(Do you like the title? Thank you. I'm very proud of myself.)
The NCAA National Championship is less than a week away, people. One week, and then it's over. I'm definitely not ready for the season to be finished yet. Then, we'll have to focus on elite gymnastics, which is always a challenge at first. I watched the women's team competition at Pac Rims this week (P.S. how do they expect anyone to spend time writing previews for Nationals when Pac Rims and Men's NCAA Champs are going on?) and it was hard to shift gears back to elite and remember that you're allowed to have a lot of mistakes and wobbles and breaks and bound on landings and it's still considered a good routine. Also that corner rule, you guys . . . I just can't with it. I feel like it's getting even worse. It might be more upsetting than the pointed-toe, duck-with-rigor-mortis running they're already forced to do to connect dance elements. It's just the dumbest.
But I digress. For now, we still have NCAA Nationals to enjoy, so over the coming days I'll be previewing the competition by assessing the chances for each of the twelve qualified teams - what constitutes a likely outcome and what they will need to do to attain it. Based on what we've seen over the past few weeks, this season defies any "favorite" status for any of the teams. No one hangs onto being the favorite for more than a week or so before they start counting falls on beam, which should make for an exciting competition. In the men's championship yesterday, after the first rotation Michigan was all, "Oh wait, now we could fall a thousand times and still win. Peace out." I don't expect such a scenario in the women's championship. There are several teams with solid arguments for the championship, and they should be fighting it out until the end of Super Six. I'll save their preview for later. For this preview of the afternoon session, I'll withhold Oklahoma and LSU until then and limit it to addressing the fight to qualify with Georgia, Michigan, Stanford, and Illinois. It is by no means guaranteed that Oklahoma and LSU will advance, but for the purpose of setting the scene, this is the most likely scenario.
The first session looks to be the more exciting of the two semifinals, and the quest to qualify out of the afternoon session is perhaps the most interesting storyline we have going into Nationals in that no teams looks like a frontrunner. There is no expected scenario or upset scenario, just several teams that could end up in any order. Georgia is the highest ranked of the contending trio, ahead of Michigan and Stanford, but at both conference championships and regionals, they had the lowest score of the three. Stanford is the lowest ranked, but looked the strongest and most consistent at regionals.
This semifinal also looks like a pretty good bet to make a tiny blip on the history radar. No team has ever scored a 197 in a semifinal and failed to advance to Super Six. The highest score ever to lose in a semifinal is Oklahoma's 196.925 from 2012, but if all these teams hit regular meets, we could see five 197s. It could take as much as a 197.4-197.5 to begin to feel comfortable with qualifying, which is great. It should take brilliance to make Super Six, and that's what will be required here. Let's begin.
It hasn't been a great end to the season for Georgia. They lost Brittany Rogers' contributions in the AA, finished 4th at SECs (expected, but still not exciting for the team), and then put together a downright lumpy performance at regionals. That's enough concentrated lackluster to make an argument for Georgia as easy choice for an upset in semifinals, but at the same time there is reason for optimism for the Gym Dogs. Even with that rather poor showing at regionals, they didn't finish all that far behind Michigan (who didn't have a great meet themselves, but also didn't count a fall). Get rid of the Hires mistake on floor, and the meet is even. Assume both teams show up on beam, and Georgia is out ahead. I'm not saying that's going to happen - there are quite a few leaping assumptions there - but even considering all their mistakes at regionals, the bars and vault advantages bode well for Georgia's chances to advance to Super Six for the second time in a row if they can be just fine on the other events and not go to pieces this time.
Georgia has drawn Olympic order in the semifinal, which should be a very comfortable rotation schedule, but it does mean they will have the onus of coming out of the gates quickly and opening up a big early lead over their competitors. To be in a healthy position, Georgia will need something around a 99.000 at the halfway point (which is a big score but certainly attainable on those two events - 49.400 on vault and 49.600 on bars is something they have done multiple times this year), and they will want to be in either first or second place at that point. LSU begins on floor and vault, so we could also see them break the 99s after two events, and Georgia won't necessarily need to be ahead of LSU's pace in order to advance. The lack of Brittany Rogers and her 1.5 in the vault lineup is a significant obstacle, but because Michigan has also lost Sheppard and because Stanford isn't as strong on vault, it should be manageable. Lauren Johnson has come into the lineup after her 9.975 from SECs, but I wouldn't expect to see that score again. It was an overscore based on situation and occasion given to a solid (but 9.850-9.900) vault, and something 9.750-9.850 for her is the much more likely outcome. Still, because we can expect 9.900+ from Cheek and Rogers, the rest of the lineup need only be good and solid for 9.850s to get that 49.400+ score they need.
