We're getting there. NLI week is (pretty much) behind us—I'm looking at you Alabama—and slowly but surely, we're moving toward the coaches' poll and preseason intrasquads time of year. But for oday, I'm looking at the freshmen from Alabama and Michigan. Among the top 10 teams in the country, these two freshman classes will be the most essential for their schools because of how much scoring potential both these teams have lost since last season. These freshmen must contribute significant routines (in both quality and number) this year.
Alabama is the team I'm keenest to watch to start the 2015 season. Not only have they lost a legendary head coach, but they've also lost 11 of the 24 routines from Super Six last year. The 2015 team will be a brand new Tide in all the ways. This could go a lot of different directions.
As for the newbies, Alabama brings in a fairly solid freshman class in 2015, even if it's not brimming with routines. There aren't 11 competition-level new performances in this group, but that's OK. This freshman group will not be expected to make up the whole Jacob/Milliner/Demeo deficit. With Kayla Williams coming back from injury and several usable routines that didn't make the lineups last year, Alabama shouldn't be hurting too much for depth on the majority of events, which will take some pressure off this new group. (Helpfully, Gymtide has done a rundown of all the routines shown in the recent intrasquad to give a comprehensive look at current team depth. It's worth a read.)
Still, I do expect moments of essential freshman contribution, particularly from Mackenzie Brannan. As is the theme for the freshmen from these two schools, she competed as a junior elite last quad before making the switch back to L10, so she has the skills on each event to be a realistic contender for four lineups.
Let's start with beam because it has been an occasional issue. Brannan would have won her division easily at JO Nationals the last two years if not for falls on beam, so consistency will be a topic of conversation. Regardless of whether those problems manifest themselves in NCAA, I do expect her to see time on beam because her work there is on the same elite level as the other events and because Alabama needs to find some new beamers somewhere.
That said, the places where I expect Brannan's contribution to be the most significant and frequent are vault and bars. That Yurchenko 1.5 is crisp and clean. Her legs are firmly together in the air and she completes the vault quite easily. I could certainly see retaining the 1.5, but either way, she should be in the lineup. On bars, Brannan's work is made for NCAA. Look at those handstands. Yes. She has cleaned up her bars routine significantly since junior elite days, and almost everything is precise these days. Put her on the Jacob/Demeo bam-bam stuck DLO program, and this should be a back half of the lineup routine.
Floor will also be an option for Brannan. She performs a strong double arabian and has a number of other tumbling pass choices, as most elite-to-L10 gymnasts do, and even though the form on the tumbling can get scrappy from time to time, I don't expect it to be a problem. This routine can contend for the 6, though with a number of 9.850-9.875 routines that didn't make the final lineup last season (Jetter, Aja Sims, etc.) it won't be as easy to make the floor lineup as it might seem given the gaps after last year.
Joining Brannan is Nichole Guerrero, who has been near the top of the JO class on certain events for several years now, particularly on vault where she once again placed in the top 5 of her division at JO Nationals this year. She's an efficient little powerhouse, and her strengths are those we normally expect from little powerhouses.
Guerrero's biggest asset on her 1.5 is her stickitude. There are a bunch of youtube videos of her sticking 1.5s in competition, and we know that when you stick a 1.5 in NCAA, it's pretty much an auto-9.900 if not higher. Alabama has lost Milliner's stalwart 1.5 in the anchor position, but they're bringing in a couple possible replacements that should slot into the lineup comfortably. Guerrero also boasts a solid floor routine with a piked full in and well-executed twisting elements. She's another who may or may not see some any on floor. Her tumbling is not as amplitudinous (word) as most of her peers, which may put her lower down the depth chart.
I'm also interested in this beam routine because, like on vault, she's a sticker. She has that barani (someone needs to take up the Kim Jacob legacy) and tends to nail her acro skills very securely, which is everything. Counterpoint: It's not a flighty, floaty routine, and she's very close to the beam on her skills. It could go either way.
Kiana Winston should have been the star of this class because she's exceptionally talented. She was on the same track as Texas Dreams teammates Kennedy Baker and Peyton Ernst back in the day until a series of injuries, the most serious being a torn ACL, stalled her progression. She finally returned to competition for a nanosecond in 2014, but it appears the lingering effects of three years of constant injuries mean she won't be the major contributor she could have been for Alabama in 2015.
Ideally she'll be a potential competitor on all events in future seasons. She has worked on the leaps and flexibility recently to give her floor and beam routines that extra oomph. It wouldn't just be about the tumbling passes for her. She also shows very comfortable releases on bars (her pak is a joy) that can be developed into a high-scoring routine as the details are honed.
