Sunday, January 26, 2014

Manual on Handstands' Team Rankings

Hi everyone! From what I've watched this season so far, I wanted to put together my rankings of the teams. These rankings have to do with my observations of the teams up to this point in the season. Let's start.

So far, there are a group of six teams that jump out to me as the strongest, and I've been able to watch at least one meet from all six teams. These six teams have looked strong so far on three out of the four events, and each team has an event which is either weaker or that they haven't yet put together.

1. Florida 
Florida has impressed me so far on three events, bars, beam, and floor. Even though Florida isn't ranked #1 on bars right now, there's no doubt in my mind that this is the best bar lineup in the country. I don't think they've done a bar rotation yet where they've stuck many landings, so they can receive significantly higher bar scores than what they've achieved so far. Also, NCAA bar champion Alaina Johnson hasn't gotten a 9.9 on bars yet this year. Both Caquattos, Sloan, and Johnson are capable of 9.9+ scores with stuck landings. I'm also wondering if they'll play with the lineup order to see if it affects scoring- any of the last 4 routines would be an excellent anchor routine. By the end of the season, look for this lineup to be scoring 49.5+ every week.

On beam, this is actually the best Gator beam lineup that I've seen in a while. Although it's always a bit of a nailbiter as to whether they hit, I think each routine builds off the previous one successfully and the rotation as a whole leaves a nice impression. These six routines look like they go together stylistically, while Gator beam rotations in past seasons have looked more disjointed (where the style of one routine doesn't seem to match the style of the next one). While I've certainly said in the past that Rhonda could be more experimental with the beam lineup, I really like the current lineup and order (Spicer, Johnson, Boyce, Hunter, Sloan, Caquatto) and think the Gators should keep it throughout the season to build rhythm and momentum.

Debates about scoring aside, Florida's floor rotation this week was really excellent and erases any concern I had about how they would replace Dickerson and King.

The choreography and musicality is a step up from last year. I loved the lineup that performed on Friday and think they should keep it the rest of the season, aside from rotating in Colussi-Pelaez to rest Caquatto. While I would love to see Johnson in the floor lineup (I love that Diva Dance routine) I'm not sure that they need her. She's critical on the other three events, and they may want to save her for them considering she's fragile as well. The event that Florida hasn't yet put together is vault. The team looks a bit rusty here and it's shown in some of the amplitude and landings on the vaults. Sloan and Hunter can consistently be counted on for 9.9 vaults, but I don't foresee the entire team sticking consistently until later in the season. Overall, I think Florida's looked great on three events, and has room for improvement on vault. Vault will be the event to watch to see how they progress.

 2. Oklahoma 

So far, Oklahoma has looked very good on vault, bars, and beam. Last year, the perception was that Oklahoma missed out on winning Nationals because of "two tenths" on vault. Vault was the event that was going to be scrutinized to see if Oklahoma had what it took to win a title. Has Oklahoma been overscored on vault at home? Probably. Are they two tenths better on vault than they were last year? You bet. It's hard to overlook that we're three meets into the season and Oklahoma is still ranked #2 on vault. Where are they going to get the two-tenths that were supposedly missing last year? There are actually four ways.
1. Do the same vaults, but stick more landings.
2. It's significant that they changed Scaman's vault from a Yurchenko 1.5 to a full. While it's great to go for a difficult vault, Scaman had such a hard time controlling the landing that there was a built-in landing deduction every time she vaulted. I love the full with her, she'll be able to control it. Therefore, she's got the potential for a 9.9 score every time she vaults, while last year she stayed in the 9.8 range much of the time.
3. Chayse Capps. She's got the power and distance the judges are looking for. If she sticks she's a 9.9 every time.
 4. Charity Jones. Currently injured, but has the potential to be the best vaulter in Oklahoma's lineup. If she's kept her vault at the level it was in JO, she's capable of a big score- especially if Scaman and Capps set her up for one.

Oklahoma's bars are a study in precision- they were amazing at Arizona this weekend. And, of course, nothing really needs to be said about Oklahoma's beam. The five scores that Oklahoma counted on beam this weekend were from well-executed and difficult routines. When Arizona went over 49 on beam, I said to my mom: Oklahoma's going to get a massive beam score when the judges see these routines in comparison to Arizona's. Oklahoma's subsequent 49.525 was the top beam score in the nation this season (and totally deserved.) (Note: wrote this part before Stanford's beam performance.)

I want to point out that McKenzie Wofford came in as the alternate and nailed her routine for 9.925. I would love to see her in this lineup permanently, but can't make a case for taking any of the usual girls out of the lineup. Wofford came in for Brewer Saturday, who took a rough landing in vault warm-ups.

If Oklahoma has a concern, it's actually floor. The floor performance this weekend was rough. I think it had to do with last-minute lineup changes, and they can certainly do better. As the season progresses, I'll be looking to see a top floor performance from Oklahoma on the road.