Bars, of course, is the showcase event for this team. They are the best bars team in this semifinal, and should win the event, possibly by as much as multiple tenths depending on how the scoring goes. But because of the competitiveness of this session, Georgia can't take the bars rotation for granted. They must score over a 49.500 to get to that 99.000 plateau, which means continuing to stick the landings as well as they have been is a necessity for survival. This team consistently scores well on this event because the work on the bars themselves is pristine. There are no handstands given away, no breaks in leg form, which means nearly everything decided by the dismount landings. But, if they are tight and start to give away steps, they could go down into the 49.3s, which isn't good enough in this situation. They need that 99.
If they get to that 99 level after the first two events, Georgia can go 49.250 or so on the final two piece (which is a more realistic goal for beam and floor) and still get to that mid-197 area that may very well be required to advance. Rogers was a question mark on beam for regionals and ended up not competing, but if it's possible to get her back for Nationals, that would be very significant. She has her errors from time to time, but she can get a 9.900 for a hit, which none of the replacements can do. Ashlyn Broussard's hit for 9.825 in the anchor position at regionals was very important, so expect her to continue to compete if Rogers remains unavailable. While Georgia is sure to give up ground to Michigan on floor, that's not necessarily the case on beam - even though it happened at regionals - which makes it that much more critical for their advancement quest. Georgia has a lot of 9.825 gymnastics early on beam, but their weapons are Cheek and Earls, which made the mistakes from those two at regionals doubly significant. There was no one else to pick up the scoring slack. I wouldn't expect the same mistakes to occur again, and if they do hit - even for 9.875 or the like - they can make things very difficult for the other teams.
For Georgia's sake, the session needs to be decided before they get to floor. They'll be on floor in the last rotation, and by that point we need to be saying things like, "They just need to hit five routines to make it." But, if we go into the final rotations of the semifinal still doing calculations about what certain teams need to score to advance, that doesn't bode as well for the Gym Dogs. Michigan finishes on vault and Stanford finishes on beam - both in the fifth rotation - and both can outscore what Georgia will get on floor by putting up just average showings. One of the troubles for Georgia is that they appear to be conceding a guaranteed dropped score at the beginning of the floor lineup. Neither of the replacements for Rogers (Broussard at SECs, Persinger at regionals) looked ready to compete, and neither had a usable score. They've had a couple more weeks now to prepare, but the burden of an early dropped score puts more pressure on the rest of the lineup, especially on Jay at the end - the one potential big score. Georgia would definitely take something like a 49.200 on floor right now given what we have seen lately, but that's still a somewhat vulnerable score. How vulnerable exactly will depend on beam. If they hit beam for a positive score with a bunch of 9.850-9.875s, that will take the pressure off the floor score and is more likely to create that "just need to hit" scenario.
Given the rotation order, Michigan will have to come from behind at this meet to advance, so don't be surprised if Michigan spends the first half of the meet in 4th place with a fairly significant deficit on the first three teams. That's very much expected. If Georgia is looking at a 99.000 after the first two events for a strong showing, Michigan should be at 98.600 at the same point to feel pleased with their progress - a potentially challenging score but probably necessary. The real litmus test for the Wolverines will be where they stand after they compete on floor in rotation 4. If the deficit remains more than two tenths or so, they'll be in some trouble, but if they have cut the deficit to something tiny or moved into a top three position after they have done floor, they'll be feeling good going to finish on vault.
There has been less dissection of Michigan's performance at regionals because they won the meet and because it wasn't as dire as Georgia's performance, but significant quality upgrades will still be required if they want to advance. They scored a 196.750, so they'll need to find at least five tenths (and probably more) of improvement to make Super Six in a hit meet. Most of that should be coming on the beam, but there are areas of possible improvement elsewhere as well.
Michigan begins the competition on bars, which should be a welcome rotation order for them and should produce a strong early score. They had a fall from Sampson at regionals, which was very unusual - she's had some 9.7s this year but we always expect a hit. That depleted some of the scoring potential we would otherwise expect. Michigan bars is a delightful rotation to watch, combining power with
form and hitting all points on the power-grace spectrum at various
times. It is worthy of more than the 49.275 they earned at regionals, and in prior meets they have scored in the 49.4s. That's much close to their talent level and is what they will need in order to keep on a solid early pace. With Georgia starting on vault, they'll want to give up as little as possible to begin the session. Getting a 49.4 on bars likely means 9.9s from both Beilstein and Sampson and then 9.850-9.875s from the other counting scores, which is manageable. They won't score as well as Georgia will once the Gym Dogs go to bars, but they'll be fine with that and will believe they can make it up elsewhere.
