April 11, 2016

National Championships Preview Part 2: Deja Vu in Spoilertown

Every year. Every year it's the same. One semifinal looks like it's going to be close and exciting and weird and controversial, and the other looks like a straightforward stroll through the local meadow in a world made only of springtime. Except, it never really works out that way. Take last year's second semifinal, when Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama squared off against Auburn, Nebraska, and Oregon State. "Ah ha ha," we said. "Bring me another glass of port. Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama will surely advance."

Nope. The infamous freshman-lost-her-mind heard 'round the world saw Auburn qualify instead of LSU. Nebraska managed to produce a similar complication the year before, against many of the same teams we see gathered this year. Almost all of them. I know. The straightforward semifinal tends to have a way of getting our attention, so how confident do we feel that Oklahoma, Alabama, and Utah will emerge from this session? What tricks do the Bruins have planned for us? Whom will they exhume to perform a surprise routine this time?

Competing teams (starting event)
[1] Oklahoma (bye before floor)
[4] Alabama (bye before bars)
[5] Utah (vault)
[8] UCLA (bars)
[10] Cal (beam)
[12] Nebraska (floor)

Competing individuals
All-around – Maddie Gardiner, Oregon State; Nina McGee, Denver; Amanda Wellick, Arkansas; Brianna Brown, Michigan; Mollie Drenth, Iowa; Lisa Burt, Michigan State

Vault – Taylor Allex, Arizona State
Beam – Risa Perez, Oregon State; Shani Remme, Boise State
Floor – Lizzy Leduc, Illinois; Rachel Slocum, Eastern Michigan

Though three clear favorites have established themselves in this group, it's not quite as meadow-like as some of the "easy" semifinals have been in past years. Alabama and Utah did not perform overwhelmingly at regionals, and UCLA absolutely possesses the talent to advance on a good day. Something I hadn't realized until now: Since the advent of Super Six, UCLA has never gone three straight seasons without qualifying. Having missed out on Super Six the last two years, the Bruins are in line to make an unfortunate piece of history if they don't secure the upset this time around. #saveuskyla

Let's get to it.

The Sooners have begun to separate themselves from the rest of the teams in recent weeks, not showing the same variations in performance, blips, and inconsistencies of the other top contenders. Oklahoma's regionals score was the highest in the country by a pretty solid margin and the performance was by far the cleanest.

Oklahoma must be the title favorite at this point but far from a prohibitive one. Several areas have emerged, from security of vault landings to floor difficulty, that may be cause for concern in a Super Six context when needing to defeat the likes of Florida, but for now, Oklahoma is the safest pick. If the Sooners were to lose it at the semifinal stage, it would be the biggest upset of any of the teams. Oklahoma hasn't had a single fall in a competition routine since February 7th and hasn't seen two actual falls in the same rotation all season long. That's a rather remarkable feat, so while we can question some of the details, Oklahoma would have to count a fall to fail to emerge from this semifinal. And that would be a first.

I'll go into detail in the Super Six preview, but a critical area I'll be watching in the semifinal is how those early-lineup floor routines are evaluated, especially with the Sooners starting on that event. At regionals, Brown and Capps pretty much nailed their routines and got 9.850s (and Jones performed somewhat near her normal for a 9.800), but Oklahoma is going to need higher scores for those routines to reach a national-championship-winning total. The last four winners (counting Florida and Oklahoma in 2014 as two different winners) have all scored over 49.6 on floor in Super Six. Given the evaluation of floor this season, I imagine that will be the standard once again.

Alabama and Utah were twinsies on regionals day, each scoring 197.125 at a home regional. Alabama had some flopsy moments on beam and got hit by the bars landings monster, while Utah was sort of fine across the board but will need better vault and floor landings come nationals. Both exposed patches of minor concern and showed just four 9.9s (all of Alabama's coming on floor), which isn't enough for championships to be sure about fending off other 197-capable teams.

Bars landings. When both these teams have recorded significant results this season, they have done so by sticking bars dismounts. Alabama broke 49.5 on bars both during the landslide against Georgia and at SECs, as did Utah during its own win against Georgia for a season high 197.675. Aside from floor (for floor reasons), bars should be the next-highest score for both teams. Alabama has proven 9.950-for-sticks from Winston and Brannan, but also has those high-risk dismounts from Beers and Jetter that we've all seen dancing with the devil from time to time. The Tide cannot afford 9.800 for those routines at nationals. Bars is too important.

A big bars score is especially significant for all the top seeds because the most likely challenger is UCLA, and UCLA's bars rotation usually hovers somewhere between "well..." and "ack." Alabama and Utah will both look to rack up a significant edge solely because of bars so that if UCLA does end up having one of those great beam and floor days to get up into the 197s, there's still a buffer.

