Onward! Following the cue of the wildly circuitous Road to Rio we've been hearing about for the past year (I feel like there might be more efficient ways to get to Rio, like a plane or something), we move along the Road to Lovely Metropolitan Fort Worth from our first stop in Iowa to Minnesota. Wait, are we going the right direction? This feels wrong. Who's navigating this trip? TRAUTWIG!!!???
Competing teams (starting event)
 Florida (bye before bars)
 Denver (beam)
 Minnesota (floor)
 Missouri (bye before floor)
 Ohio State (bars)
 BYU (vault)
Iowa State (Haylee Young – AA; Meagan Sievers – AA; Sydney Converse – VT, BB; Briana Ledesma – VT, FX; Hilary Green – UB; Alex Marasco – BB; Kelsey Paz – FX)
Air Force (Kara Witgen – AA; Jamie Lewis – AA)
UW-Whitewater (Mackenzie Smith – UB)
The favorite – Florida
Much like Oklahoma, the Florida Gators enter regionals as the heavy favorite and should win comfortably, pretty much running away with it after the first rotation, even though they'll be on a bye. The win at SECs helps reinforce Florida's status as a comfortable pick to win a fourth-straight title, though the sheer competitiveness of that meet, along with getting outscored by Oklahoma by multiple tenths that day, indicate that it's far from a safe proposition. Florida was challenged by multiple other teams during a well-hit meet. Mostly well-hit.
That brings us to the Sloan problem. You're the one who's not supposed to be a problem! What is happening? For regionals, Florida does have the leeway to make a couple errors or count a fall and still advance, but it's imperative that Sloan work out whatever is happening on beam and why. She has fallen on three of her last five beam routines, and while one of the other two hits was a 10.000, that's not a very Sloan-like record at all. At nationals, the Gators don't just need a hit from her. They need a 9.950. That's how close and high-scoring this thing is going to be. We know Sloan can pull it together, as she mas many times before. As an elite, she had a bit of a Mikulaky reputation for falling on beam on the first day and then hitting on the second day, and even two seasons ago, Bridget was a beam disaster heading into the final Saturday and then got a 20 at Super Six. She needs to Sloan it out again. Our main focus in this meet will be lower down the standings, but Sloan's beam routine in rotation three is a must-watch.
The fight – Denver v. Minnesota
This regional contest is among the more delectable because, aside from providing a potentially close race right down to the end, it guarantees a somewhat unexpected qualifier to nationals. While all three of the contenders here have advanced to nationals in the recent past (Minnesota in 2013, Missouri in 2010, Denver in 2007, 2008), none are what would be considered perennial qualifiers. Someone is going to be spoiling the old party. Also, the Jessica Lopez era was EIGHT years ago?
Denver and Minnesota have both hit tremendous highs this season marked by historically significant scores, but some of those scores have been a little...creative, particularly that weekend of meets during which these two teams squared off twice and split the series.
For instance, this Julia Ross bars routine got a 9.900, which I use to illustrate high scores and because it's one of the key routines for Denver that isn't Nina McGee's floor. They have others.
More likely, claiming the second spot here will require a mid-high 196, which is why this placement is such a juicy opportunity, not just for Denver and Minnesota but for Missouri as well. That's a fairly conceivable score for all three, and this is the most open chance to make nationals any of these schools has seen for a while or is likely to see for a while. There's no UCLA, or Michigan, or Georgia, or Stanford, or any of the other dangerous, big-reputation 2-3 seeds that must be defeated to make nationals. The task presented to these teams is simply to beat their peers. Dangerously attainable. It's a doubly important opportunity for Denver and Minnesota because this is the last year of McGee and Mable, so it will be much harder next season once they've dropped that vital scoring potential (though it should be noted that Denver's freshman class for next year is legit, including Maddie Karr from TCT who won the Nastia last year and Sam Ogden from WOGA who was elite for a hot minute this quad).
For much of the season, Minnesota looked like an also-ran, hovering in the 195s and unable to break through for a massive score, but the recent 197s coupled with this being a home meet make the Gophers much more of a threat. But how much will home be a factor? Minnesota hasn't scored all that well at home this year, with those recent big totals all coming on the road. The one instance this year when these schools did meet at a neutral venue (at Air Force), Minnesota won by a couple tenths without a home advantage.
Minnesota's event rotation, beginning on floor and ending on beam, isn't as devastatingly terrible as it usually seems because beam is such an important event for this team. It's the one event where they are clearly stronger than Denver, and no pair of routines is more critical to Minnesota's success than Mable and Nordquist on beam. Ending the day with those two routines is not a bad deal at all (even if starting on floor is a bit of a pain that may somewhat neutralize another important score). A Hanna Nordquist end-of-meet senior-year home beam routine with nationals on the line is like judge catnip, though it will fall in the fifth rotation instead of the sixth, when Minnesota ends on a bye.