Oh beam. Over the last two years, Michigan has mastered the art of being as terrifying as possible on beam without counting a fall. In fact, up until the disaster from the Big Ten quad meet, they had barely counted falls at all in the last two season but had counted so many 9.6s that you would never know that they don't actually fall too often. It was exactly that counting 9.6s situation that kept them out of Super Six last year with a 48.775 on beam, and regionals last week saw a nearly identical performance. Low beam scores should be the biggest concern for Michigan because they don't have the high-scoring options to make up for them they way that Georgia does. Michigan is more likely to get 9.850s for hits, while Georgia has Cheek and Earls at the back of the lineup who can get 9.900s. Briley Casanova does have a 9.950 high this year, and her return to the lineup is essential for Michigan's chances, even though she struggled at regionals. If she and Nicole Artz can hit clean routines and Sampson gets one of her 9.850s, they should be able to endure the event. All other things being hit, it will be hard for Michigan to stay competitive without a 49.200 on beam. Looking at the lineup, they are more than capable of that score, but they have reached it only twice this season.
Floor is the major asset for Michigan in this session, and the score they record there will tell us whether they are in contention or not. It's always tough to expect a 49.500+ on an event, but I expect it from Michigan's floor, and they'll need it in order to reach that mid-197 territory. They have the power, difficulty, and control on the landings to score right with LSU and Oklahoma and I wouldn't be surprised if they win the session on floor. Getting Chiarelli into the lineup over Parker is a necessary step because she has higher scoring potential and can put up a number more likely to be used. The quality escalates from her routine right through to Sampson, who is almost an automatic 9.950 at the back of the lineup now. If they are within four tenths of Georgia going to floor, they could make up that whole margin during one rotation.
Vault should be a strength for the Wolverines as well, and a few weeks ago I would have expected them to put up a huge vault score and use it to continue eating away at Georgia's advantage at the end of the meet, but after the injury to Sheppard, that strong vault score is much less of a sure thing. They still have the big vaults from Sugiyama, Beilstein, and Sampson, but a competitive score will require them to stick in a way they haven't done consistently yet. The 49.200 from regionals probably won't be good enough in the semifinals because Georgia is capable of scoring about the same for a hit floor rotation. That would put the pressure entirely on Michigan's own floor rotation to do all the work of keeping pace with the Gym Dogs, and they'd want to spread that work over multiple rotations.
In a bit of a surprise, they rearranged the lineup order after Sheppard went out to put Sugiyama in the leadoff position. We rarely see a 1.5 lead off a vault rotation, and I love it. I don't think teams use early difficulty nearly enough in their lineup composition. They won't lose much scoring potential by moving her to the front because 1.5s are less likely to be underscored - even if they're early in the order - out of respect for the difficulty. A difficult vault to start can obliterate any conservative judging for the beginning of the lineup, and it has the potential of bumping up the scores for Artz and Zakharia if they can land with more control than Sugiyama does. Still, it will be up to the back of the lineup to get scores of at least 9.900, maybe 9.950, to make sure that they continue to outscore Georgia and Stanford as the meet winds to a close. Michigan will have to be the class of the contending teams in rotations 4-6 to advance.
Let's not forget about the Cardinal. They're absolutely in this. If you're looking for an upset pick next weekend, go with Stanford. The argument to advance is very believable. I would still consider them less likely than Georgia or Michigan to get a spot in Super Six because they have the lowest peak score of the three teams. If everyone is hitting to capability, Stanford doesn't have the huge, huge scores to match them (topping out at 197.275 this season). Unlike Georgia with bars and Michigan with floor, Stanford doesn't possess that big 49.500 event that they can rely on either to create a lead or eliminate someone else's lead. Beam is actually the most likely 49.500 for Stanford, but it's so tough to rely on beam for a big score because it's such a mercurial temptress. They needed 9.925s from the first two routines to get up to 49.450 on beam at regionals, and I wouldn't expect that to happen again (though props to one judge for being willing to give a 10 in the leadoff position to Morgan's deserving routine). But at the same time, Stanford is on an upswing and may not have shown peak gymnastics yet. They recorded that 197.275 at regionals while counting a low bars score, so we know that going at least two tenths better than that is very possible. Still, it looks like it will take a major mistake from at least one of the higher-ranked teams for Stanford to find an opening to hop into Super Six.