Alabama should be able to beat both Utah and UCLA by virtue of vault, a rotation that boasts four 10.0 SVs compared to UCLA's two and Utah's one. That's quite a valuable edge but one that hasn't always come to fruition. The same can actually be said of other events. Alabama should be among the best on all of them. That beam lineup is lovely and has the talent to score with Oklahoma and UCLA (this is the pretty-beam semifinal, following the hellish-beam semifinal), and the Alabama team possesses far superior floor difficulty and, more importantly, amplitude compared to the other teams in this session. For the other schools, we're seeing one and two E passes, but Alabama's best floor lineup would have six E passes.

These are the reasons why, through much of the preseason, I had Alabama as the favorite to win the championship this year. That changed as the season went on, but the potential, talent, and depth all absolutely exist. They simply have not manifested on very many occasions this season. During the regular season, that could be forgiven because of all the lineup variations and depth exploration, but no longer. Alabama is the second-best team in this session and shouldn't really accept finishing lower than second.

Utah lost the season series to UCLA 1-2, but Utah is a safer choice for Super Six largely due to less reliance on THE BIG NUMBER. For instance, Maddy Stover is the best beam worker on the team, but if she doesn't get a 9.900, it's not the end of the world because there should be solid-enough scores coming from each of the other events. They can make it up with 9.850s everywhere. That's what happened at regionals. If, however, Danusia doesn't get a 9.950 on beam, then we start to worry because there aren't as many places that UCLA can make up that lost score. At regionals, even before the bars terror, Utah had pulled away from UCLA because the Bruins didn't get all their star scores.

The Utes have the fortune of drawing Olympic order, which should always be a comfortable setup and will allow them to finish on final-rotation floor while both UCLA and Nebraska, the presumed next-closest challengers, are on byes.

We know the way scores go at the end of meets, so that rotation order should be a significant check mark in Utah's column and a significant frowny face in the column of making this meet exciting. If it actually comes down to Utah/UCLA/Nebraska in a fight to the finish just like in the semifinals two years ago when they all ended within a tenth of each other, then we don't want two of those three teams on a bye when the meet is decided.

Because Utah's last event is floor while Alabama and UCLA's is vault and Nebraska's is beam, Utah does not need to be driving the bus the whole way. There will be room to gain some ground at the end, while the others will look to have established some kind of early margin, particularly UCLA and Nebraska who will not expect to gain much ground on their final events.

Spoilertown, UCLA
The Bruins remain serious and significant challengers to qualify here, largely because they won't necessarily have to rely on a mistake to do it. If everyone hits, UCLA could still end up in the top three. We've seen UCLA beat Utah in a hit meet earlier in the year, but it will take a peak meet to do that again now. The Bruins will not be able to check and step for 9.825s like at regionals and stay anywhere in contention.   

Of course, beam and floor. Those have been UCLA's best events from the first meet and they continue to be. UCLA will go to beam in the second rotation and floor in the fourth, and we should look for 49.400 on both events. The situation is not quite as urgent as Stanford's need on bars and beam in the other semifinal, but it's close. A 49.400 on each should be pretty attainable. I would contend that the beam lineup is the best in this whole session (gasp, ahead of Oklahoma's you say?), and those floor routines have been rewarded all year. Even when they give me the chest-position frowns, the landing security has been a much-improved asset this season. Bynum's DLO is completely under control now and Francis has far fewer bouncy days. The question is whether DeJesus is in the floor mix anymore. She didn't even train it at regionals, but a famous-routine 9.925 would make it so much easier to blast through the 49.400 barrier and beat Utah on floor. Based on what we've seen this season, it's unlikely that UCLA would beat Utah on vault and bars, so the Bruins look to need an edge on both beam and floor to beat a hit from Utah.

So...bars. Let's talk about that. It wasn't so much with the good at regionals with mistakes from Meraz and Savvidou nearly spoiling the whole day, but then again, Peng. She returned with full difficulty and a stick for 9.950, replacing what is usually a 9.775 from Metcalf. That's a gigantic lift to this bars lineup at the last moment, the kind of secret-weapon routine that could elevate UCLA out of 4th place and eliminate a deficit on a perceived weakness.

But of course, it would still require everyone hitting. Sonya. Stella. If UCLA can use Peng's score to get 49.3 on bars, a qualification-level lowish-middish 197 seems much more attainable and some of that pressure is taken off those starring routines on beam and floor.

