Every year, at the first press conference at nationals, Sarah Patterson's first comment was always, "You never take for granted making Super Six." Actually, I'm sure she only said it about once, but in my head it was every moment of the day, every year. Sarah Patterson talking about not taking Super Six for granted and how it's harder to win the SEC Championship than the national title, which makes no damn sense.
But the not taking it for granted part? Never been truer than it is about this year's first semifinal. There are no soft teams and no obvious results here. It's going to be remarkable. At least it better be. The competitors are Florida, Utah, Michigan, UCLA, Georgia, and Stanford, and pretty much any finishing order seems plausible. The only true surprise here would be if Florida fails to make Super Six. Anything else would sound about right, really. All six of these schools are 197 teams, so we can't expect the 197 standard on which we usually judge the better teams to be good enough. It won't be good enough. Last year, Utah set the record for the highest ever semifinal score that didn't advance to Super Six with a 197.025. I'll be disappointed if that record isn't broken this year. A score like 197.025 shouldn't make it out of this semifinal, because that will mean several teams did not perform at the level we expect. So let's get into it.
Of all the teams in this semifinal, Florida is the safest. The Gators are the most likely to get a huge score and are the only team in this group that can feel comfortable with their qualification outlook as long as they don't count a fall. Count a fall, and I have no confidence in anything, but if Florida hits 5-for-6 on each event, everything should be fine. Even if the performance is sort of meh like it was at regionals. Florida scored a 197.475 for that meh performance, which will be enough to make Super Six.
It's tough to make prognostications about how Super Six will go at this point because we don't know who's going to be there or how these teams will look once the weekend rolls around. There are always several teams who suddenly learn how to land vaults between regionals and nationals, and a couple other teams who probably should have and didn't. Still, Florida's performance at regionals did not scream "NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP." Fortunately for them, neither did anyone else's. This is open. It shouldn't be like the men's championship over the weekend when Oklahoma just came in and Biles-ed the whole thing.
If Florida is really going to win, there's work to be done. Certainly, bars was the biggest problem at regionals with a whole bunch of "Is it January already?" landings. I'm sure right now they're spending all the live long day in the gym working the crap out of those bars landings so that it doesn't happen again, but let's not forget about the beam questions as well. Yes, Florida recovered from the SEC Championship catastrophe to hit six beam routines at regionals, but even with good hits from Sloan and Hunter, the score was still 49.325, which is somewhat troubling for a hit rotation if we assume it's going to take a 198 to win the title. It took a 198 last year, and the scoring landscape is the same this year. 49.325s put a ton of pressure on the other events. 49.325s are what knocked LSU out of the title race last year.
In reaction to the disaster from SECs, Florida reorganized the beam lineup, moving Boyce to the first spot. She had a pretty significant wobble at regionals and still got a 9.800, which is a good sign for the team, but I do wonder if they have compromised their scoring potential a bit by moving Boyce because she has proven to be the second-most-likely 9.9 in that lineup behind Sloan. Watch that space during the semifinals. Have they given away a 9.9 in exchange for stability?
But this year, if Florida is going to make it three titles in a row, it will be about vaulting like monsters and winning that event. The Gator identity has changed from last year. With the loss of Caquatto and Johnson and the addition of Baker and McMurtry, this team has become less about bars and more about power. They're much better on vault this year, and what was probably the biggest question mark in 2014 (aside from beam consistency, because always) has become the biggest asset. Their scoring capability is crazy, which we know because they got a 49.625 at regionals while sticking just one of six vaults. What are they going to get when they actually hit these vaults, the presidency? Probably. But, still a couple things with that. At nationals, you can't expect to get a 49.625 for one stuck vault. And you can't expect to stick one vault and win. It doesn't work like that. Usually. Or it shouldn't. It's critical that they really take advantage of the vaults they have and open up that lead.
First of all, pull yourself together, Utah. That thing you did at regionals was not OK. I hope everyone bought Georgia Dabritz a gold-encrusted manor house filled with baby rabbits after that performance, because she was the only thing standing between Utah and elimination. Utah does come into this semifinal as the second-ranked team, but after regionals, I would not consider this team any kind of a safe bet. The biggest issue at regionals was obviously having to count a fall and a major error on beam (How Rowe escaped from that routine with a 9.700, I'm still not sure...), so hitting that event in the semifinal is job #1. Utah will do beam in the very first rotation, and that will be the most important single event performance in this semifinal. Utah's ability or inability to hit beam will dictate how competitive this session ends up being and how many teams are truly in it.