3. Utah
Got a chance to watch the Utah-UCLA meet last night. Utah is one of the top vault/floor teams in the country. Vaults were excellent, floor tumbling was really strong, and Dabritz is a rock star. Utah's bars, while not up to their vault and floor, certainly won't hold them back in any meet. So let's talk about Utah on beam. This will be the event that could keep Utah from winning the Pac-12 title or making the Super Six. It's not even that they can't hit. It's still early in the season, and I assume they can fix the falls. I don't think falls from Wilson and Lofgren will be a consistent problem. It's that when Utah hits beam, I don't see a single routine that should be scoring higher than the 9.8 range. The form on many elements (particularly the series) looks sloppy and uncontrolled. None of the routines have a wow factor, from what I saw. This will be the event that all Utah fans will be watching like a hawk. I would like to see Utah find a way to get beam to a 49.250. If they can get through with that score, they can rely on the other three events for good results.

4. LSU
Like Utah, LSU is excellent on vault and floor. What's caught my eye is that LSU is currently ranked #3 on beam. LSU struggled on beam last season because they couldn't find a consistent lead off. I think they've found one in Lloimincia Hall. If she sticks that double back in the leadoff spot, it will light a fire under the whole team and I think they'll turn in a solid rotation. Courville and Jordan are easily 9.9+ routines in the two anchor spots. If LSU's first four routines all score in the 9.8 range, they're in business. Bars looks like the weak event for LSU this year. It's not Courville or Jordan's strongest event, and potential freshman star Ashleigh Gnat isn't in the lineup. However, it's just an opportunity for Jay Clark to work his magic. I know he can get the best out of LSU on bars. The question is, what is the best the team can do?

5. Alabama
I think Alabama's performances so far are a result of incorporating a lot of freshmen into the lineups, adjusting to the loss of Kayla Williams, and the fact that they always plan to peak later in the season. My #5 ranking at this point doesn't represent what I think Alabama is capable of. To date, Alabama's strongest events have been vault, bars, and beam. We worried about bars as a problem for Alabama, but they've added three freshmen here (Jetter, Aja Sims, Bailey) and are scoring reasonably well. I think that the Tide have developed a unique style on bars where they use their power to their advantage. The release moves all have nice amplitude. It should be a concern for every other team that the event on which Alabama is ranked the lowest is floor. When they put floor together, they have the potential to be one of the best floor teams in the country due to the big tumbling. I would expect Bama to continue to build as the season progresses. With a talented senior class of DeMeo, Jacob, and Milliner (and championships in Birmingham) the Tide is a serious contender to win in all, even if they're under the radar right now.

6 . Michigan
Saw Michigan for the first time this weekend and was very impressed. Michigan went 49.3 on vault and I don't think they stuck anything. If this lineup can control the power, they'll compete with any team in the country on vault. Both Sugiyama and Beilstein are vaulting a Yurchenko 1.5, and Austin Sheppard's vault just flies into the stratosphere. Michigan also looked good on bars. As per usual, floor looks like their best event.

 The event that's been holding Michigan back has been beam, and I was encouraged by what I saw this weekend. Shelby Geis has always had potential for a 9.9 score, but usually never got it because she was in the leadoff position. This weekend, Chiarelli led off with a great routine, which allowed Shelby Geis to go later in the lineup and get a 9.9. (I actually think she should anchor the lineup.) Reema Zakharia has never looked confident on beam in the past, but she looked fantastic this weekend. They changed her series (I think it was front aerial to back tuck) and it completely suits her acrobatic and powerful style. Michigan now has a solid five in Chiarelli, Artz, Geis, Zakharia, and Sampson. I think they need to work on the order and figure out who's going to be the sixth routine, but overall I was really pleased with what I saw from the Wolverines.


7. Georgia
Yes, Georgia's gotten off to a strong start. And I want to see their resurgence as a program. However, I'm concerned that Georgia is going to get passed by more teams as the season progresses. There are two concerns.

 1. Georgia's achieved many of their overall big scores due to their phenomenal bars rotation with great handstands and killer landings. However, a team doesn't necessarily make a Super Six on the strength of one rotation. (Oklahoma missed in 2012 despite a fantastic start on beam, for example.) How nationally competitive is Georgia on vault, beam, and floor? I'm not too concerned about Georgia's beam in the long run, especially if Persinger can come back in at the routine quality she was at last year in the leadoff spot. I'm not actually sold on Georgia's vault and floor lineups, but I'll continue to pay attention. Floor is a particular concern if they're not doing any E passes and don't have intricate enough choreography to compensate.

 2. Also Georgia's had five meets while most teams have had three, and I'm wondering if their higher scores are reflective of the fact that they're further along in their preparation than other teams. Is Georgia going to peak too early? Are they going to get passed by other teams if they remain consistent? I think a positive for Georgia is that Brittany Rogers is the only one doing all-around, so that most everyone on the team can focus on perfecting their individual events.

Overall, I think Georgia is moving in the right direction towards rebuilding their program, but this year is only a small part of that process. If they get into the Super Six again, it will be just as impressive a feat as it was for them last year. From where they are now, how much can they improve? 

Right now, Georgia and UCLA are polar opposites in my mind. With Georgia, their lineup is pretty much set, and my concern is how much room for improvement they have. I worry they'll peak too early. With UCLA, the lineups are in constant flux, and there's no doubt that there's room for improvement. The question is if they'll peak at all. Both teams fascinate me.

