EVENING SESSION (Utah, UCLA, Oregon State, Stanford):
Now that Utah is part of the Pac-12, it seems like we always go into the Pac-12 Championship with pretty much the same story. Utah is the highest-ranked and most consistent team, the safest pick to win, but UCLA might be the more talented group if they can actually put it together. Stanford is the dangerous floater who has enough concentrated pretty to beat anyone on any day but might also fall 100 times, and Oregon State always looks like the fourth-best option but then sometimes wins. Every time I've done a preview of Pac-12 Championships, it has been a variation on that same story. This time, it's pretty much the same setup again, except Utah enters in a stronger place compared to the last few years. This year's Utah team is sturdier on beam and even deeper on vault (not to mention the bonus of being home team), and it would be an upset if Utah fails to win. Let's break this thing down by rotation.
Rotation 1 (Utah vault, UCLA bars, Oregon State beam, Stanford floor)
The rotation order couldn't have worked out better in terms of giving us an early sense of who's really in the meet. We'll know after the first rotation which teams are legitimate challengers for the title because the Utes begin on their best event while the three other teams all begin on their weakest events. The teams that haven't figured out their weakness will be in a 0.500 hole after 11 minutes, and it's hard to see a team coming back from that without the help of a Utah mistake.
A 0.500 hole after the first rotation is a realistic possibility because vault is the one event where Utah can truly pull away from the field. The Utes are the #1 team in the country on vault and have been breaking 49.500 all over the place, especially at home. They'll need to show that 49.500 vaulting again on Saturday. Sure, they can win this meet without hitting 49.500 on vault, but looking toward nationals, there's no way Utah contends with the top three without some 49.500 vaulting, at least 49.500. They have too many 9.9s to expect any less, with the usual big three of Dabritz, Delaney, and Wilson, who now have the benefit of nearly equivalent vaults from Lee and Partyka.
UCLA will need to keep things relatively close at the outset on bars, and has the talent to do so, but bars has been a real adventure this year. An adventure called The Chronicles of 9.650. Francis has been a shining beacon of stuck double pikes in the first spot, but for the Bruins, the focus will be on getting through the next three routines intact so that they can hand things off to the 9.9s from Peszek and Lee. Because Peszek and Lee have such high scoring potential, UCLA can get away with 9.825-9.850s from Meraz, Mossett, and DeJesus (DeJesus has the potential for more but has looked sloppier this season) and still be in reasonable contention for a 49.400, but they have to be 9.825s. Not those 9.6s and 9.7s.
It has been a somewhat similar story for Oregon State this year on beam. Beam hasn't been a great event for the Beavs post-Leslie Mak, but it really should be much better. Maddie Gardiner and Chelsea Tang are both excellent beamers for realistic 9.9s, so if everyone else can get their 9.825s, that makes for a solid rotation score that can keep them in contention as they go to the higher-scoring events. The problem is how infrequently that has actually happened. Too often, they've been caught by a little inconsistency and more than a little case of the early-rotation 9.7s. It will be a recurring theme that Oregon State is just a couple early-lineup routines away from being a really good team.
As for Stanford on floor, it's all about the Ebee. No rotation in this competition needs a single gymnast more than Stanford's floor needs Price. Once again this season, Stanford has been a little too average and flat on floor. There's just not enough going on there. They can pull together a rotation of 9.850s, but that's not competitive with the teams throwing up easy 9.9s in spots 4, 5, and 6. Price has competed on floor once this year, performed a medium-quality routine by her standards, and scored a 9.975. If she's available, 49.3s-49.4s are suddenly completely doable. It not, that puts so much pressure on bars and beam to be perfect at the end of the meet because they will be giving up ground right from the start.
Rotation 2 (Stanford vault, Utah bars, UCLA beam, Oregon State floor)
The Bruins move to beam in the second rotation, and beam is where they can make their mark. While Utah has at least a fair claim as the top team in the conference on the other three events (at least that's what the rankings tell us), UCLA is the best beam team in the Pac-12. Even though they've had a fair few falls, BRUINBEAMTERROR (trademark) has been considerably less terrifying this year. There has only been one beamtastrophe! That's pretty good! The key to beam success this year was always going to be finding three solid 9.8s in the first three spots, and it appears they have them now in Meraz, who has been a very sturdy find, Williams, who has come into her own in the last few weeks on an event that has often been her struggle, and DeJesus. If those three can get their 9.850s together and hand things over to Francis, Peszek, and Lee, all of whom have 10 potential and all of whom I've talked about ad nauseum, the Bruins should get a huge beam score.
They may not gain ground immediately, even with a big beam number, because Utah will be on bars at the same time, but they would gain ground comparatively once everyone has done beam. UCLA needs to use beam to keep it close after two in order to make a move during rotation three.