Also joining the team is walk-on Jennie Loeb, and while we shouldn't expect her to make any lineups, I do enjoy her beam work. The acro is very solid and she too has a realistic barani. Plenty of teams would take her routine, but Alabama is unlikely to be one.
As with Alabama, there is work to be done if Michigan is going to return to the level of the last two seasons. Except with Michigan, the situation is more extreme. They've lost half of their postseason routines from last year, including a majority of their top-scoring performances. Few teams could handle losing Sampson, Beilstein, Zakharia, and Gies all at the same time. The freshman quintet will need to contribute a bunch of routines right away, though like Alabama, they should not have to shoulder the entire burden. The injury returns of Austin Sheppard and Annette Miele should help account for 4-5 of those lost routines. That still means a lot will be expected of the newbies.
We'll start with Brianna Brown, the CGA elite who made a verbal commitment to Georgia before skipping town after the coaching shakeup. She's the most well-known of the group and the most likely to contribute on four events. Brown competed elite through the 2012 season before jumping down to L10 where she finished 7th in her division at JO Nationals, ranking in the top 10 everywhere but vault.
Brown has placed well on bars these last few years in JO, and she clearly has tools that can be sculpted into a strong NCAA routine. The toe-on tkatchev and pak are both at NCAA level already, so combine those with some crisp handstands and you're already 90% there. She has dismounted with just a double back at several competitions in the last couple years, but in the past she has added a full twist to that. I assume it won't be a problem to step up her dismount game to make this a competitive routine.
Beam, beam, beam. I'll be focusing a lot on beam for these Michigan freshmen because that event needs the most help right now. Where will this team be without Sampson and Gies? They have about 5 usable returning routines, but that includes a few 9.7s, which means they'll need several realistic options from this new group to become competitive. Brown should provide one. She has the skill set and no major areas of weakness. Stylistically, she's very deliberate and occasionally tight in a way that's reminiscent of her CGA contemporaries Jetter and Whitcomb. She looks slightly terrified the whole time (I think that's on the CGA crest), but there's still reason to think this routine could be a thing.
On floor, Brown has not shown much difficulty lately, sticking with D passes instead of the pike full in she showed back in the elite days, so I wonder how competitive her work will be on a team that was E-pass central last season (though they won't be as spoiled for choice this year). Even though the difficulty hasn't been there, Brown still does have adequate amplitude and comfortably completes the D passes she has been showing.
Next, we have Lauren Marinez. I feel sort of bad because the only two memories I have of her competing are the nasty fall she took at the Nastia Cup one year on floor and that time at 2011 Nationals when she fell onto the bars and then did a DLO to her face. But there are good parts too. I promise. It's not all horrific falls.
The best part is beam. As mentioned, Michigan needs beam routines, and this is a very good one. Marinez has the tools to be a star. Great form, great scoring potential. Elegant and precise. Put this routine in the lineup, and it gets better. There are a couple other areas where Marinez can contribute, but those routines are not quite as necessary for the team as beam is. On bars she shows good rhythm through her elements and some refined qualities here and there, so if they can develop a workable release for her, it could be a routine. Even though Michigan has lost several strong bars workers, I'm not really worried about them on bars because they're always magicking up routines from nowhere anyway (see Beilstein, Sheppard).
Michigan also signed Northern Irish international India McPeak late in the process, and she automatically gets 10 bonus points for being from Northern Ireland and an additional 10 bonus points for doing a back full on beam. McPeak is possibly in the mix on floor as well with a double tuck full and several other D pass options, but it's mostly about beam for her.
Did I mention the tuck full? Even if they decide not to use it because of extreme risk, she has other strong acro elements like the punch front that should do nicely. I hope she shows enough consistency to be a worthwhile option because I'm excited to see what routine they put together for her.
Also hopping into the clown car of new Wolverines is Ilana Gordon with her powerful gymnastics. She has some pop in those legs. The question across all the events will be form and finesse, but that's often the case with incoming gymnasts who evolve during their NCAA careers. The most likely event for her should be vault. She has shown just a yhalf, but it's a good yhalf. She has enough height and distance and lands securely enough to avoid any "just a yhalf" scoring.
Rounding out the group is Cailee Hills, and she's another where it's almost impossible for us to know where she'll be because she has been injured for so long. She hasn't competed in several years, but before that she was scoring very competitively at the JO level. The potential is there for her to be a real contributor if things work out the way they were going in 2011-2012. She had a very clean yfull, showed precise acrobatic skills on beam, and finished in the top 5 on both bars and beam in Junior C in 2012.