 Vault should be a reasonable event for UCLA, and the quality of their floor routines should play a role in saving their score every week. Also, once they put Francis back into the bar lineup, they can get back more of a rhythm. Beam is clearly the biggest problem, and Val needs to find a solid leadoff routine. No question she'll keep rotating the lineup until she finds that person. Peszek and Francis need to be at the end of the lineup to get the biggest scores. Honestly, the only other girl who looks reasonably confident up there is Mossett- I'd give her a shot to lead off and see what happens. She's becoming more of a key contributor for UCLA every week- this week was her first time in the all around.

9. Nebraska
Haven't seen the Huskers yet. However, with Wong and DeZiel and the overall scores Nebraska's put up so far, I'd put them ninth. I have no idea if their win over Alabama was because they were great and/or because Alabama was sloppy.

10. Auburn
Very excited about this team- I think this is the year they make Nationals as a team. If they have a meet where Caitlin Atkinson, Bri Guy, Megan Walker, and MJ Rott hit to their potential- watch out. Their performance at LSU this week was Auburn's best road score in program history. Watch for big scores from Auburn on vault and floor- those are the events on which the Tigers are the most competitive.

11. Arkansas
Arkansas is an interesting story. They've been consistently scoring in the low 196 range, and they may get passed in the rankings once other teams start dropping low scores. However, Arkansas' consistency could be an asset come the postseason, especially because beam is their best event. If you can hit beam when another team doesn't, you're a spoiler at Regionals, and Arkansas has a history of outperforming their regular season in the postseason. Mark Cook and Rene Lyst are two of the most underrated coaches in the country.

12. Minnesota 
Lindsay Mable. Their beautiful floor routines. Enough said.

Yes, I left Stanford out of the top 12 despite that 49.6 on beam this week. Stanford is ridiculously talented, but I'm going to need to see more 197+ meets from them before I put them on my list. (It's also hard to evaluate them without any video.)

What do you think of these rankings? How ridiculously excited are you about the Florida-Oklahoma meet on Friday? Have a great week!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy New Year! 2014 Blog Update

Happy New Year and Happy Gymnastics Season!!

I wanted to let you know that I won't be able to blog this season on a regular basis although I'd love to continue. I started a new job last year which I love, but I no longer have enough time to follow the teams in enough detail to write about them.  I also don't have the vacation time to make it to NCAAs this year. Yet, I'm still so excited just to watch meets and can't wait for the season to start. I hope to be able to resume blogging and going to meets in the future.

I have really enjoyed traveling to meets over the past four years and writing about the amazing gymnastics and important story lines behind each team. Some of my favorites:

  • Following the Penn gymnastics team (not Penn State)
When I was in college at Penn, I actually didn't spend much time following college gymnastics (I wish I had). It's been wonderful to discover more about their team and watch them win back-to-back ECAC championships in 2012 and 2013. The team just got a new practice facility in the offseason, and I'm thrilled about that. 2014 looks to be more of a rebuilding year after graduating a talented senior class, and I'm looking forward to following the journey.

  • Going to Ohio State meets and watching them make Nationals
I have had so much fun going to Ohio State meets over the past four years. I remember watching this team at Big Ten Championships in Columbus in 2010, where they finished at or near the bottom and were depleted by injuries. I had so much fun watching this team improve every year, specifically the dynamic tumbling on floor and the difficulty and confidence of their beam routines. Ohio State carved their way into the top 12 in the 2012 season and made Nationals for the first time in many years. I had such a great time watching them compete at Nationals and really enjoyed meeting the coaching staff. Looking forward to a great season in 2014.

  • Dramatic Coaching Changes at Georgia
Also, who wasn't hooked on the drama at Georgia over the past four years. I liked watching Georgia under Suzanne, but her teams were so dominant that it seemed as though every competition was a foregone conclusion. It was crazy to watch Georgia dominantly win a National Championship in 2009 only to miss Nationals in 2010 under Jay Clark. (That was the most bizarre upset at Regionals I've ever seen. After Georgia missed the Super Six in 2011 and 2012, a controversial and interesting coaching change was made. And in came Danna Durante. I think she did a great job getting the team back into the Super Six, but I think there was a little bit of luck involved. I think a repeat Super Six appearance is possible, but it won't be easy. With Georgia having the most difficult 2014 schedule by far (13 meets), it will be interesting to see how the team progresses throughout the season. Here's a recap of their first meet against Oklahoma.

  • Michigan and Nebraska's Big Ten Championships
I have really enjoyed watching Michigan set the standard of gymnastics in the Big Ten, and had a great time going to Ann Arbor for Regionals in 2011. Nebraska's dynamic vaulting and polished lines raised the level of competition in Big Ten gymnastics, and Michigan has yet to win a Big Ten title since Nebraska joined the conference. I would love to see both the atmosphere and caliber of gymnastics in the Big Ten rival that of the SEC and Pac 12. I want to see a Big Ten team win a national title (not just gymnastics, but in football as well). I am hoping that we see a champion from the Big Ten one day, and think that Michigan and Nebraska pushing each other in the conference will make both teams more competitive nationally.

  • LSU's Emergence
I won't lie. I only used to watch LSU because they were competing against some other team I wanted to watch. After 2013, LSU is a team I make a point to watch. I don't know what goes on behind the scenes, but LSU's dramatic improvement seems to be correlated with Jay Clark's arrival as an assistant. The Tigers have surpassed Georgia for 3rd place in the SEC, and I don't expect them to relinquish that spot anytime soon. Watch for this team's continued improvement- I don't think a top 4 finish is out of the question for them this year. Below are higlights from their first meet of 2014.
  • UCLA's Artistic Excitement
I love watching UCLA. Who doesn't? They were the team that first got me hooked on college gymnastics years ago. I hold my breath during every routine, both because of the dramatic artistry and because I'm not always sure who will be in the lineup and if they will hit. I also really enjoy hearing what Miss Val has to say after each meet.