If Utah gets through beam, they're right in this with a solid shot at advancing, but I wouldn't say it's smooth sailing after beam because that regional performance revealed some other major issues. Keep in mind that even if we gave Utah 0.500 back for the second beam fall at regionals, the total would still have been 197.075, which is not safe. It wasn't entirely a beam issue.
In the Pac-12 preview, I praised Utah's ability to get the most out of this bars lineup, not having the most talented gymnasts or most refined routines but nailing every handstand and landing to squeeze out high scores regardless. That's exactly what deserted them at regionals. We saw some seriously late pirouettes and not very many stuck dismounts. Most of the dismount issues were minor, a small hop back here and there, but because the Utes are so reliant on sticking to get the scores, they cannot afford even small hops. When those hops come out the play, the scores suddenly plummet into the 9.825s. Looking at the performance from regionals, it's fair to ask whether the bars and floor lineups are missing the big, consistent supporting routine to go along with Dabritz. Is Utah going to show up to nationals with Dabritz and a bunch of 9.850s on a couple events? Because that will make it much more difficult to advance to Super Six without hoping for errors from others. Pretty much every team here can do 9.850-9.850-9.850-9.850-9.950 as the five counting scores on pretty much every event. That won't separate any team from the pack.
For this semifinal, 98.700 is about the magic number I'm looking for at the halfway point. That would mean a 197.400 total if it is maintained for the second half of the meet and should make a team feel comfortable. Expectations will vary based on whether teams are starting with strong events or weak events, but about 98.700 is a safe pace. Because Utah does beam in the first half of the meet and vault in the second half of the meet, being a bit under 98.700 at halfway would be fine in their case, but not that much under. If Utah does manage to go 98.700 after two events, that would mean they hit beam and got perhaps an extra floor 9.9 from Tutka or Lothrop, and they would feel very good about qualifying from that point because they would still have vault to come.
Vault remains Utah's trump card. Among the teams that aren't Florida, Utah should be winning vault in this session and doing so comfortably. A 49.500 is a very realistic score, even without Tory Wilson. It's Utah's chance to pull away, but they'll have to keep themselves competitive before they get there. So we're back to beam. This is the most talented team Utah has put together in a number of years, and with Georgia Dabritz in her final year, this may be the best chance Utah gets for a while to make a real challenge. They have to take it.
Hmmmmmmmmmm. That's what I have to say. Hmmmmmmmmmm. Michigan has recorded some big scores this year. A 197.8 at home. A 197.6 on the road. That's Super Six-level scoring, but for most of the year the scores have been hanging around the 197.1s and 197.2s, which should be on the cusp of being a usable score. Michigan is definitely a bubble team in this semifinal, certainly capable of advancing but also capable of putting together a perfectly hit meet with no significant errors and still being defeated by teams who just did better. That's basically what happened at regionals. Michigan was good, solid, fine, got hosed on a couple of those bars and beam scores, and ended up finishing a half point behind UCLA. That's not an insignificant margin. If every team is nailing their routines, this may not be in Michigan's hands. They're going to need some average work from some of the others. Considering the teams competing in this semifinal and their history of giving everyone on earth a heart attack, that seems more than likely.
There are enough amazing routines in this semifinal that I really hope it's not a splatfest, but it very well could be. Unlike me, Michigan would be totally pleased if this is a splatfest because their best asse has been hitting every routine every time. Let all those beautiful disaster teams be beautiful disasters, and Michigan will just skate on through to Super Six, doing a pageant wave the whole time. But, if those Wolverines are going to take control of this meet, determine their own fate, and not rely on other teams making errors, honing the vault landings is the most essential missing piece. Right now, everyone except Sugiyama is dropping too many tenths with those big bounces back. These days, teams expecting to advance to Super Six cannot count 9.800 on vault ever, so Michigan will have to show more control in the semifinal to avoid letting a team like Utah run away and gain three tenths or more on that one event.