If Michigan is going to start with a deficit compared to Georgia, then we can expect Stanford to do the same since they will begin the meet on weaker events before advancing to stronger ones. One of the most important improvements we needed to see at regionals was Stanford stepping up the scoring capability on floor, which they did by managing a 49.325. In true Stanford fashion, they squeezed Shapiro into the lineup at the last minute, debuting her at regionals after she hadn't competed all year. Of course they did. The concern on floor is still the lack of big gymnastics with so few difficult passes. Stanford doesn't scream 9.9s and are unlikely to get many. It's a lot of 9.850s, but they will need at least two or three 9.875s-9.900s to keep as close as they need to be after floor. They will be trailing early, but it's about staying close enough. The vault situation is similar to floor in the dearth of 9.9s. It's not as dire as it is on floor, but the lack of big sticks has been a concern at times this season. Nicolette McNair is both the most likely to stick and the most likely to get a 9.900 (funny how that works out), but she needs to bring that magical power to the rest of her team. They cannot give up a 49.100 and expect to stay competitive. At least half the lineup needs to land.
With a really strong showing in the early rotations, Stanford would be around the 98.600-98.650 range after two events. I don't know that it will happen, but that would be a very nice outcome for them. If they are under 98.500 at halfway, I don't think they're in it even with superb hits on the final two events, but if they can somehow be ahead of Michigan and within .250-.300 of Georgia at that point, then look out because the final two events should produce very competitive scores.
This is really an excellent semifinal in terms of bars talent (so the judges will have to be on top of their critical game to produce the necessary separation between routines), and Stanford has several routines that are right up there with the best, particularly those of Shapiro and Vaculik. Oh, the toe point and the vertical handstands - not just those 10-degree, no-deduction handstands we always see, but vertical handstands. They're a joy to watch. The meet will tighten as we move into the later rotations with all the contending teams coming together, and expect the Cardinal to begin to close a gap while on bars with something to the tune of 49.400. They haven't done that nearly enough this year, but they are way too talented to be settling for anything less. The 9.950s from Shapiro and Vaculik at regionals tell me they're on track for that kind of score at nationals. But really, the crucial event for Stanford's chances is beam, and that's where they will end the meet.
Here's the thing about Stanford right now: I can see how they would outscore one of Georgia or Michigan on most of the events - they could beat Georgia on floor or Michigan on bars - but to advance, they're going to need to be beat both of them at the same time, which is quite the burden. That's where beam comes in because Stanford is clearly the best of the three on beam. In terms of being enjoyable to watch, Stanford and Oklahoma are the class of the whole nationals field on beam, and the scoring could end up ranking them the same way. Stanford has not been perfect on the event - there have been mistakes along the way - but the lineup they're putting out right now looks solid. They're not the most likely to fall, and most importantly, they have five people capable of getting a 9.900. If Stanford is to pull off the upset, I don't see it happening without a 49.400 on beam. That's within their capability and much higher than we can expect from Georgia or Michigan. Finishing on beam can be tough, but I think they'll thrive in that scenario. They did at regionals, posting a total score that would see them qualify out of this session if everything played out exactly the same. I don't expect everything to play out exactly the same, but that regionals result is reason enough to think it's possible.
The Illini round out the group and head into nationals for the third time in the last four years (and fourth time in the last six), which is an accomplishment in itself. Qualifying this season is probably the biggest accomplishment of all of them because this year they truly did it against the odds, having lost their star competitor after last season and qualifying out of the Minnesota Regional when the majority of observers figured they would fall tamely to the home team. Advancing this far is a big deal, but it does look extremely likely to be the end of the road.
Illinois put together a great performance at regionals, but it was a great performance worthy of 196.600, which is only a bit above what Georgia scored for a poor performance and lower than what Michigan scored for a largely average one. They would need a tornado of mistakes from three teams at the same time to find themselves in position to advance. 196.600 isn't necessarily their peak score (several of those vaults had bad landings with no control that must be reigned in), but it's very difficult to envision a mid-197 that the other teams can reach. Where Illinois can make a mark is on bars, especially if the regionals performance is anything to go by. They put together a stream of excellent stuck DLOs and very clean routines that scored well above what Oklahoma did at the same meet and would challenge most teams in the country. They're in a semifinal overrun with the nation's top bars performers, so those routines may get overlooked, but they have a lot of talent on that event.
I'm more looking for Illinois to put together a complete meet at nationals for the first time. This is the program's fourth visit to the big game, but they have never broken the 196 barrier in any of their semifinal appearances. Last year they came the closest with a 195.700, but poor vault and bars rotations put them out of the running. They are by far the least likely team in this session to advance, so hopefully they can compete freely knowing that they already accomplished their goal of making nationals. With multiple recent appearances at nationals, this is becoming normal for them, but if finishing higher than 11th-12th is going to be a realistic possibility in future years, they'll have to start proving they're more than just making up the numbers once nationals get underway by finally hitting.