After so many years watching UCLA, I would have to say my favorite moment was from last season when I got to see them compete in person at Regionals in Columbus. Many people (myself included) thought that UCLA could be upset at Regionals because they had so many injuries during the course of the season. Yet, as soon as I saw their energy on the competition floor, I knew there was no way they were going to miss the Nationals they were hosting. I loved seeing different girls step up and deliver under pressure (Alyssa Pritchett, Sydney Sawa, Danusia Francis.) For this year, I do think that the loss of Peng-Peng Lee makes UCLA's path to a title harder. However, this team surpassed expectations last season and they can do it again.

  • Alabama's Two Championships
In 2011 and 2012, Alabama won championships even though they may not have been the best team on paper. They were the most prepared team and hit better than anyone when it counted the most. I was particularly blown away by Alabama's beam performance in the semifinals and the Super Six in 2012. That championship could have gone to any one of the three top teams, and Alabama didn't give away anything in the counting scores of that final beam rotation. Keep in mind that Alabama was one beam routine away from winning in 2013. Many people seem to be talking about Florida and Oklahoma as likely winners this year, but I think Alabama has just as good a shot. Championships are in Birmingham, and Sarah Patterson has been a master at peaking her team at the right moment. You can relive their 2012 win in the video below.

  • Oklahoma's beam (and rise as a program)
It's no secret how much I've enjoyed watching Oklahoma build their program over the past four years. It started, in my mind, when Megan Ferguson made beam finals in 2009 as a freshman. Her polished and poised routine really caught my eye. In 2010, Oklahoma surprised everyone with a breakout season and finished second in the country. They hit consistently in the Super Six and gave very little away. However, they built a reputation as the "beam team" while their lack of power and vault and floor was a topic of debate. In 2013, Oklahoma cemented their place as not just a beam team, not just a team with interesting choreography, but a legitimate top program. It wasn't a question of if they could win a title, but when. They have one of the top bar lineups in the country, and every bar routine is unique and interesting. They are adding more difficulty to the floor tumbling and looking to improve amplitude and landing on vault this year. This is also one of the deepest teams in the country, and they aren't reliant on all-arounders in the lineup. As a result, Oklahoma has many possible lineups that could deliver championship scores, and I'm interested to see how they experiment with these lineups. A championship for Oklahoma is possible this year, and I'll be surprised if they don't win one within the next three years.

  • Florida's Journey to a Championship
I've always said that one of the storylines that kept me glued to NCAA gymnastics was that so few teams had won, and I wanted to see if another team could break through and win. It was often discussed that "only four teams had won", but that statement doesn't even reflect how difficult it was for a new team to break through. The more accurate viewpoint is that only three teams were dominant in NCAA gymnastics at any one time. From 1982-1995, only Utah, Georgia, and Alabama won titles. From 1996-2009, only Georgia, Alabama, and UCLA won titles. (Note that since 2010, only UCLA, Alabama, and Florida have won titles and Georgia has dropped back.)

There was so much anticipation (and pressure) around Florida. In 2010, many thought that Florida could win because hosting the championship would give them an edge. Florida didn't have the performance they wanted and ended up finishing fifth. In 2011, Florida didn't make the Super Six after struggling on beam in the semifinal. After this season, Florida came back in 2012 and finished less than a tenth from the title. It was amazing to watch them draw motivation from this and come back in 2013 as one of the most dominant and exciting teams in NCAA gymnastics. 

2013 seemed to be Florida's year, as they were about half a point better than the other teams (arguably). Yet, as they counted a fall on beam in the first rotation, the playing field was evened and the title was anyone's game. Florida came back on floor and the final five routines comprised one of the most motivated and energetic floor rotations I'd ever seen. When we looked at Florida's floor score before Bridgey Caquatto's score was posted, it was a 48.85 while still counting the 9.075 from the first routine. I remember saying "look how high that score is- they haven't even dropped the fall yet..." The floor score after Bridgey's routine was a 49.725 (NCAA record) and more importantly, the excitement and energy that Florida could win gripped everyone in the arena. Florida was amazing on vault and bars and captured their first title in one of the most exciting comebacks I've ever seen. You can watch the 2013 Super Six here.

Can they win again? They certainly have the talent, but their reliance on all-arounders could end up being an issue by the end of the season. I do think that Alabama and Oklahoma have more lineup options than Florida, though I haven't broken it down in detail. I guess I'd say that Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida have a fairly equal shot at a title this year, and I'm not ready to put a fourth team on the contender list.

I can't wait to see what happens- I'll definitely be watching. Thanks so much to everyone who has read this blog over the past four years (and a special thanks to Rick at Gymnastics Coaching who has linked to so many of my posts and motivated me to do this one). 

