It begins. Just one week until the best day of the college gymnastics year. It finally starts to matter! Over the next few days, I'll be going through each of the regionals and breaking down the main things to watch for in each competition as we bite our fingernails and giggle like unhinged death-row inmates about who is going to advance to nationals. I'll begin with the top-seeded Oklahoma Sooners and their home regional, which will begin at 5:00 ET/2:00 PT on Saturday.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Oklahoma (bars)
 Oregon State (bye before bars)
 Penn State (beam)
 Southern Utah (bye before floor)
 Missouri (vault)
 NC State (floor)
Competing individuals are from Lindenwood (Valeri Ingui - AA; Kierstin Sokolowski - AA; Courtney Heise - bars), Arizona State (Taylor Allex - AA; Natasha Sundby - floor), Illinois-Chicago (Gabrielle May - AA), SEMO (Ashley Thomas - AA), Northern Illinois (Amanda Stepp - vault), and Illinois State (Sami King - beam).
It's a significant milestone for Oklahoma to come in as the #1 seed, breaking Florida's four-year streak of being the #1 overall regionals seed, but I'm not going to spend too much time on Oklahoma right now. There will be plenty of opportunity for that once the nationals previews roll around because if Oklahoma were to be eliminated at this point, it would be one of the biggest upsets ever at regionals. The #1 team, undefeated, competing at home? Come on. They would have to count at least a couple falls. Probably 20.
As often happens at regionals, the best teams get sort of overlooked on the day, especially if a rotation and a half goes by and they're already ahead by a million tenths and clearly going to win, which I pretty much expect to happen here. The focus tends to turn to the real battles to make nationals, but there are still a couple areas in Oklahoma's performances to keep half an eye on with nationals in mind, particularly cleaning up some of those bars handstands from last weekend and continuing to hone those vault landings that I've been harping on lately. Unlike Oklahoma teams of a few years ago, this team should not be in a position to give up any ground to any other team on vault (they were at home and got a 49.4 last weekend, while LSU and Florida were away getting 49.5 and 49.6). To keep pace on vault this year, it's not about stepping for 9.900. It's about having multiple 9.950s. Because you better believe Sloan, Hunter, and McMurtry can not-stick for 9.950. That's the pace that's being set that every other team has to match.
Oregon State and Penn State
But let's get to the real stuff. This regional is about Oregon State and Penn State in what should be one of the most entertaining showdowns next Saturday. I expect it to go back and forth all afternoon. These two teams were in the exact same position last year, coming into regionals as the #12 and #13 teams and fighting it out for the second spot, with Penn State ultimately coming out on top by two tenths, making it to nationals for just the second time in the last decade. That also marked the second-straight year that Oregon State failed to make nationals, and is exactly what makes regionals so important for the Beavs this year. They have to make it. Three years of missing nationals? Not acceptable for a team that really should be part of the top tier but is on the verge of losing that status. It was only a few years ago (in 2011) that Oregon State finished the regular season as the #3 team in the country, seemed an easy bet to make Super Six, and was even some people's cool, alternative sleeper pick to win. That's gone now.
Even though Oregon State and Penn State are once again going head-to-head for a nationals spot, the complexion of the meet this year is fairly different than it was last year. Last year, Penn State was at home, which was certainly a boost, and was able to use a very strong performance on floor to gain almost three tenths (more than the margin of victory) on the Beavs, for whom floor was a rather weak event. This year, floor has been Oregon State's highest scoring apparatus, using the introduction of realistic 9.9s from Risa Perez and Kaytianna McMillan to elevate what was a flat 9.825 of a lineup. By contrast, floor is no longer quite the strength it was for Penn State last year, having lost essential routines from Musgrove, Stauder, and Lau. This year, if a team makes up ground on floor, it should be Oregon State, and that's exactly what they'll look to do.
Penn State doesn't have that one area where they appear to have a clear advantage over Oregon State, but the most likely place for Penn State to make up some ground looks to be vault. Oregon State has seen more 9.9s on vault this year than in past years, with McMillan rising to the 9.9 challenge and Aufiero occasionally getting her stick on for a big score, but there is still a tendency to get stuck in 9.800 territory, especially for the first three. Penn State has a couple vaults, like Emma Sibson's excellent handspring piked half, that can really open up a margin if things fall well. It was that great Sibson vault for 9.900 last year that started Penn State off in the right direction.
