Let us now move on to the quest to qualify out of the second semifinal. As with Oklahoma and LSU in the first session, I'll save the outlooks on Florida's and Alabama's chances for later because they are the most likely to advance from this session (barring a Florida-at-regionals level repeat) and to go on to contend for the national title. For now, it's time to look at Utah, UCLA, Nebraska, and Penn State and their various chances to advance out of this semifinal.
Of the two semifinals, this is the more likely to be straightforward. Given what Florida, Alabama, and Utah have been scoring this season compared to UCLA, Nebraska, and Penn State, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see those three pull ahead early and stay ahead throughout. But, this is nationals. It wouldn't be the kooky competition we know and love without a few crazy falls, so don't count it as over and done too early. It's not as clear cut as last year's afternoon semifinal was, when Florida, LSU, and Georgia had basically already advanced over Minnesota, Stanford, and Illinois before the meet even began. There's more chance for an upset this year. As in the early session, it should take over a 197 to advance, so the 197+ standard is how we must evaluate all the teams.
Utah is a cusp team this year, sitting on the border between the favorites and the contenders. At times, they have scored right with the top teams in the country, getting some high 197s and that home 198, but at other times, they have looked a step behind, usually the result of a beam rotation that - even though the falling ship has been righted - isn't scoring competitively enough to keep them on that 198 pace. Right now Utah looks like a safe-ish pick to make it back to Super Six and reclaim the team's honor after a program-worst finish of 9th last season, but they will be an outsider in the race to do damage once they get to Super Six.
The Utes will have the same rotation order they did at regionals, beginning on bars and finishing on vault. Regionals was not the best showing for the team, so even though an identical 197.300 could very well end up making it through from this semifinal, they'll want to improve on what happened in Fayetteville in order to eliminate any questions about who will qualify. A lot of that potential improvement can come right from the first rotation on bars. The 49.250 from regionals is a fine number but much lower than they have been scoring this season, with every member of the lineup coming in below her RQS. Utah makes its money on bars by sticking the hell out of all its landings, and that didn't happen enough at regionals. If Utah is to reach its goal of ensuring this semifinal is completely uninteresting, they'll need to stick all the way through the lineup like they did in last year's semifinal for a 49.475. Bars was by far their best event at championships last season, which was quite unexpected. They could use a similarly unexpected massive hit as early insurance at this meet, just in case beam is a little beamy.
A growing concern for Utah may be how the judges are electing to evaluate their work on bars and beam. There were just a couple small issues like tiny hops and a missed handstand or two on bars, but their score was multiple tenths below what they have been receiving. The rotation looked perhaps two tenths weaker than the one from Pac 12s, but the score was nearly four tenths lower. On beam at regionals, they put up a pretty well-hit group of beam routines by their standards, but scored a 49.200, which was equivalent to what UCLA recorded for a rotation with a couple mistakes. It's imperative that they minimize all wobbles to squash as much juice out of that beam rotation as they can because they don't have the same peak scoring potential or clear 9.9s of Florida, Alabama, and UCLA. Utah will not have to be amazing on beam to go through, but they will look to be top 4 on the event without giving up more than two tenths to the other teams, particularly UCLA.
I don't think qualifying from this semifinal will require quite the same score that qualifying from the first semifinal will, so as long as Utah is 98.500+ at the halfway point after their weaker events, they should be able to stretch the margin out enough on their better events to be comfortable. That 98.500, however, won't happen without a hit beam rotation, even if it's only for 9.825s and 9.850s. The just can't have 2013 deja vu and start counting 9.6s and 9.7s. A 98.500 after two events is not a very big score, but it would work because Utah has been getting 49.5s on floor all year long and will be expected to continue that trend. It should be noted that the floor scoring at that Fayetteville regional was generous, so the 49.525 they received does not reflect a couple of the mistakes they did have. I wouldn't expect a 49.500 at nationals for an identical performance, but I would expect it for a full hit in the manner they have been hitting most of the season. The key routines to watch will be Del Priore and Wilson early in the rotation. If they can avoid those landing errors and stay in the mid or high 9.8s as foundation scores, the team will be golden for floor.