I'm also completely blown away by how much the coverage of NCAA gymnastics has increased and improved over the past few years. Gymnastike brings more and more content every year and gives so much insight into the different teams. Gymcastic has done so many great interviews and has an incredible knack for getting people to tell their gymnastics stories. The Balance Beam Situation is the best NCAA blog around. And, the new Road to Nationals gives us statistics and graphs to our hearts' content. 

To all the gymnasts and coaches- have a wonderful 2014 season. To all the fans- enjoy the season! 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Looking Ahead: 2014 NCAA Storylines

Hey Everyone!

I'm super impressed if you still read here, I know I haven't updated it in months.

I still love gymnastics as much as I always do, it's just that blogging hasn't really fit into my schedule since I started my new job earlier this year. I don't really have the time to watch gymnastics, take notes on what I see, and write blog posts. I'm working as an analyst for a start-up company doing software for diabetes management- and I managed to schedule myself in a diabetes education class during junior finals of the P&G Championships. What is wrong with me?? :)

I really miss writing about gymnastics, but am still enjoying following what's going on. I'm excited to follow the P&G championships this week and am already excited about next year's NCAA season!

I hope to find time to blog once the season starts, because there are a number of interesting story lines that are shaping up (in no particular order):

1. Alabama
I think that all the pressure will be on Alabama in the 2014 season. Their chance at a third consecutive title slipped away in the final rotation of the championships in 2013, and they are (technically) hosting SECs and NCAA Championships in 2014. In my opinion, they  have one of the top recruiting classes this season, and it will be interesting to see whether they can deliver SEC and NCAA titles with their fans watching.

2. Auburn
I'll come right out and say it. Auburn was really a top 12 team last season, and I felt they were a stronger team than some of the teams that did make it to Nationals. They had a tough draw at Regionals and competed well, but weren't able to match Minnesota's clean execution and quality vaults. It would be exciting if Auburn could finally qualify for Nationals when they're in Alabama. Jeff Graba seems to have the program on an upward trajectory, and I'm interested to see what the Tigers do.

3. Florida
Who's not excited about Florida's 2014 schedule? They face all Super Six teams from 2013 (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma, UCLA) and begin their season with a road meet at UCLA. I'm sure it will be motivating for the Gators to travel back to the place where they won their title with one of the best comebacks ever recorded in college gymnastics. However, I really don't know what to expect from Florida or UCLA at that season opener, but I can't wait to see it.

It will be interesting to see how Florida handles being defending champions. As many have observed, it's hard to know at this point how new recruits Claire Boyce and Silvia Colussi Pelaez will fit into the lineup and fill the holes left by the graduation of Dickerson and King. I can see Silvia doing beam, and I'm not sure where Claire Boyce fits since she hasn't competed in a while. So, it looks like some of the returning athletes will have to fill the missing lineup spots. I would love to see Macko and Alaina do all-around in their senior year by postseason, but that depends on their injury situation.
I'm interested to see how much Florida talks about defending the title versus it being a new year/new team, and how they balance picking lineups to preserve postseason health despite a very tough schedule.

Oh yeah, and Bridgey Caquatto should always be in the floor lineup- her routine at NCAAs was actually one of my favorites.

4. Georgia
So, new coach Danna Durante got the GymDogs into the Super Six, a great accomplishment for the first season. Here's the problem: Now that it happened once, the demanding Georgia fan base will expect a repeat appearance. Can they make it two Super Six appearances in a row?
Also, it's pretty imperative that Georgia defeats LSU at home after losing to them five times last season. However, I think the fact that LSU kind of "took over" third place in the SEC from Georgia has to do with LSU improving rather than Georgia regressing.

5. LSU
Speaking of LSU, talk about a rapid trajectory of improvement! What was so impressive to me about LSU in the Super Six wasn't any of their routines, but the team's reaction after the meet was over. Instead of being thrilled that they made the Super Six and happy with how they competed, they were upset that they didn't win. That tells me everything I need to know about their competitiveness, and I'm interested to see if they can finish higher than fifth.
I feel like Jay Clark is delivering improvement on bars, both in routine quality, consistency, and recruiting athletes that are better on bars. I actually now think of beam as LSU's weak event. They can hit, but tend to score in the 9.8 range rather than the 9.9 range when they hit. I look forward to seeing how LSU does on beam next year.
Also, I think that LSU recruit Erin Macadaeg has nice lines and polish to her gymnastics. The fact that she's competing at P&G Championships will continue to raise the perception of LSU as a program that can attract top talent.

6. Ohio State
I always love following Ohio State due to their dynamic beam and floor routines and the fact that I can watch the meets in person. After making it to Nationals in 2012, Ohio State didn't qualify in 2013. I'm looking forward to seeing whether the Buckeyes can make a run at Nationals in 2014!

7. Oklahoma
So, Oklahoma finished two tenths away from an NCAA title in 2013 (they would have won a tiebreaker) and I guarantee that's what the Sooners have thought about all summer. I can guarantee you that the 2014 Sooners will be Oklahoma's strongest team yet and can really make a run to challenge for the title. (Although I admit it's hard to picture a non-SEC team winning in Birmingham, and Oklahoma will have to significantly outperform their competitors to win.)