Michigan and UCLA will both end on byes, finishing their meets in the 5th rotation with Michigan on vault and UCLA on beam. With so many competitive teams in this session, it's hard to make a comparison between just two because there are too many different realistic permutations of how this could go down the stretch. But, if it does come down to UCLA and Michigan fighting it out as they did at regionals, Michigan is going to want a multi-tenth lead before the final event given the questions about those vault landings compared the strength of UCLA on beam. Being tied or behind going to the 5th rotation is bad news. In the 4th rotation, they'll have to take advantage of floor to build up a lead on any team they might be close with. Regardless of who they're battling, Michigan is going to want to be at least 147.900ish going to the final event to be truly in this.
UCLA is being UCLA, coming on strong right at the end of the season. For as much talk as there was before the season about ramping up training so much earlier and being ahead of schedule, this year has looked exactly the same as always. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It has worked before. Beating Michigan at regionals and scoring that solid 197.500 (the highest regional score of any team in this semifinal) would seem to indicate that the Bruins have the edge right now and perhaps the inside track to qualification. I do think that if every member of every team hits all her very best routines on Friday, UCLA will be among the top three in this session, but that isn't a thing that happens, so it's irrelevant.
The Bruins will just hope to keep things close enough through the early part of the meet, reeling in as many close to 49.4 as possible. Once again the 4th rotation will be crucial. Just as Michigan must build up an advantage on floor in the 4th, UCLA cannot afford to go to bars in the 4th and give up the world. If they don't give up the world, the Bruins will look to sail away from the pack by ending on beam and throwing up another ALL THE 9.950s performance.
It's always scary to have beam as your best event. It's still beam. Things happen. UCLA is much more reliant on a huge beam score than the other teams in this session are. Because of concerns on the other events, they're the least able to afford wobbles. Those realistic 9.900s and 9.950s are too precious for that. For some other teams, like Utah, getting through beam with 9.850s would be a result. They could work with that, but UCLA cannot. It has to be amazing.
Also keep an eye on UCLA's floor work in that first rotation because I'm a little bit worried about the floor lineup. Not majorly worried, but I do have questions. Most of my attention has been on the greatness of the beam lineup and the meh-ness of the middle of the bars lineup, but I'm going to take some time for floor now because it can be sort of hit-or-miss in the short landings department. There are three people in this lineup in Francis, Cipra, and Bynum who should be able to get 9.900 every time but who can all be caught by the short-landing monster to compromise the team score. Watch those three routines in particular. If they're short-double-back-9.825 type showings on Friday, UCLA is in the kind of trouble that they may not be able to work out of. That's how close this meet should be.
Because the Bruins are starting on floor and vault, the two traditionally higher-scoring events (and the two events on which I expect to see the highest scores at nationals this year given the relative strengths of the field), they need to be hugging that 98.700 marker at the halfway point. At regionals, they were 98.675 on floor and vault combined, so if they repeat that same performance, it's OK. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement on that regionals showing.
Like UCLA, Georgia has waited until the last minute to turn things on, though that path isn't really as expected for Georgia as it is for UCLA. Nor was it the plan. Things haven't gone right very many times for Georgia this season, but maybe it's maybe starting to get a little better, maybe. The SEC Championship did not go great, but strutting into regionals and beating Utah for the second time this season was an important step to erase that SEC performance from all of our minds. Maybe Georgia is only good when Utah is around, in which case this is the ideal semifinal draw.
While Georgia did cut out some of those notable errors to win regionals, the total score was still just a 197.025, which is not enough to bank on. The team must continue to get better, and beam remains the area where the most bettering needs to happen. There's still a lot of not-better going on there. Even though Georgia essentially hit five routines at regionals (and won the event on the night, which tells a really vivid story about how beam went at that competition), they still got a 48.950, which barely counts as hitting. No one should be making it out of this session with a 48 on any event, so they'll have to take another big step forward this weekend. Brittany Rogers hasn't had a great beam season with a lot of tight routines lately, but they'll need her to be a true 9.875 again along with Broussard and Box to hope for a usable score.