I should have the same level of confidence about vault. Utah has been one of the best vaulting teams this season and has consistently scored 49.500s, led by the parade of 9.950s from the back of the lineup. The problem is that the landings have been deteriorating for the last month or so. Five of the team's six best vault scores were recorded before February 22, and since then the team has been more often 49.3 than 49.5. They've still had consistently good scores - the amplitude helps keep the scores high even when the landings aren't there - but the sticks have vacated the building. At regionals, Delaney, Wilson, and Dabritz all scored below 9.900, which should never happen. They'll need to find those landings again to make vault the asset it needs be. Any kind of big score on vault to end their competition would likely close the door on any hope for the teams ranked below. If Utah hits both floor and vault for 49.500s and gets through beam, they should advance. I would expect that starting on bars and ending on vault and going maybe 49.300, 49.200, 49.500, 49.500 would be enough to make it - unless UCLA really shows up - and that score seems pretty doable as long as the vault landings arrive.
I'll begin by quoting myself from December regarding UCLA: "This very well could be one of those Bruin seasons where they're ranked
8th all year long but then are suddenly amazing at Championships. They
will seem like the easy team to upset right until they aren't." I'm proud of myself for being spot on in the first part about being ranked 8th, but I'm less convinced about the "suddenly amazing" part. That seems a little optimistic now given the depth issues in some of these lineups. The amazingness would be very sudden. Maybe the Christmas spirit got hold of me then, but at the same time, it's UCLA. This is what they do. But there's still quite a bit to work out. Making Super Six this season would require one of the classic UCLA late peaks.
The Bruins are in a somewhat similar position to Georgia going into nationals in that they didn't have a great performance at regionals, but the lack of great performance is almost in itself reason for optimism. They counted a fall on bars and finished seven tenths behind Utah, who did not have a fall in the competition. Give Syd Sawa a 9.825 on bars (which is what she has been scoring all year), and UCLA finishes with 197.200, one tenth behind Utah. If that had happened at regionals, we would be talking about how close the fight between the two is and how it's going to come down to the final rotation at nationals. Seven tenths seems like a big deficit, but UCLA will be buoyed by how close they actually were. It was a much, much tighter margin than we saw at Pac 12s, which is significant.
The Bruins begin on beam, so we'll know very early on whether they are in it. Beam is the primary area where they boast an advantage over Utah, so they'll have to make sure they not only hit but get a high enough score to make that advantage a reality. Just an average result on beam will put too much of a burden on UCLA's remaining events that they can't handle. The big beam score is possible primarily because of the 9.950 potential from Peszek and Francis. If everyone before them can hit regaulr routines for 9.825, that will equal a good rotation score. Olivia Courtney is in there in the third spot, and her new consistency on beam has been one of the unsung improvements of the season for UCLA. For three years, she was the scariest one, but she's not anymore. The scary part comes if the team ends up having to rely on whatever weather condition is currently brewing in the sixth position. Neither Sawa nor Craddock have been reliable hits, which means the rest of the lineup is permitted zero margin to fall. The first five must, must hit.
If UCLA is going to be in this to challenge Utah, they'll need a very strong score at the halfway point, something 98.800 or more. Mid-49.3 is pretty attainable for them on beam because we can expect a 9.900+ from both Peszek and Francis basically every time. But that still means they'll need to replicate the excellent floor score from regionals to get to that high 98s level. As with Utah, the floor scoring at that regionals was friendly, but we have seen the judges' willingness to give 9.9s to Peszek, Courtney, and Sawa this season, so that level of scoring is about what we should be continue to expect for this rotation. 49.4s have been the norm since Peszek returned and since Pinches rounded into form as a solid leadoff to set the bar at 9.850, and if Pinches and Francis hit early, we could see another 49.500 at nationals. A UCLA 49.500 is less likely than a Utah floor 49.500, but it will be necessary for the Bruins to build the advantage they need after two events. UCLA must be leading Utah at the halfway point to have any chance to advance. Utah's scoring potential for floor + vault is much higher than UCLA's for vault + bars, so it will be very difficult for UCLA to make up any deficit in the second half of the meet. They'll want to be in the position of trying to fend off Utah at that point.