While it's not much of a surprise that Utah is the #1 team in the country on vault given the number of accomplished vaulters on the team, it's much more surprising that the Utes hold the same #1 ranking on bars. It's not Florida. It's not Oklahoma. It's not Georgia. It's Utah. The 10-machine named Georgia Dabritz certainly helps, but more than that, Utah is getting the very most out of this bars team, which became abundantly clear last week in Athens. It's not a lineup of stars (besides Dabritz) and in fact it's a pretty unremarkable group on paper, but while other teams with much more bars talent—like Stanford—are still giving away tenths on dismounts, Utah is hitting each handstand and sticking each landing. Nowadays, that basically amounts to an auto-9.900. If Utah isn't in control of this meet halfway through, something will have gone wrong.
For Stanford, vault is a less extreme version of floor. They have more 9.900 potential on vault in the form of the clean work from Nicolette McNair and Taylor Rice, but make no mistake, it also comes down to Price. Of course, finally having six whole vaulters now would be a nice boost as well, but with Price's 9.950 rounding out the rotation, 49.400 isn't a leap of the imagination, even if the rest of the vault lineup is just McNair, Rice, an actual bag of rice, and several ghosts. Note that the Cardinal will compete on their two weaker events in the first two rotations, so don't expect a huge number halfway through. Third place would be expected and not a problem. If they're even remotely within striking distance of the top at that point, watch out. Bars and beam can both be fabulous.
One of the most interesting rotations of the meet will be Oregon State on floor. How competitive are they here? The Beavs have had some huge floor rotations this year full of 9.9s, but when they're suddenly going up against floor from UCLA and Utah (and just a few hours after floor from Cal), is it still a 9.9 parade? It needs to be. Having Risa Perez (whose enthusiasm accomplishes the unthinkable, making me not hate a happy routine) and especially Kaytianna McMillan in this lineup is such an important lift this year. It starts to bring back shades of that floor fire from the Blalock, Vivian, Jones, Stambaugh group, which feels like 11,000 years ago. McMillan had been relegated to bars and beam early in her collegiate career because of injury, but she came to Oregon State as a vault and floor girl. Those are her events, and I'm glad she's starting to see time and scores. They've desperately needed those routines for a year and half, and it's finally happening. This is the one event where Oregon State has proven the ability to get an absolutely massive number, and that's what can keep them within sight of the other teams. Unlike Stanford, if OSU is trailing at halfway, it's much harder to envision a comeback.
Rotation 3 (Oregon State vault, Stanford bars, Utah beam, UCLA floor)
This is the rotation in which UCLA, Stanford, and to some extent Oregon State will hope to make a move. Utah has improved a ton on beam this year, and the potential from Lee and Stover makes the future look extremely bright, but it's still the event where they're most likely to get stuck in the 9.825s and most vulnerable to recording a beatable 49.200-49.250 (though that also may be mitigated at home). Sometimes the splits aren't there, sometimes the height of leaps isn't there, sometimes the wobbles are there, and it will come down to the strictness of the judging on the day. I don't think Utah is helped by going to beam right after the performances from Danusia and Peng, who will set the leap standard comparatively high.
I'm not sure what to make of Oregon State's vaulting yet. The Beavs have made some clear strides, and Gardiner, Keeker, and Aufiero can each get their 9.9 on with a stick, but they still need more depth. They tend to get stuck with some low scores early in the lineup, which isn't going to work moving forward. In the current scoring climate, you can't have a 9.750 on vault. You can't count a 9.800, because Florida already got six 10s while you were chalking up. It has to be one of Aufiero's 9.925 days. And speaking of 9.925s, let's get to Stanford's bars. Stanford must make a move and gain some serious tenths on bars.
Stanford is too talented not to be getting 49.400s on bars every time out. I mean COME ON! Ivana Hong. Sami Shapiro's handstands. The Vaculik gienger. Becky Wing's gorgeous leadoff routine. Stanford should be the best bars team in this competition and should make up ground during this rotation. But it will come down to the sticking. So often, Stanford has a 9.950 routine going on the bars themselves that turns into 9.850 because of the dismount. If Sami Shapiro is getting a 9.850 on bars, the world is broken and we need a new one. Because Utah goes to floor and UCLA goes to vault in the last rotation while Stanford goes to beam, Stanford must erase nearly all, if not completely all, of any potential deficit by the end of bars. As much as Ivana Hong is the world's perfect human on beam, the Cardinal cannot go to beam with tenths to make up. That's just too hard to do.