As for the lineup, I did like the idea of putting Brown back in, even though it was unpopular and didn't work. She brings higher scoring potential than the other options with a hit routine, and the Gym Dogs are not in a position to play it safe right now. They have to take risks to have any hope of a huge score. If there's any reason at all to think Kiera Brown might suddenly hit at nationals, I say go for it. At the same time, that's risky and foolhardy, so I would not begrudge them removing her from the lineup. Regardless, Natalie Vaculik must come back into the lineup in place of someone because we need to have as many opportunities for dueling Vaculiks in this session as possible. Any time two Vaculiks do simultaneous routines, a fairy gets its wings. At least, that's how I got mine.
There were also some very encouraging developments at regionals, particularly that 49.400 on vault. We didn't see many of the vaults, but all those 49.1s that Georgia got during the season were silly and unacceptable for a team with Jay, Rogers, Davis and now Broussard most of the time. 49.400 is much more like it, and if they can repeat that at nationals, we don't have to worry about vault. We just have to worry about beam, and a little bit floor. This group seems to have worked out the hitting floor part, but the lack of consistent and reliable 9.9s is still a problem that will keep Georgia below the top four seeds in this semifinal. As was proven at regionals, Mary Beth Box will always get a 9.875.
Georgia drew the gold star and will go in Olympic order, which is always a comfortable rotation order. But it does mean that they will be starting on two events that must both be huge scores. They need to be sitting pretty at the halfway point. Probably in the top two, top three at the very worst. Anything lower is a major red flag with beam and floor coming in the second half, so that 98.700 halfway benchmark may be a soft estimate in Georgia's case. With those potential bars scores, they need to be at a good 98.800, and maybe higher. Georgia is not going to be a come-from-behind team in this meet. They will need to get a lead early and try to keep it.
Stanford has become sort of an afterthought in this semifinal because we're only human and don't have room in our puny little brains to consider six possible teams advancing at one time. It's just too much. But, Stanford is entirely capable of putting together the kind of low-mid 197 that it should take to squeeze through to Super Six. We've seen it done. Even at regionals, Stanford managed to pull out a 197.000 while having a poor showing on their best event, bars. Throw a usual Stanford bars rotation in there, and we're talking about one of the top scores on the day from any team. Once again, Stanford's first event will be bars, and they cannot afford another sloppy start. 49.400 is what they should be looking for, and with the standard in this competition, they won't be able to endure much less than that. Nor should we allow it. You don't get to have that much bars pretty and still score a 49.025. It's against the rules.
Like Georgia, Stanford will have completed very high-scoring events (for them) in the first half of the meet, so they're also going to need to be ranked very well early and will be hoping to break that 98.700 barrier. Usually that's a big ask for bars and beam scores, but it will be necessary for Stanford. One of the interesting mini-battles in this semifinal will be between Georgia and Stanford to see which team gets the better start since they both need amazing ones. It's hard to imagine the top three at the halfway point being Florida, Georgia, and Stanford, but that's exactly what Georgia and Stanford need, and it would certainly make for an amazing final three rotations with a six-way fight for qualification.
It's so important that Stanford use Ivana Hong's special powers to get out fast because floor remains their least competitive event. The group that performed at regionals does not have enough easy 9.9s to be truly competitive. It's a more extreme version of Georgia's predicament. Occasionally Rice will get there, and we know Vaculik can, but it's not a given for anyone, and that's trouble. Even with a good start on bars and beam, we probably won't know if Stanford is a contender until after floor. If they do come up with a relatively usable score (it doesn't have to be that huge because bars and beam can make up some of that ground), then there's very little difference between Stanford and the higher-seeded teams.
In most of the ways, this semifinal appears to defy prediction, which means it will end up being really predictable and boring. That's what always happens. The interesting semifinal turns out to be boring, and the boring semifinal turns out to be interesting. A lot is going to depend on which Utah shows up. If regular-season Utah shows up on Friday, this allegedly wide-open session closes up quite a lot. Regular-season Utah, if that even exists anymore after the Wilson injury, will be able to pull away and qualify, leaving UCLA and Michigan to fight it out for the remaining spot and Georgia and Stanford hoping to swoop in with an amazing day (or hoping both UCLA and Michigan have catastrophes). But if regionals Utah shows up again, all bets are off. The spots would be open, and it would be so much easier to imagine anyone taking them. And that's what should make this semifinal such a good one.