A significant part of the reason UCLA isn't likely to gain ground later in the meet is the vault situation. We're going on two years now of UCLA not being as competitive as they should be on vault, but this year is more problematic than last year because they actually have the lineup to perform well. It's not like 2013 when they had to teach Pritchett a vault at the last minute and throw her out there and hope for a 9.750. This is a lineup of good vaulters, but the short landings and lack of distance early in the rotation - along with Sawa's deteriorating scores (9.750 at regionals) - have made vault a liability for the Bruins once again. They consistently lose ground there, and they'll be competing vault while Utah does floor, which won't be pretty for them if UCLA doesn't have a solid lead going in. There is exceptional pressure on the very strong vaults from Peszek and Courtney in the final two spots to be perfect to bring that rotation score up to par. The 9.875, 9.900 scores from regionals are good, but better is required of them given what we have seen lately.
Did you know that bars was UCLA's best event early in the season? That seems so long ago now, but they were getting 49.4s and 49.5s on bars before they were getting them on the other events. It will take returning to those scores of 49.4 in this semifinal to finish top 3, but at the last couple competitions they have fallen apart on bars, which adds to the importance of having an early lead so that they don't have too much work to do at the end on bars. The basis for excellent scoring is there with Peszek, DeJesus, and Courtney, all of whom can put up high-scoring routines. Peszek finds a way to nail that dismount every time, and DeJesus has once again done her now-trademark "It's March so now my wacky gienger is fine." And with a Courtney stick and the usual clean work from Francis in the leadoff spot, they can keep the lineup competitive along the way. That's four routines. Unfortunately, it takes more. Mossett has been struggling lately, isn't 100%, and has been moved to the end of the lineup. Moving the trouble routine to the back is not my favorite lineup strategy, and
bars is beginning to become a carbon copy of beam where the first five routines are must-hits because there is now much less confidence in getting a hit from the last spot.
Part of the story for UCLA is how little margin there is in these lineups, and the potential greatness from two or three gymnasts in each rotation is always on the verge of being obliterated. Making Super Six will take three hours of tightrope walking.
Nebraska has been idling on the edge of the secondary pack for most of the season, but like Stanford, they're a "fifth-seeded team" (if we had seedings at nationals now) that is still in contention to make it out of the semifinals. The Huskers have reached into the low 197s a couple times this year, but have more often been a team of high 196s for hit meets. It's a lower peak than what Utah or UCLA have shown this year, and since I do think that it will take 197s to make it out of this semifinal, that might be a challenge. Still, they have the potential to score higher than what they have put up so far and appear to be rounding into form on a couple crucial events. To get out of this session, and pass two teams ranked ahead of them, they'll probably need a season best. As I mentioned with UCLA, they'll need to be suddenly amazing starting now.
The Huskers begin on floor, and even though they endured that same rotation order at regionals, it's not ideal for them. It depends on the team, but some tend to struggle hitting floor right out of the gate. Nebraska didn't perform up to par on floor at regionals with a 49.125, but with other contending teams looking at 49.5s, Nebraska can't give up four tenths again there. They must be close especially because based on their roster, floor should be one of their stronger events. Wong, DeZiel, and Blanske are all in the 9.9 conversation, so I'm not having those 49.1s from them. Something closer to 49.300 is a manageable and necessary expectation.
Like UCLA, Nebraska will need to start very well and establish a margin early. Finishing on bars and beam, the Huskers are also unlikely to keep pace with what Utah scores on floor and vault, so I'd look at that same 98.800 after two events as a solid benchmark to keep them in it. They'll want to be top 3 after the first three rotations (or a very, very close fourth) because by that point they will already have competed vault, which is by far their best event. The Huskers are always among the best vaulting teams, and while we haven't seen many of those 49.5s and 49.6s that we often expect from them yet, they got pretty close with a 49.475 at regionals. Stephens, Blanske, Wong, and DeZiel are all in the 9.900 family, so a big score on this event to launch them close to 99 at the halfway point is conceivable. The first task for them in their multi-task qualifying journey will be to pass UCLA, and vault is the event where they can do that. They should gain a few tenths on the Bruins, but the question will be whether they have already given up those tenths on floor.