UCLA's floor is an interesting monster because they have mixed and matched so much that...who even knows what the lineup is going to be? No one. Not all of those routines are created equal, and they still haven't really separated the MEHs from the YESes, which means UCLA's floor performance this year has not lived up to its potential quality very many times. But, there's still a big score in there somewhere. When Peszek, Cipra, and Francis are around at the same time, good things will happen. Like Price, Peszek has barely competed on floor this year, but now we're getting to the time of year she has been saving her legs for. Hopefully, there are still a few more 9.9s left in those rice-paper feet. I also think it has been a smart call to move Bynum to the anchor position because now she's getting the huge 9.925s that she never really got before the move. Even with Peszek in the lineup, Bynum probably should stay anchor because Peszek doesn't need the anchor spot to get a big score (though UCLA is traditionally less likely than some other teams to manipulate the lineups in that way).
Rotation 4: (UCLA vault, Oregon State bars, Stanford beam, Utah floor)
It's hard to imagine Utah heading to floor at home with a lead and relinquishing it, so the other teams must be able to use their strengths in the second and third rotations to, at the very least, keep pace with the Utes before the floor 9.9s start falling like rain. But at the same time, Utah has shown some vulnerabilities on floor this year. It's a good rotation, but not their strongest recent floor rotation, and at times the losses of Damianova and Del Priore have shown up. Less sureness, more uncontrolled passes. Most egregiously, there was that performance last week against Georgia, which was flat-out poor from a number of people, not just from Wilson and her magical 9.650. I can't think that will happen again, especially at home, but it does raise some doubt. There are two or three question marks in this lineup leading up to the strength from Dabritz and Tutka, which may prevent Utah from getting a true final-rotation score explosion.
UCLA finishes on vault, and I'm still waiting for that first-week performance to show up again. UCLA was excellent on vault in the first week, nailing landings all over the place, and while there have been shades of it since, no performance has quite lived up to the first one yet. As on floor, there has been a lot of lineup switching. I think they're so giddy about finally having 9 or 10 legitimate vault options that they just go "WEEEEE!" and throw any of them out there. But they do have enough high-scoring options that 49.400 should be a comfortable result. Peszek obviously. Williams has proven her new 9.9-itude. Irvin is a sticker, even though she vaults diagonally. She's like a bishop of gymnastics. I'd love to see Pinches and Cipra back, but who knows. The way this vault lineup has been going, Danusia will suddenly vault this week. Still, UCLA doesn't have an excuse to give up much ground in the final rotation. Every Super Six-hopeful team should be able to get at least a 49.400 on vault, otherwise you're out in the cold.
While Stanford is beautiful on beam, and likewise has little excuse to give up ground there, I'm still worried about this rotation. The lack of Morgan and Spinner has shown through in many of the performances, which have seen too many early 9.800s for a Stanford team. You're Stanford! You don't get 9.800 on beam! A hit from Wing in that first spot is essential. She has occasional consistency issues, but when she hits, she can be a marvelous 9.900 that lifts the whole group. It's hard to imagine Stanford scoring the big upset without a competition-best beam rotation, so watch for those Wing, Rice, and Vaculik routines to tell us whether this rotation will be a competition-best one, or just an Ivana-Hong-and-guests one.
One of the reasons it's so important for Oregon State to get those McMillan and Gardiner 9.9s on floor and that Aufiero 9.9 on vault is that they're ending on bars, which has been fine but not exceptional this year. The Beavs have lost some talent in the bars department the last couple years as their stars have gradually left. There's still Aufiero to get the 9.9s, but the rest are getting stuck mostly in the 9.825-9.850s. Perhaps more than any other team, Oregon State has to stick those dismounts to pull out the scores. Especially if things get fancy in the last rotation, or if other teams haven't been sticking (which would make a rotation of sticks look even better by comparison), OSU does have the potential to take advantage of the rotation order for a surprise big score here.
In all, Utah should be able to put together an early lead and ride it through the rest of the events, but this is far from an open-and-shut competition, especially if UCLA and Stanford do that thing that UCLA and Stanford do where they suddenly show up in the postseason looking a billion times better than during the regular season. The key for UCLA will be using beam to keep things close and then making a move on floor while Utah is on beam, so watch how the margin plays out in the second and third rotations. For Stanford, it's about using Price to minimize the deficit from vault and floor, and then being the 9.950s they can be on bars and beam. For Oregon State, it's being the little engine that could. Get 9.875 after 9.875 after 9.875, chip away and chip away, and take advantage of mistakes. Nail floor and be the most solid team overall. Those are the routes to victory. But let's not forget about the afternoon session because there is a wealth of talent there and some serious contenders for top-four places.
AFTERNOON SESSION (Arizona, Cal, Washington, Arizona State):
The four-team separation in the Pac-12 is still alive and well, but as we saw last year when Cal finished third, the quartet is not immune. Cal and Arizona have both proven more than capable of recording competitive scores and taking advantage of a missed meet from one of the top teams. Or not even a missed meet (Cal's season high is greater than Oregon State's this year). One 48.900 rotation with a case of the wobblies from the teams in the top session, and they will be very vulnerable to getting passed.