Beam is beam. Both teams have been a little 49.1 this year on beam, but neither really have an excuse to be. Penn State has a good core with Tsang and Sanabria-Robles and Oregon State really should be getting solid numbers from Tang, Gardiner, Perez, and McMillan each time out. But for both, as long as they get through beam, they'll feel fine about it. That will be the story of the first half of the meet, getting through beam. Penn State is on beam in the first rotation, and Oregon State is there in the third (of six rotations), and if they can survive with hits, both should feel right in the meet. At halfway, OSU will have done bars and beam, and PSU will have done beam and floor. Slight edge to Oregon State? But both will be hoping for something like a 98.400-98.500, which is doable.
As long as no one has an early meltdown, the fourth and fifth rotations should really be the ones to watch. In the fourth, Penn State goes to vault while Oregon State is on a bye, and in the fifth, Oregon State goes to floor while Penn State is on a bye. Those are the best events for both teams. Penn State will need to have built up an advantage after vault that Oregon State can't obliterate with floor, while Oregon State will look to use a big floor performance in the fifth rotation to create a comfortable edge, or at least a tie, going into the last event. But which team's strength is stronger? That's the test. PSU ends on bars and OSU ends on vault, but even though OSU's vault can be a question mark, vault tends to be the higher-scoring event than bars, so that should benefit Oregon State. Penn State needs that vault lead.
And the rest/Individuals
This regional should be all about the Oregon State/Penn State fight for the second spot. Of course, you never know, but I have to think both teams would need to count a fall to let any of the lower seeds back in. Still, all three of these other teams can be a legitimate 196, so all will be hanging around in case disaster strikes. That's probably what they'll have to hope for, though, since it will be difficult for any of the three to qualify an individual.
It's so challenging to qualify an event specialist because individuals must win the apparatus to make it to nationals. Here, that means beating the entire Oklahoma team on an event. Good luck. Oh, you're an amazing beam specialist from a lower-ranked team? Well sorry, Chayse Capps just got a 10, so buh-bye. As for the two qualifying all-arounders, they will probably come from whichever team of Oregon State and Penn State doesn't advance. Oregon State has sent Chelsea Tang to nationals the last two seasons, but coming back from injury, Tang has struggled more this year, especially on vault. She's currently not in that lineup, opening the door for Maddie Gardiner and Kaytianna McMillan to be most likely AA qualifiers if Oregon State doesn't make it. If Penn State doesn't go, it could be one of the best side stories to follow as to which AAers advance since they have three of them. Tsang, Welsh, and Sanabria-Robles almost always score within a tenth of each other. Basically every week. That would be quite the horse race.
As for the other seeds, Southern Utah has quietly put together an important season, hanging around the top 25 all year long, which is a big deal for a team that is never thought of as a top-25 team and has often been one of those one-the-cusp regional qualifiers. This was a very comfortable season with no worrying about making regionals, and they did it without the help of last year's AA leader, Memory Shettles. That does, however, mean that Southern Utah is without an AAer this year to try to make a run at individual qualification.
Missouri was one of the most impressive minor stories of the SECs this year, putting together a legitimately solid meet, while quite a few better teams were not able to manage that. The freshman class has brought in so many more reliable 9.8s. Shauna Miller has still been limited to bars and beam, but her possible 9.950 on vault makes her a legitimate AA contender (along with the usual AAers, Kappler and Schugel) if she is able to come back. Or vault contender? Maybe?
NC State is usually a much safer bet to qualify for regionals, but this year was a weaker one, just sneaking up the rankings and getting rid of those 194s at the last minute to finish 34th. Bars and beam have been quite the obstacle, but don't overlook Brittni Watkins as an individual. She hasn't been as high-scoring as consistently this year, but she is still a legitimate AA score, and if there's someone from the lower-seeded group who is going to break in and qualify as an individual, I'd take Watkins.