Bars is the event where Nebraska has lost the most ground from last season because they haven't been able to replace the big score from Giblin, but the strength of DeZiel and Wong should still be enough to bring in a competitive number. Wong in particular has been almost a guaranteed 9.9 machine on bars this year. The team performed about as expected at regionals for a 49.300, and there's every reason to think they can do that again. They'll be on bars while Utah is on floor (and UCLA is on vault - that 4th rotation is the make-or-break one of this semifinal, and I'm already excited for it), and that rotation performance will tell us whether Nebraska is still in this as we head to the end of the meet. They must be ahead of both Utah and UCLA after three events to stand a realistic chance to advance because their final event - beam - should be the lowest scoring final event among the three teams.
Finishing on beam is the other reason I don't particularly like this rotation order for Nebraska. It's OK for Stanford in the first session because they feel very comfortable on beam, but Nebraska does not have the same consistency or big scores. They're more reliant on the other events to make their 197. I should mention that beam hasn't seen as many struggles or disaster days for Nebraska as it has for some other teams in this semifinal, but it is often on the verge - as it was again at regionals with a couple counting 9.7s. Nebraska doesn't have the luxury of having a low-scoring event than can be buoyed by the other three in the way that the top four or five teams in the country do. They have to be competitive on every piece, so 49.0 or 49.1 there won't help. I have to think they'll need to beat Utah on beam to have a chance at passing them for a qualifying spot.
We can expect Wong and DeZiel to put up excellent numbers on most events, with a couple big scores from Blanske as well to keep Nebraska in the meet, but whether the team is able to pass Utah and UCLA will come down to the first four spots in the rotation. All three teams should be competitive at the ends of the lineups, but Nebraska has just three people competing in spots 1-4 who have RQSs greater than 9.850, while both Utah and UCLA have seven people. Some of those early competitors will have to overperform what they've shown this season to buoy Nebraska up to that 49.500 they need on vault or that 49.300 they need on bars. It can't be solely the job of the final two.
Penn State is taking on the same role in this semifinal that Illinois has in the first session, the team that has done something special by making it this far but is unlikely to do any more. It's especially important for Penn State because this is the team's first nationals appearance since 2009, and it was beginning to look like they were regressing in quality. Each year was just a little bit less competitive than the one before, and the rough 193s at the beginning of this season didn't help that impression. But, the team managed to improve throughout the season and used home gym advantage at regionals to get back to the big meet.
It will be difficult for Penn State to challenge because they're not the 197 team that the rest of the competitors in this semifinal are. They put together a very nice meet at regionals at home for a 196.725, outscoring expectations by quite a significant margin on vault and floor, so that's probably about the score we can expect from a strong, hit meet at nationals. For a 196 to make advance, it would require a multi-team pileup. The major obstacles for the Nittany Lions are bars and beam, where they just don't have the likely 9.9s to keep up with the other competitors. They'll also expect to count some 9.7s on those events, which Super Six teams basically never do. Much as Nebraska must endure the obstacle of finishing on beam, Penn State must do the same and will welcome it even less. Beam has been their weakest event all year and has seen scored under 49 in the majority of meets - 8 out of 13.
Penn State will begin the meet on their strong events, floor and vault, so
expect them to remain relatively competitive through the first few rotations. Sibson on vault and Welsh and Musgrove on floor help make them competitive with most teams through those two events, and those individuals look to be PSU's most likely nominees for qualifying to event finals. Don't expect them to be resting at the bottom of the table early in the meet,
and it wouldn't be surprising if Penn State is ahead of some much more
famous teams at the halfway point, with perhaps a 98.600. It
will get harder from there, but they could make some waves with their ranking position in some of the early splits.