All they have to worry about is replacing Brie Olson's bar routine and floor routine. (She didn't score well on vault at NCAAs, so I'm thinking that's an easy one to replace.) Oklahoma is bringing in an incredible recruiting class higlighted by McKenzie Wofford and Charity Jones, who can contribute on any event provided they are healthy. Here's a few things to watch for from the Sooners:

  • Vault was the event where Oklahoma didn't match the other top teams, so watch their vault scores as the season progresses.
  • I am not convinced that having Haley Scaman do the 1.5 Yurchenko paid off, as she never really stuck it. I wonder if she can do a high, floaty, stuck FTY.
  • Oklahoma beam is going to be one of the hardest lineups to make anywhere in the NCAA next season. All six routines are returning, Wofford and Jones can make contributions to that lineup, and I'd actually like to see Scaman make the beam lineup because I think she could be a serious AA competitor. With a stuck vault, of course.
8. Penn
I always love following Penn because that's where I went to school, and I think they challenge the perceptions of what kind of gymnastics is being done by teams who don't qualify to Regionals. Penn doesn't necessarily have the floor tumbling and vaults to match top teams, but their bars and beam routines are particularly fun to watch. Consider that:
  • A good number of their beam routines have three-element series that the girls hit confidently. (I can think of other teams who don't have any)
  • Many of their bar routines have difficult releases and dismounts. Dana Bonincontri (who graduated in 2013) actually did one of my favorite bar routines in the NCAA (Tkatchev connected to bail and full-twisting double layout dismount)
Penn has the chance to win a third consecutive conference title, but faces a rebuilding effort after graduating three all-arounders.

I never know what to expect from UCLA, and that's part of the reason I love watching them. I feel bad for joining the chorus of people that said UCLA was in danger of not making Nationals. As soon as I saw their energy and determination at Regionals, I had a feeling they would make it. Also, UCLA's fourth place finish at Nationals (and qualifying for the Super Six in a ridiculously tough semifinal) was amazing and meant so much to the fans. I'll never forget those stuck vaults in the NCAA semifinal that secured UCLA's place in the Super Six. 
I hope the Bruins have better luck with injuries in 2014! I would love to see Samantha Peszek, Mattie Larson, and Peng-Peng Lee stay healthy and compete in the all-around. 

Can't wait for Nationals and the 2014 NCAA season!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The One Where Florida Wins a Championship...

And Florida makes five.

Seeing a new team win a title was the storyline that compelled me to follow NCAA gymnastics more closely, and I was so excited to see this happen. In my previous post that I wrote the morning of the Super Six, I mentioned that I thought Florida would either win the title or struggle in the first rotation. I never imagined they would do both.

After the second fall on beam, my heart was in my throat. I knew that Florida wasn't out of it, as I felt that the Gators were approximately 0.500 better in scoring potential than any other team on the floor. Knowing Florida could come back was one thing. Seeing the Gators actually achieve that comeback was absolutely incredible.

I got more nervous when Florida's first floor performer fell. Yet, the comeback was just beginning. With everything on the line, Bridget Sloan, Ashanee Dickerson, Marissa King, Kytra Hunter, and Bridgey Caquatto nailed their routines. It was one of the best and most complete floor performances I've ever seen- from the tumbling, the landings, the dance and presentation, to the determined fire in their eyes.

That comeback and championship was one of those things that makes you spontaneously high-five the person sitting near you that you just met a few hours earlier, as you bonded over seeing history being made.

As I said, I started following Florida because I wanted to see a new team win. (I'm a fan of college gymnastics as a whole and like most teams, and I try not to show preference on this blog.) However, I admit that I've found a soft spot in my heart for this Gator team and program. Florida hosted the first Nationals I ever attended, and I really enjoyed sharing that experience with the wonderful Gator fans that I met. Over the past four years, I found myself rooting for these talented and passionate Gator gymnasts and coaches. I am absolutely THRILLED for them. I can't believe the girls I first saw compete as freshmen are now seniors, and I can't even begin to imagine Gator gymnastics without Marissa King.

Watch more videos on Gymnastike

Seeing Florida win has only built my anticipation for the future of college gymnastics. I'm interested to see if Florida can continue to win NCAA titles, and I'm also excited to see whether Oklahoma another team can break in and win in the near future.

So congrats, Florida. I have really loved following your program's journey toward that elusive title, and I'm so happy that I was in LA to see that incredible comeback and victory.

I can't wait to see what's next!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The One Where a New Team Wins a Title...

It's the storyline that has captivated me for years. I have always loved gymnastics. Yet, one of the reasons I've been particularly drawn to following NCAA gymnastics is the fact that only four teams and four coaches have ever won. Only three teams and three coaches have won since 1996.

I was captivated. I wanted to know what it would take for a new team to win. Yet, for years I never felt that there was a team that could break through and do it. UCLA was impressive and unbeatable during their championship years of 2000-2004, interrupted only by the one championship Alabama hosted.

Then, Georgia looked unbeatable in their championship years from 2005-2009. While I found Georgia impressive and enjoyable to watch, I grew weary of watching because Georgia was so dominant that they seemed to evaporate any suspense related to the outcome.

Except once. In 2007, the Florida Gators beat Georgia at the SEC Championship. It was that win, and that win alone, that made me think that Florida might be the team who could grab that elusive NCAA title. However, in the years following that win, Florida had trouble living up to that expectation as Georgia remained unbeatable.

In 2010, a new era began in NCAA gymnastics with the retirement of Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan. This was the year that Florida was hosting Nationals, and I thought the combination of Florida's hosting and the Georgia coaching change might result in a new team winning.