Denver, meanwhile, will look to break out on floor in the third rotation with that parade of power culminating in Nina McGee's near-automatic 9.950. McGee has scored under 9.925 on floor just twice this season, which is why the team would be disappointed with any rotation total under 49.300. Denver's floor should be the highest-scoring event of the meet for any team not named Florida and must be greater than what Minnesota scores on floor in the first rotation if Denver is going to snatch a qualifying spot.
While both teams have one vault that usually scores quite well (guess who it comes from...), vault isn't a big difference maker for either, staying relatively even and 9.800y for both teams. Bars will tell us more. It has been a comfortable score for Denver this year and has been somewhat terrifying for Minnesota, as per tradition. That's not to say Minnesota can't score well on bars. Holst and Mable can both bring in big numbers on one of Mable's good days, but she also has bad days on bars that often send the rotation down below the 49 line. It has to be a Mable good day, in all the ways, but especially on bars to prevent Denver from having two big asset events over Minnesota.
By the halfway point in the meet, both teams will have gone on floor, so Denver will hope to have a lead of at least a tenth or so (as long as they get through that opening beam rotation) and a score around 98.500. That would be somewhat challenging for Minnesota to match unless its floor scores are soaring, so Minnesota will be hoping things stay closer to 98.350-98.400 after two events, a much more attackable score in the second half of the meet.
The spoiler – Missouri
Missouri has proven capable of 196.6 both at home and on the road this season and therefore cannot be eliminated from consideration if we expect the qualifying score to hover close to that range. Sure, both Denver and Minnesota are capable of scoring higher, so their performances will dictate whether Missouri is in contention or not, but if a few too many Gophers and Pioneers look a little 9.775, Missouri can jump right in. The major question is whether floor can be competitive in a group filled with teams eager to take advantage of 2016's loose floor scoring to drive up the total. Missouri struggled on floor at SECs with several weak landings and, in fact, has not exceeded 49.150 on floor on the road all season. Staying 49.1s is unlikely to challenge without the help of falls from others. Floor is Missouri's first event, which will tell us whether this is the road-season-high kind of day it will take to put the pressure on Denver and Minnesota. This performance will also be a useful case study (along with Kentucky's) as to whether silly SEC scoring has driven Missouri's stock up to an artificial level or whether the mid-196s are a true reflection of quality.
Shauna Miller is also one to keep an eye on. She had a nightmare at SECs, and while she's not as critical to the team this year as she was in 2015 since Porter and Ward have taken up some of her duties, Missouri will struggle to put up a solid team score without a hit AA from Miller.
And the rest
Ohio State is more competitive than most of the #5 seeds nationally, but it's difficult to envision a school has rested in the 195s all year suddenly advancing out of this region against teams that should be scoring much higher. Challenging Missouri for 4th is a realistic proposition, and hitting 196.000 is a very attainable goal and would constitute a solid day, but once we get past a couple excellent routines from Mattern, Harrison, and Hofland, the rest of the lineups don't manage enough 9.8s to get a total into the mid 196s. BYU is in a similar position, though less likely to reach that 196.000 plateau. The Cougars have settled into this range of teams that usually make it to regionals, popping in as a #6 seed, but don't look close to challenging for anything better or regaining the glory of yore.
The qualification fight between Denver and Minnesota features two of the strongest AAers in the country in Mable and McGee. It would be unacceptable for either to miss nationals. We have to unite as a family and make sure it doesn't happen. In the most likely outcome, one will qualify with a team and (as long as there's no fall involved) the other will make it as one of the two AA individuals from this regional. Their scoring potential is just too high compared to the others. If something weird and unfortunate does happen somewhere, they'll both be in the hunt to make nationals as an event specialist on perhaps a couple apparatuses (as will Hanna Nordquist for beam if Minnesota doesn't make it), but let's hope it doesn't get to that point.
With one spot presumably taken by one of them, Missouri's Morgan Porter looks the most likely to take the other spot. She's currently ranked #20 in the AA and has scored at least 39.325 in her last five AA appearances. That seems the most believable setup for the two qualifying spots, though Shauna Miller is back in the AA and could put up a strong score if she's suddenly having a much better day in the AA, and Ciara Gardner is another option for Minnesota if team qualification is not in the cards. Missouri would also consider Ward on vault and beam a possibility as an event specialist, but she'd have to beat Florida's whole lineup, which seems unlikely.
If there are mistakes from that favored group of AAers, then we could see challenges come from Mattern and Harrison for Ohio State and Halliday for BYU, but they're more likely to hang in the 49.1-49.2 range. They'll need things not to go to plan for the higher-seeded teams to get in.