Spoilertown, NEBRASKA?
If you're not having flashbacks to the semifinal two years ago, when Utah came in as the #3 seed, UCLA came in as the #4 seed, and Nebraska came in as the #5 seed, then you probably don't remember it. The scenario was eerily identical to the one we see before us, when the meet was largely expected to be a showdown between Utah and UCLA for that last spot with Nebraska as the relatively ignored contender on the lower end of the standings. Then, Nebraska swooped in there with a huge, controversial beam score in the final rotation to leapfrog both of them. Nebraska finishes on beam once again.

Nebraska enters this meet in a similar position, not expected to do as well as Utah or UCLA, not ranked in the top three in the session on any apparatus, but still peaking at the right moment and recording respectable numbers. With the four major all-arounders back in play and every significant contributor healthyish except Lambert, Nebraska has developed a modicum of consistency and a healthy crop of possible 9.9s over the last month. It will take some misses from the teams ranked above to get Nebraska into this thing, not necessary an implosion or huge counting-fall error, but the Huskers will need a couple teams to be off their game and bouncing around to pull off yet another surprise Super Six appearance, which is sort of their MO.

I haven't mentioned Cal until now, which is probably harsh, but like Minnesota in the other semifinal, Cal is the competitor least likely to advance and the one whose major accomplishment was making it to this point. I expected it would be another year or two before Cal could make nationals, but here we sit. Cal is now in the top tier of teams, the culmination of an amazing renovation of this program from the "we hate life and got a 191" team that it used to be.

Cal endured regionals. It was not a great performance, the lowest qualifying score of the twelve teams here and a score that wouldn't normally be expected to advance, but it was enough. A lot will have to improve from that performance, though Cal has recorded some excellent scores and challenged the big names this season. Under normal circumstances, I would consider Cal on par with Nebraska as an upset challenger in this meet, but the Toni-Ann Williams situation pulls Cal's expectations down a little. For a team that needs to improve its scores after regionals, that task becomes a lot harder without its best gymnast.

Williams will be attending the Test Event for Jamaica next weekend instead of heading to nationals, meaning that Cal will have to replace her scores on three events. Her 1.5 on vault has not been great lately and the score has been dropped in recent meets (I assume it would have been downgraded to a full if she didn't need to prep it for the test event...?), so the loss of her vault isn't as huge a deal as it might have seemed. Still, she's consistently one of the top scorers on bars and absolutely the team's top floor worker, and losing those numbers is the bigger blow. Charlie Owens can fill in for a couple of those routines, and Sylvie Seilnacht has done a floor routine or two already this year, but the team will be dropping a legitimate couple tenths in scoring potential without Williams.

As a choice, I have no real issue with her deciding to go to the Test Event instead of nationals. If I were on the team, I would definitely be salty about it, but I'm not on the team, so...I'm fine. There wasn't really a right choice in this situation. Either way, she was going to be missing something important, and we know the lure of the dun-dun-dun Olympics is strong. Hence Brenna Dowell taking a year off from Oklahoma to put herself through this emotional wringer of pain and disappointment.

There is the whole "you're on scholarship to do gymnastics for this team, not for Jamaica" argument, so it definitely helps that Justin and Toni-Ann are the Jamaican gymnastics program. No head coach conflict. It would be interesting to hear if other coaches would have allowed this. Would Valorie have let Danusia take this spot if available? Brittany Rogers has been completing elite all over the place this year getting ready for the Olympics, but if it had directly conflicted with nationals...? I'm not sure many other gymnasts would have been allowed to do this.

Also, from a coldly pragmatic perspective, she has a better chance of making the Olympics than Cal has of making Super Six. It's not like Cal was going to win the championship and now can't because she's not there. The team's result is not going to be wildly different. Cal's victory this year was making nationals for the first time since 1992, and she helped to do that. If she had deferred the whole year like Brenna, would Cal even be going to nationals?  

As with the last semifinal, this is what the event RQSs tell us should happen rotation-by-rotation, so we can see who's ahead of or behind the pace at various points.

Rotation 1: Nebraska 49.260, Utah 49.255, UCLA 49.235, Cal 49.205, Oklahoma BYE, Alabama BYE
My, what a closely bunched group! I think pretty much all the teams would take these scores after the first event. Nebraska starts on floor and must squeeze everything possible out of that cash cow because it becomes harder to get big numbers after that. (It will be easy to hold those Nebraska scores down in the unhelpful 9.825 range early in the meet, though, so watch for that.)

By contrast, Utah starts on vault, a relatively low-scoring event for all the teams in this session (the top three vaulting teams are all in the first semifinal), so a 49.250 is very usable. UCLA is on bars and Cal on beam, and for both these teams, escaping with 49.2s would be a victory and a dramatic improvement over regionals. If the Bruins are even with or ahead of Utah after doing bars, then we've got a meet.

