While several of the regionals this year could produce an unexpected nationals qualifier that we will pretend signals the beginning of a new era until next season when everything returns to normal, the most exciting changing of the guard will happen in Alabama. Though some of the challengers elsewhere, like Denver and Minnesota, haven't qualified to nationals for a few years, the teams in this regional have been stranded in the desert for much, much longer. Cal has been absent from the national championship since 1992, and Boise State and Kentucky have been absent since always. In fact, with three all-time nationals appearances, #5 seed West Virginia is the second-most accomplished team in the competition.
Competing teams (starting event)
 Alabama (bye before bars)
 Cal (beam)
 Boise State (floor)
 Kentucky (bye before floor)
 West Virginia (bars)
 Bowling Green (vault)
SEMO (Alexis Brawner – AA; Lauren Israel – AA; McKinzie Jones – FX)
Northern Illinois (Andie Van Voorhis – VT; Jamyra Carter – UB; Lauren Africano – UB; Megan Greenfield – BB)
Arizona State (Allie Salas – AA; Taylor Allex – VT, FX)
Illinois-Chicago (Mikailla Northern – AA)
Illinois State (Amanda Mohler – BB)
The favorite – Alabama
Alabama is Alabama. Competing at home against a relatively unheralded squadron of challengers and coming off an impressive second-place showing at SECs should really be all we need to know about Alabama's qualification outlook. Coleman may no longer the impenetrable home fortress it once was, now the site of previously unheard of losses to LSU and Arkansas, but the idea of Alabama getting upset at home by two whole teams in this meet is difficult to fathom.
Unsurprisingly, Alabama had its best meet of the season at SECs, which happened to coincide with actually getting all the good people in the lineups simultaneously for the first time. Amazing how that works out. Winston returned on three events, all the top-scoring floor workers competed, and Bresette was able to show her Omelianchik, which is a higher-scoring option than her full. All of this combined to make Alabama look like a peer of Oklahoma, Florida, and LSU in the title race rather than the leader of the challenging pack. These lineups still don't look fully finalized (you can't quit depth exploration cold turkey), as I'd still perhaps like to see Winston vaulting and, critically, that was not the highest-scoring beam lineup Alabama could put out. Sanders did an excellent job of suddenly being a gymnast now, but hit routines from Beers and Bailey are going to score higher than what she (and potentially Brannan) can bring.
It's an issue of hitting (both Bailey and Beers fell the week before), but if the coaches feel comfortable putting Bailey and Beers in the lineup, this team looks more formidable and closer to 198. If not, Alabama may be giving up a crucial tenth or two on beam, the rotation that knocked them down below Florida's at SECs.
The fight – Cal v. Boise State
This meet represents a brand new phenomenon for Cal. We've seen Cal perform well in significant meets against strong teams over the last three seasons, but for the first time I can remember, Cal will enter a significant meet not as an upstart, or an underdog, or a spoiler, or a sentimental favorite but as a favorite. Cal should finish second here and should qualify along with Alabama. Not doing so would be a disappointing result given the wonderful opportunity to make nationals presented before them. Welcome to expectations, Cal. It's nice to have you here.
That's not to say it's going to be a walk. Boise State has been in many ways the surprise of the season (after being the punchline of the preseason when one coach voted BSU #1), scoring a 197.025 at conference championships—at home—which bested the 196.725 Cal put up at Pac-12s. Boise State does, however, remain the least proven entity among the contending teams, having gone the whole season without facing any school seeded 1-3 in any of the regionals. We don't really know how these routines are going to be evaluated when Boise State is suddenly not the biggest and the best in the arena for the first time. The Broncos' last challenging road meet also came at Alabama, in 2015, when they did prove quite competitive through three events and were on high-196 pace until a floor meltdown.
Boise State has done well to continue improving this season even without stars like Perkins and Morris (and with critical freshman Sarah Means limited to beam), which seemed like a recipe for a regression year. Still, keeping pace on vault has been a challenge and the 48s do occasionally pop up. They have a few vaults that can take advantage of the new values, Bennion's "arabian" and Bir's handspring pike 1/2, but Cal has done the better job of the two teams, probably the best in the country, at exploiting the new values through a heterogeneous 10.0 SV vault lineup. Cal's lineup really does squeeze every possible tenth out of a roster that doesn't have a whole lot of big vaulting power aside from Toni-Ann. Cal will expect to venture over 9.850 more often than Boise State on vault and grab some tenths there.
The other advantage for Cal in this meet looks to be beam. Cal. Advantage. Beam. I know, it's a brand new world. After a string of beam disasters pretty much single-handedly ended Cal's season last year, beam has become...if not exactly a strength, then at least a value-neutral event. It still can be a worry, and the team is still susceptible to the wobbly-9.6 monster, but it's much less scary and has featured some moments of brilliance from the likes of Howe. The return of Emily Richardson only helps to reinforce. For Boise State's part, beam is also much less scary this year than it was last year, when both Cal and Boise State participated in the Regional of Beam Hell in which every team scored a 3.8, but less scary for BSU constitutes a 49.025ish score, so Cal will still look to pick up ground.
