December 26, 2014

#5 UCLA Preview

Recent History
In 2010, UCLA managed to shake off two years of consecutive heartbreaking finishes to win the national championship on the strength of Anna Li/Vanessa Zamarripa/Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs/Brittani McCullough brilliance. In the following years, UCLA remained right in the hunt, finishing in 2nd in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and an ultimately surprising 4th at home in 2013 for a team that didn't seem to be as competitive as the previous ones. Still, UCLA's trajectory has been a descent ever since that championship, getting by on fewer and fewer 9.9s each year, and the descent finally caught up to them last season when they missed Super Six for the first time since 2009 and finished a disappointing 8th after a flat performance in the semifinals.

2015 Outlook
What are we going to do with UCLA this year? I don't really know why, but whenever I start thinking too much about UCLA, I get "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" stuck in my head. Oh, UCLA. How do you keep a wave upon the sand? I have great affection for this team and always love watching them, but no school in NCAA gymnastics is more frustrating.

The Bruins are consistently one of the least predictable teams, both in their scores (will this week be a 197 or a 194?) and in their last-minute lineup changes that I swear are just designed to make the TV people furious and confuse Amanda Borden, which I respect. Judging by this roster, it's going to be another one of those pull-your-hair-out 194/197 seasons because so much of UCLA's potential success is dependent on the precarious health of a few stars. Sam Peszek's feet are hanging on by a sinew at this point in her career, and she will have to be rested and managed all year to make sure she has another full season of hard landings in her. Peng Peng Lee hasn't performed a competition routine in 2.5 years because of the ACL trauma. Those two, along with Danusia Francis, can be three of the very best, most exciting gymnasts in NCAA. They evoke the quality of UCLA championship teams of years past. If all three are in form at the end of the year, Super Six should be attainable if not expected, but if they're not, it's going to be hard to find a lot of 9.9s elsewhere.

At least as of right now. Factor #2 for UCLA's hopes of excellence will be the sophomore class. With Jenny Pinches spending last year working to come back from being retired, Hallie Mossett and Mikaela Gerber returning from/dealing with constant injuries, and Angi Cipra getting injured in the middle of the season, no member of that class has lived up her potential yet. There's greatness in there, there are 9.9s in there, but we haven't seen that. This class needs to arrive, especially if the Peszek/Lee/Francis trio can't be out there dominating each week.

Something that should help the Bruins in 2015 is the sheer size of this team. They have a bunch of new freshmen walking on to contribute in certain places (called vault), and the increased number of routines should alleviate some of the depth problems that have plagued them recently.


Returning lineup — Sam Peszek (9.885), Sadiqua Bynum (9.880), Hallie Mossett (9.795), Jenny Pinches (9.770)

It hasn't been good. It just hasn't. UCLA was able to get by on vault last season primarily because of strong anchor scores from Courtney and Peszek that saved the rotation, but they often were only able to save the rotation for 49.2s. The Bruins need to be better than that this year for any chance to contend, which is the major reason for this cavalcade of vaulting walk-ons. They needed vaulters, and they went out and got them. The lineup should be reinvented this season. Expect to see a lot of people whom we didn't see last postseason.

Among the group that we did see last postseason, Sam Peszek is the only one who should be guaranteed a spot in this year's lineup. Even with her my-feet-are-made-of-glass bouncy fake-stick, she should still get 9.9s. Beyond Peszek, vault was never considered a strength for Peng as an elite because she vaulted only a full, but it's an absolutely beautiful full. The more often UCLA feels comfortable putting her in this vault lineup, the better. Freshman Pua Hall's best event has always been vault, and they'll need her to be big for a 9.900 toward the end of the lineup this season as well. I also expect to see Angi Cipra return. She has a potentially excellent full but struggled to control her landings last season. Still, she was getting 9.850s sometimes for vaults with 0.100 steps (albeit at home), so if they can get her landings together, she should be a contributor.

In the collection of vault newbies, there's graduate transfer Jordan Williams from Arizona who always vaulted for 9.8s with solid distance. She's the kind of helpful and reliable mid-range option they were lacking last year. Janay Honest consistently placed well with her full in the JO ranks, and UCLA briefly posted a video of LaNiesha Jopre-Irvin getting some solid height.

That's not to say that the postseason returners other than Peszek won't factor this year. They will. Pinches in particular has the potential to be a great vaulter. She performed a DTY that was absolutely necessary for Team GB for a few years in there. People who had DTYs as elites should be making NCAA vault lineups, but that doesn't always happen (ask Jessica Savona). Sadiqua Bynum learned a y1/2 last year that had fairly high scoring potential (but could also be undercooked for 9.7s), and Hallie Mossett has recorded up to a 9.850. It remains to be seen how many 9.9s they can get out of this supporting group, but look how many vaulters I just named! That's a big depth improvement, which will make 49.4s more common and realistic even if a few options don't pan out. No teaching Alyssa Pritchett an emergency full in 11 seconds this year.


Returning lineup — Sam Peszek (9.915), Sophina DeJesus (9.915), Hallie Mossett (9.850), Danusia Francis (9.840)

The main thing UCLA has been missing on bars lately is that one big showpiece routine. That amazing performance full of exciting skills that elevates the rest of the lineup both in quality and scores. Peszek has been anchoring lately, and while she has a great gienger and can be powerful, quick, and efficient for excellent scores, it's not an "OOOOH, AHHH" routine. From what we've seen of Peng's training, the bhardwaj and the shaposh half both performed with beautiful leg form, she's bringing top-level E skills that are both unique and well-executed. She can be that showpiece and that spark for 9.9+.