Cal continues making tremendous progress. From the most extreme doldrums just five seasons ago, Cal has turned into a legitimately competitive team that is going to head to regionals as a true threat. While they haven't quite made the jump into the thick of the top 15 yet (and we'll get to beam in a minute), this team has taken another step forward this year, and that step is named Toni-Ann Williams. Top teams always have those huge 9.950s to rely upon, and now Cal has a couple. As a result, they're currently #3 in the Pac-12 on vault and #4 on floor, and I certainly expect them to place right with at least a couple teams in the late session on those two events. If Cal isn't vaulting at least level with Stanford and Oregon State, they will have missed an opportunity, but the progress on floor (not just from Williams but also from the introduction of Arianna Robinson and the now-healthy Dana Ho) is the most pleasant improvement from last season. If only they weren't being pulled down by the beam monster.
Beam is the biggest obstacle standing between Cal and a legitimate challenge to the traditional Pac-12 powers. They're right there on three events, and if Cal had been consistently hitting a 49.000 on beam this season, they would be 11th in the country right now and deserve it. Sadly, that hasn't so much been happening. Early in the season it was a fall fest, and while they've started to cut out the falls, everyone in the lineup is still in danger of going 9.7. There's no big 9.9 rotation savior the way that Williams has become on vault and floor. The beam performance will determine Cal's fate. If they can get through beam, mid-high 196 is a real score and a repeat third-place finish is a real goal.
The Arizona Wildcats (I really wish someone's mascot was just a house cat, and the logo was a cat curled up into a ball going "meh") come into Pac-12s as the highest-ranked team of the four in the early session. In fact, they're just four spots below Stanford in the rankings. It's a real credit to this team that they've overcome injuries to basically every essential contributor this year (from Klarenbach and Wobma before the season started to Allie Flores most recently), and have still been able to put together exactly the same regular season they always do, finishing ranked 17th and getting a couple high 196s here and there. They have, however, felt the pinch of some crucial lost routines, particularly on vault now, which may very well hurt their competitiveness at Pac-12s especially because vault is such a high-scoring event. It will be a struggle to keep pace there, but other events should remain competitive. Unlike Cal, Arizona's greatest asset in this meet is beam.
As Cal and Arizona fight it out for afternoon supremacy, Arizona will need to take advantage of the clean, efficient elegance of that beam rotation to build up an advantage strong enough that Toni-Ann Williams can't pick away at it. In particular, the work from Edwards, Fox, and Mills is a delight. Sometimes nerve-wracking, but a delight. A five-tenth advantage over Cal on beam is possible, and will probably be necessary. It will come down to whether Arizona's bars and beam are stronger than Cal's vault and floor. The classic showdown.
Washington does not have the same scoring potential as the six teams ranked above and look a pretty solid bet to adhere to the rankings and finish seventh. But while that might not seem like much, this has been a refreshing bounce-back season for Washington after a poor, not-six-people-in-every-lineup showing last season. This year, they've been solidly 195 and occasionally 196, which is much more what I expect from Washington in a normal year. In addition to Allison Northey the AA stalwart, Janae Janik is starting to find the consistency to go along with her lovely gymnastics, former elite Jackie McCartin has become a very useful beamer, and watching McKenzie Fechter aggressively pump herself up before routines is a life highlight. Like Arizona, the Huskies are most competitive on bars and beam, and because of those last four beam routines from Fechter, Northey, Janik, and McCartin, they too can make a statement in this session with their beam work. It's unlikely that they will have the scores on the other events to put up a big challenge, and will be giving back tenths on vault and floor, but if other teams are falling, Washington can discreetly slip into a higher slot using their beam turning and flexibility super powers.
As for Arizona State, well, this is why we have sayings like "It's a rebuilding year," "You have to start somewhere," and "Growth growth blah blah adversity." I think that's a saying, at least. I'm getting it embroidered on a pillow. With the gymnast exodus after Rene took over, coupled with the 11 thousand injuries this season, the devils of the sun don't have the routines to be competitive. They can get a few solid scores from Taylor Allex and Tasha Sundby to bump up a couple rotation scores toward the high 48s, but mostly they're looking at a lot of 9.7s and mid 48s. Finishing not-last would be a victory for ASU this year. On the positive side, that 162 earlier this month was just a one-week blip, and they were able to recover for a completely reasonable 195 last week. So the wheels aren't completely off, just mostly. This is going to be a long process to turn Arizona State back into a team, but I do expect it to get better from here. Although, in the couple meets I've seen from Arizona State so far this season, Rene has been dressed kind of demurely (for Rene), and I think that's what's hurting the team the most. What happened to our girl?