So, I decided to go see Nationals in person for the first time. I'd been wanting to go to Florida anyway since I have friends who live near Gainesville, so I thought heading down there for Nationals would be the perfect time to visit. I figured I'd only go to Nationals once. I was wrong. I got hooked, and have made going to Nationals my yearly vacation ever since.

However, at 2010 Nationals, Florida struggled with the pressure of hosting (and faced a fairly unbeatable UCLA squad) and didn't win. Yet, what compelled me most about the 2010 season was that there was a second team that made the case that they could also break through and win an NCAA title.

That team was Oklahoma.

Starting in 2010, the top three spots at Nationals have been split between UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Florida:
  • In 2010, UCLA won convincingly. Oklahoma and Alabama finished second and third respectively, while Florida finished fifth.
  • In 2011, Florida struggled on beam in the semifinals and didn't make Super Six. Alabama won fairly convincingly as they built momentum towards the end of the season. UCLA finished second, and Oklahoma finished third.
  • In 2012, Alabama won with a magical performance, beating Florida by 0.075 and UCLA by 0.100. This final came down to the last routine and was incredibly exciting. Oklahoma faced injuries during the season and did not qualify for the Super Six.
And that brings us to 2013. I try to back up every opinion I have on this blog with a fact or a video. I'm now going to make an exception. I have felt since the third week of the 2013 season that this really is the year where a new team wins. It's been a gut feeling that I can't actually explain.

I also believe that team is most likely Florida, but could also be Oklahoma. Let's take a look at the Super Six teams.

I think that for a team to win a title, that team has to have experience competing in the Super Six. This is the first Super Six appearance for both Georgia and LSU since 2009, which means that no gymnasts on the current roster have competed in the Super Six. This season, both LSU and Georgia have been improving each time I see them, so they can't completely be counted out. They are, however, significant underdogs at this point.

Injury-ridden UCLA put up an absolutely valiant effort last night to get into the Super Six. UCLA has totally won me over after having seen them compete in person both at Regionals and at Nationals last night. However, UCLA doesn't have the scoring potential to win. No amount of home-field advantage can fix it.

That leaves previous winner Alabama, and legitimate contenders Florida and Oklahoma.

Alabama put up a strong and solid performance last night, and I don't expect the Tide to make mistakes today. I will say that their performance lacked the magic and wow factor that I saw from Alabama both in Cleveland in 2011 and Duluth in 2012.

Oklahoma also put up a strong performance last night which I felt was underscored. Oklahoma has beautiful polish on beam and floor and makes it difficult for the judges to take deductions from their routines. (Apparently, the judges worked pretty hard at it last night, which makes me concerned that Oklahoma may not have earned the perception as a national title contender in the judges' eyes.) They earned it from me four years ago, so everyone needs to get with the program.
Here's what Oklahoma has going for them:
  • They have the Olympic order rotation.
  • They don't make significant mistakes and are very polished.
  • They have a bars rotation that can keep pace with Florida's, in my opinion. Pay attention to Oklahoma's bar scores in rotation 3.
  • They will have absolutely no pressure on them.
Here are the concerns:
  • Oklahoma was underscored in the opinion of many last night, suggesting that they may not have the perception they deserve.
  • We haven't seen Oklahoma compete against Florida this season, and the Sooners may not have the scoring potential on the power events to keep pace with Florida. A particular concern is vault- they'll have to stick five vaults to have a chance.
So, that brings us to the Gators. It is important to note that Florida had the highest score in the semifinals yesterday by four tenths, and their performance had a number of issues on which the Gators can improve today:
  • Kiersten Wang (floor) and Rachel Spicer (beam) struggled in their leadoff routines on the respective events. While the remaining five gymnasts did well, having a low score does affect the overall scoring potential of a rotation. You want to count your five best scores, not the only five hits you get.
  • Kytra Hunter didn't have her best meet yesterday. She had a rough landing on floor and didn't stick her vault. I missed her bar routine, but read there were issues with it as well.
  • I can usually sense a team's energy when I watch them compete and felt that Florida was a bit nervous and tight on both floor and vault. I thought their energy became more relaxed and enthusiastic on bars after their bye.
We'll know the storyline of the Super Six early since Florida starts on beam. Will they continue to struggle in the first rotation of championship meets? Can Rachel Spicer improve on the leadoff routine from yesterday? The positive about the Gators' starting on beam today was that the last five routines from yesterday were rock-solid and impressive. Mackenzie Caquatto's and Marissa King's routines were amazing. Hopefully, the Gators take the momentum from the end of yesterday's beam rotation and use it to begin today's. If the Gators hit beam, ending on bars could allow them to put up such a huge rotation score that they cannot be caught.

I don't know what is going to happen tonight, but I feel like something big is about to occur. We'll soon find out!!

Friday, April 19, 2013

My Picks for Rotations and Routines to Watch

I can't believe it. It feels absolutely surreal that the season is ending and that the semifinals of championships start tomorrow. Since we can't watch every routine on every event, I wanted to share with you the routines and rotations I plan to focus on tomorrow. The relative success of these rotations and routines will affect which teams advance tomorrow.
For those of you watching online, I hope you get to see as much of these picks as possible.

So, let's get started!