Rotation 2: UCLA 98.560, Nebraska 98.365, Oklahoma 49.575, Alabama 49.405, Utah 49.255, Cal 49.205
UCLA must have a lead here after competing on beam, and 98.560 is the absolute minimum UCLA will be looking for after two pieces. It's OK but unlikely to threaten Utah all that much.

This semifinal looks more straightforward because the three top seeds have a significant RQS cushion over the three lower seeds, which must be made up somehow otherwise Oklahoma, Alabama, and Utah will all be happy simply hitting somewhere close to their RQSs each step of the way. If UCLA gets the needed 49.400 on beam after a bars hit, this total should be higher and worthy of a close meet.

Rotation 3: Oklahoma 98.990, Alabama 98.725, Utah 98.650, UCLA 98.560, Cal 98.500, Nebraska 98.365
Going by RQS, Utah passes UCLA after two events, which is why UCLA would prefer a score into the 98.6s themselves after two events. If things do go relatively to plan for Cal, they'll be jockeying for position with Nebraska to see which team might play the upset monster, and since Cal opens on higher-scoring events and finishes on lower-scoring events, not being last at the halfway point is imperative. Within .150 of a top-three spot, like this indicates, would be even better.

Rotation 4: UCLA 147.990, Utah 147.940, Cal 147.685, Nebraska 147.545, Oklahoma 98.990, Alabama 98.725
Rotation 4 is when UCLA would have to make a move. On floor, directly against Utah on beam, this is the one point in the meet when UCLA really should outscore Utah and can pick up a couple tenths to take the lead. This margin, however, would not be good enough for the Bruins since Utah still gets to head to floor. If Cal and Nebraska are this far back after rotation 4, they're basically out of it because UCLA, Utah, and Alabama will all be done with the mistake events already. There will be very little opportunity for anyone to take advantage of an error once we hit this part of the meet, so any large deficits must already have been closed.

Rotation 5: UCLA 197.170, Nebraska 196.800, Oklahoma 148.565, Alabama 148.170, Utah 147.940, Cal 147.685
As I mentioned in the previous semifinal, the highest score ever to be eliminated at this stage if 197.025, so theoretically UCLA should feel comfortable about hitting this RQS total. Still, I wouldn't consider it safe among this group. By this point, Oklahoma should have pulled away from the rest to make its final beam rotation largely perfunctory, and Alabama and Utah will hope that things work out exactly like this so that their final task is just a hit rotation rather than something impressive. With the scores at this stage, UCLA would be forcing Utah to hit just a 49.250 on floor to move ahead, which is too attainable for the Utes. That's really just an average day for them.

Rotation 6: Oklahoma 198.010, Alabama 197.525, Utah 197.425, UCLA 197.170, Cal 196.835, Nebraska 196.800
The individual event RQSs have Oklahoma at a 198, which I wouldn't expect in a national semifinal context, though it is possible. Oklahoma will probably undershoot each of these RQS markers by a hair, but there's so much buffer that the Sooners can undershoot them and still maintain a comfortable advantage.


  1. Still pulling for that UCLA upset, man. If Ohashi can get back in the AA and Peng can pull that kind of surprise routine on bars again, they might be able to do it. Also, loving your use of SAT words - perfunctory is so hard to use in an everyday context xD

  2. My only grouse about the Toni-Ann Williams complaint: when Williams found out she was going to be the rep for the test event, Cal was in NO position to make a run at regionals. Frankly, as much as I love Cal, I figured Boise State AND Kentucky could - or would - beat them at regionals.

    More to the point, they've known all season Toni-Ann is committed to the test event. So, either it's good with the team or not, but I'd like to think Cal was prepared either way and that's why they played with exhibitions all season long.

    1. Yeah, that's my thought. It's not like Toni-Ann decided last week to skip Nationals. They've known certainly since November, and they've known there was a chance it could happen for a long while ahead of that. It's not like Cal was guaranteed a spot at Nationals, although they had a shot, and so why wouldn't they encourage Toni-Ann?

      Being a former Bear, I am thrilled Cal has made it to Nationals, but it isn't like they are competing for the title. Toni-Ann, meanwhile, has a chance to improve gymnastics in her country and a shot at going to the Olympics--which is something special as well (how many schools can say they have a CURRENT gymnast going to the Olympics--Georgia? Is that it?). That's as valuable a tool in attracted good gymnasts as making it to Nationals. So I can understand some teammate disappointment, but I think that she has every right to go.