Really, if this were a three-event meet and bars weren't a thing, Cal would be the heavy favorite. But then again, Alicia Sacramone would also be world champion. That's not the world we live in. Boise State's best event is bars by a hefty margin, as it always is. That's where the Broncos will look to make up a ton of ground that may be lost to Cal on the power events. Bars is not a bad event for Cal by any means, but Boise State can still gain multiple tenths there because 49.4 should be the expected score.
BSU won't head to bars until the fourth rotation, so we won't necessarily know how competitive the meet is until that point because much of Boise State's potential to get that high 196 is based on bars. Even a 98.300 after floor and vault in the early rotations (not a particularly formidable score in a regionals context), may actually be a useful pace. Cal will already have gone on its highest-scoring event (floor) by that halfway point and will expect to have a lead of at least a couple tenths to guard against what Boise State might gain in the fourth rotation. Then again, Boise State does end on beam, so...
Both of these teams entered the Berkeley regional last year as the spoilers, hoping to take advantage of a Georgia beam disaster (the more things change the more they stay the same) to qualify. This year, the dynamic between the two teams themselves is much the same, but they're fighting for an actual spot now, not hoping for someone else's mistake.
The spoiler – Kentucky
We saw a good Kentucky team at SECs, one that is supremely capable of playing the spoiler role in this regional, if not joining the fight with Cal and Boise State outright. That good performance at SECs, however, was worth 196.250. It will take more than that to take the second qualification spot. Kentucky ends up just a little too 9.800 to challenge the 49.2 rotations that the other contenders will expect to put forward. Still, the margin between them is not large, so a counting fall would certainly bump either Cal or Boise State behind Kentucky. It may not even need to be a counting fall. A beam rotation with a couple 9.6s thrown in may be enough to bring Kentucky in because Kentucky should score over 196. Anything in the 195s would constitute a disappointing meet.
For the most part, the goal for Kentucky will be to go steady, steady, steady through four events and hope that weak performances from the other teams make that a competitive strategy. There's not one event on which Kentucky stands out or specifically needs a huge score, so it's more about staying in the 49.1s across the board. Beam may be an exception to that because now that Waltz has returned the lineup, she creates a pretty high-scoring triumvirate with Dukes and Hyland at the end.
Beam is where Kentucky finishes, and it's relatively realistic to hope for more than a 49.1 there to put a crown on this meet.
And the rest
West Virginia is a fairly tough #5 seed though has failed to break into the 196s with enough frequency to be seen as a true spoiler. They had one crazy home meet when everyone got a 9.9 on floor, but other than that this season has been a predominately 195.8 type affair. The power events are where West Virginia excels and should break 49, with the help of Zaakira Muhammad and standout freshman Kira Koshinski. It won't be enough for a qualification score because 9.8s are much harder to come by on the other events, but it wouldn't be shocking to see WVU finish in the top three on both vault and floor here.
Bowling Green made regionals, which is cause for bacchanalia for a team that traditionally hangs around 50th place and rarely ever makes a ripple on the national scene other than qualifying Alyssa Nocella to regionals every year. It was far from a sure thing for most of the season, but a huge score in the home finale followed by a solid mid-195 at the MAC Champs sealed a historic result. It will go no further, but be sure to watch that beam rotation if time and attention allow. Laura Mitchell remains a triumph, and Nocella and Ellingboe provide supporting scores that should make that beam rotation competitive even in this company.
Based on scores and the season results, Cal should qualify as a team, but if not, things could get a little muddy because of the Toni-Ann situation. She's currently not in the beam lineup, even though she's Toni-Ann Williams, and therefore could not qualify as an all-arounder. That means if Cal doesn't make it, she would be left with trying to win floor to qualify as an event specialist. All of this is complicated by the Test Event, which takes place the same weekend as NCAA nationals and which Toni-Ann is supposed to attend as Jamaica's representative to try to earn a spot at the Olympics. What happens when she makes nationals? Like I said, muddy.
If Alabama and Cal do qualify, then we'll have quite a race for the AA spots among a number of individuals capable of scoring in the 39.3 range. The highest-ranked of the group is Dukes for Kentucky, and I do think she's the most likely to go through, but her teammates Stuart and (sometimes) Hyland are also capable of similar scores. We could have an interesting competition for the AA spots just within the Kentucky team, but then there's also Shani Remme (though she did not vault at conference champs) and Sandra Collantes from Boise State, who are both known to venture into the 39.3s as well. It may be harder for Bowling Green's AAers, Nocella and Feely, to reach the 39.3s, but they've both done it before. West Virginia has an occasional AAer in Goldberg, but vault isn't really her thing, which usually keeps her total down a few tenths lower than the others.
Basically, the unseeded teams should be hoping that Alabama and Boise State qualify out of this regional (if they themselves don't qualify, obviously), because that will take several tough challengers out of the individual race and leave it open for the individuals from Kentucky and Bowling Green to slug it out among themselves for the two spots.
As I say every time, it's wildly challenging to qualify as an event specialist, but of note, Taylor Allex is competing here as a vault and floor specialist. She boasts the difficulty on both events to challenge for serious scores. It's unlikely that she'll beat the whole Alabama and Cal teams, but she has a better chance than most of the gymnasts heading to regionals without a team.