Even through some consistency horrors last year, UCLA endured on bars to finish ranked 6th while putting up a few 49.3s and 49.4s here and there. As long as they find supporting routines to back up Peng and Peszek—both of whom can be counted on for 9.9s—competitive rotations and 49.4s seem doable. The trick will be finding those set-up routines because suddenly there's not as much depth on bars as on vault this year. Sophina DeJesus will certainly be in there. Expect her to go through her usual pattern of having a crazy-legs gienger at the beginning of the season but then pulling it together by March and somehow sticking that dismount for 9.900. Also, Danusia Francis has turned into a true, reliable bars worker. I would never have called it, but she has been vital for 9.850s in that leadoff spot. That's a competitive four. What about the other two?

Hallie Mossett has permission to come back into the lineup, but only if that disastrous stalder has been put to rest forever, and we may also see freshman Melissa Metcalf, who put up some solid results in JO on bars over the years. UCLA has a number of other bars workers all at varying levels on the I'm-scared-you-might-get-a-7.500 spectrum (do we get to see Mikaela Gerber on bars this season?), but because they may have multiple 9.800s hanging around, Peng's bars routine will be her most apparatus for the team. They need that score.


Returning lineup — Danusia Francis (9.930), Sam Peszek (9.925), Hallie Mossett (9.855), Sophina DeJesus (9.805), Ellette Craddock (9.775), 

It wouldn't really be a UCLA season without a couple beamtastrophes here and there. It's a tradition. We would be lost and confused without them, and they will definitely happen a couple times in 2015 when the B- team goes up at a road meet. Overall, however, the Bruins should be great on beam, and they must consistently be great because this is an event where they can pick up ground even on excellent teams. On the other events, UCLA has talent but will mostly be trying to keep pace with the top schools. On beam, they can beat them. There's work to be done, but the potential is there.

The potential is there because the Peszek/Lee/Francis group is the most talented beam trio on any team this season. Get them all out there at the same time, and bam-bam-bam routines for consecutive 9.9+ is not just possible but absolutely necessary. Peszek and Francis did it all the time last year. In fact, it was their unexpectedly human 9.850/9.875 in semifinals that hurt UCLA's chances of advancing as much as anything. I'll be fascinated to see the composition choices for these three because they all have plenty of risky, exciting skills in their repertoires. Peszek has her tuck full. Francis has her much-ballyhooed dismount combination. Lee has top-level difficulty in both acro skills and turning elements that she can throw in. Who's anchoring the lineup and who has permission to throw the difficult skills which week will be interesting to watch.

If only NCAA were three-up-three-count (is something I've never said, but UCLA will wish it on beam this year). So many other members of this team are capable of doing silky, lovely beam routines for supporting 9.850s, but the hitting thing is a major issue. Most of the beam competitors last season, whether they came in for one week or the whole season, competed like they had just seen 8 ghosts carrying chainsaws. It's a scary, wobbly group. Mossett does have tremendous potential as she becomes more comfortable competing. DeJesus was solid her freshman year but struggled much more last season. Craddock came through with a huge 9.875 at nationals, but her score was just as likely to start with an 8 as a 9. Then there's Gerber, Pinches, Cipra, and the freshmen. Options, but eek! Your guess is as good as mine. UCLA is certainly not afraid of experimenting with lineups, and we'll probably see a lot of that in order to find the three most likely hits, even if they're just 9.825. Just enough to let the big trio do its job. 


Returning lineup — Sadiqua Bynum (9.870), Danusia Francis (9.785), Jenny Pinches (9.760), Sam Peszek (no RQS), 

Losing the 5th and 6th floor workers as UCLA has done in Courtney and Sawa is usually a challenge. Along with Peszek, Courtney and Sawa were the sure 9.9s in the lineup last year and the biggest reason the Bruins had their highest RQS on floor. Still, all is not lost. UCLA has enough quality in the rest of the group that maintaining the scoring level from last season seems realistic as long as long as the big hitters are healthy in March and April. Peszek should certainly be the highest scorer on the team, but getting Angi Cipra back in the lineup will be just as crucial because before her injury last year, she emerged as a real find and a new UCLA floor gem who excels at both tumbling and choreography. Those two can be an effective 9.9 duo this year. 

Performance-wise, I hold UCLA to a higher standard. It's the burden of having good floor routines sometimes. On other teams, I'm perfectly happy to let bouncy, posing routines with the theme "I'm smiling at the crowd now" slide because I expect nothing else. With UCLA, I expect to be impressed. There have been a couple memorable routines in recent years (Sawa's alien abduction was weird, silly, and delightful; Francis is always a standout because she has such a striking presence), but a lot of times lately, many of the best performers haven't been making the floor lineup, leaving the rotation flatter than it should be. That may happen again this year. It's one of the frustrating parts I was talking about. Sure, I would love to see Peng and DeJesus do floor routines every week, but it may not be prudent because of fragility concerns and actually-hitting-tumbling-passes concerns. Getting DeJesus hitting consistently would help a lot. As would having a freshman like Pua Hall emerge as another Cipra who can do tumbling and dance at the same time. Cipra, DeJesus, Francis in the same rotation? That's what I'm talking about.

I do think Danusia Francis should be in the lineup. She has been a little inconsistent like DeJesus in the past, but if she actually has tumbling she's comfortable with, she can be another big score, which she proved at the end of last season. A lot will be expected of the Brits on floor this year because Pinches also came into her own at the end of last season with consistently secure passes for leadoff 9.850s. That will be essential work again this year. Sadiqua Bynum has continued to refine her DLO, though she still occasionally lands short for 9.7s and misses dance elements, and has carved out a regular spot for herself on floor. Expect to see her back. It's not going to be the biggest-scoring group in the country. Some of the top teams will have 9.9s in every spot, which UCLA does not, but if they're able to get big routines from Peszek/Cipra/Francis and 9.850 hits elsewhere, they can be as competitive as they need to be here.

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