this year. Not Utah, who is the #1 team in the country on floor and has broken 49.450 more often than not this season. A couple of the people early in the rotation can be hit or miss, but Wilson has impressive power when she's on, Tutka can regularly be 9.9, Damianova is clean as can be and got her 10 last weekend, and Dabritz is Dabritz. A 49.500 is very believable, and what they end up needing out of their floor rotation will be almost entirely dependent on how beam goes.
UCLA is the next most likely to do well on floor, and even though they have been missing the potential 9.9s from Angi Cipra since her injury, having Peszek join Courtney and Sawa gives them a solid 9.9 trio at the back of the lineup that can keep pace with nearly any team in the country. Floor has no business not being a high-scoring event for UCLA, but they will need to have the utmost control of their landings. There was some bouncing back on tumbling passes and still receiving 9.950s happening over the weekend, and like Utah on vault, they can't expect that kind of treatment as we move into the land of four judges. UCLA's path to victory features staying level with Utah on floor, so they'll need the big hits from the back three, a good start from Pinches (who has turned into an enjoyable floor leadoff these past few weeks), and some hypnotic hairography from Danusia to do it.
Beyond those two teams, it gets a little more depressing. Arizona is the next highest ranked team on floor, but the event can be very finicky for them, sometimes big 49s, sometimes nasty little 48s with falls. Kristin Klarenbach tends to anchor for big scores, and Arizona will need one of those 49.3 rotations to win the second session over Cal, who should be the other top contender. It's still conceivable that Arizona could become a Regionals seed with a big result at Pac 12s, so there's more riding on their result than we would normally see in the B session. It may end up that Arizona is fighting Cal to see which team can move up into the top 18 (so that will give us some storyline to watch in the evening group), and floor will be a big asset for Arizona if they are going to beat the hosts. I don't see Arizona winning the session without winning floor.
Stanford and Oregon State. Floor has been a struggle for both these teams for much of the year, and it's the single biggest reason they are coming in below Utah and UCLA in the rankings and in likelihood of winning this meet. Hard as they may try, Oregon State can't get over losing the routines they lost after last season, and all I seem to think when watching them on floor is, "Hmm, where's Melanie Jones?" The 9.9s just haven't been there often enough this year when they were almost guaranteed last year. Stanford is doing well to get Nicolette McNair back into the lineup to give them some more difficulty, but is it going to work? She needs to be competing, but she also needs to find a way to hit to help support the possible 9.9s we could see from Rice and Vaculik. Stanford is only 21st in the country on floor, and it has felt like it. If Stanford or Oregon State are to win, I have to think it will take a season-best on floor.
So there we have it. Four events. Some greatness and some terror. Hopefully things are less clear now than they were when we started. You're welcome.