Illinois (starting on vault):
Storyline: Illinois put up a solid and consistent performance at Regionals to hold off Nebraska's comeback and unexpectedly advance to Nationals. The Illini are not expected to advance out of the semifinal round.
Key Rotation(s): Beam and floor. These are Illinois' best events, and they do consistent routines with nice choreography and polish.
Key Routine(s): Any event from Alina Weinstein, particularly floor. I would like to see her make floor finals.

Georgia (bye before bars):
Storyline: After winning five consecutive championships with Suzanne Yoculan, Georgia failed to advance to the Super Six for three straight years with Jay Clark. New coach Danna Durante has the team in a position where they are expected to advance to the Super Six. After struggling on beam in January and February, the team has been the second-best team on beam in the NCAA in March. Can the GymDogs make the Super Six when the pressure is on them?
Key Rotation(s): Bars and beam. Look for Georgia to have a comfortable lead after these events, as more teams can match them on floor and vault.
Key Routine(s): Brittany Rogers on bars and beam, Chelsea Davis on bars, Shayla Worley on beam, and Kaylan Earls on beam. These girls can bring in 9.9+ scores, so look to see whether they receive them in the early afternoon rotations.

Minnesota (bars):
Storyline: Minnesota had an amazing season this year, culminating in being the "surprise team" that advanced to Nationals. Minnesota has the best chance of the "surprise teams" of recent years to advance past the semifinals. They'll likely need five stuck vaults and help, but it's doable.
Key Rotations: Vault. Minnesota beat out Auburn for the spot at Nationals by ending on vault and nailing landings. Minnesota ends on vault again, so they could pull out another big score and upset if the necessary factors align.
Key Routines: Freshman Lindsay Mable is the star of this team and is capable of 9.9 scores on all four events.

LSU (beam):
Storyline: LSU is a talented, young team that is a study in contrast. Their scoring potential is stratospheric on vault and floor, yet the team lacks the polish and finesse that other teams have on bars and beam. LSU is having their best season in four years and is expected to advance to the Super Six on the strength of their vault and floor performances.
Key Rotations: Normally, LSU's key rotations are floor and vault, but I want to call attention to their bars. LSU is not a top three bars team in this session, so look for them to have a comfortable position before their ending rotation to secure advancing.
Key Routines: Lloiminicia Hall's floor is the most unique, most frenetic, and most controversial routine in NCAA gymnastics. Don't miss it.

Stanford (bye before floor):
Storyline: We have learned that Stanford is unpredictable in the postseason. In 2011, they failed to advance to Nationals as the top seed in the Regional. In 2012, the team unexpectedly made the Super Six on the strength of an amazing beam rotation. (When I typed out the draft, I ended that sentence with a question mark as a typo, but a question mark does symbolize how I feel about Stanford.) While Stanford isn't the most likely pick to advance, they have the scoring potential and reputation to pull off another surprise.
Key Rotations: Beam. Stanford got into the Super Six last year by ending on beam and turning in solid and beautiful routines. The Cardinal end on beam again.
Key Routines: Watch how many 9.9 scores are turned in by Ivana Hong, Kristina Vaculik, and Sami Shapiro throughout the meet to see how likely Stanford is to advance. They'll probably also need a 9.9 on beam from Amanda Spinner.

Florida (floor):
Storyline: Oh, Florida. I think you all know their story. Widely heralded since 2007 to be that "fifth team" that breaks into the winner's circle in NCAA gymnastics, the team hasn't always performed to their potential at Nationals and still has never won. 2013 is the Gators' best chance yet, as they showed at Regionals that they pack more scoring potential than any other team. Florida is amazing to watch, as they combine the difficulty and polish of elite gymnastics with the enthusiasm and spirit of NCAA gymnastics. (They remind me of the iconic Georgia and UCLA teams of the past decade.) I had always thought that Florida's winning a title would be a really big deal, as it would represent that a fifth school had carved its way into the group of top programs. Yet, I'm not sure I see a Gator title as so earth-shattering, as Florida has already broken into this group based on their recruiting, rankings, and collection of SEC Championships. However, this team is too impressive not to have a title on their resume. Can the Gators get the Hollywood ending we've been anticipating?
Key Rotations: For the national title, all rotations have no room for error. For tomorrow, floor. Florida has a history of shaky starts in the first rotation in postseason meets, so we'll see if they have this under control. Yet, they also have a history of rallying after these shaky starts, so no reason for concern tomorrow if the floor routines have landing issues.
Key Routines: Again, for the title, all 24 routines. For tomorrow, I'm going with Marissa King's floor and Bridget Sloan's beam. The team tends to feed off of the energy and momentum generated by these particular routines.

Arkansas (starting on vault):
Storyline: Coaches Mark Cook and Rene Lyst win my overall award for getting their team to outperform their regular season at Regionals, and 2013 was no exception. While the Razorbacks seemingly advanced to Nationals because Oregon State threw their bars rotation in the trash, Arkansas actually put up a score that would have challenged Oregon State if the Beavers had hit bars. I don't think Arkansas can advance further in such a stacked session, but they do know how to capitalize on mistakes:
Key Rotations: I would say floor. Arkansas ends on floor and it is the team's strongest event.
Key Routines: Everything from Katherine Grable. She'll need four 9.9 scores if Arkansas wants to advance.

Alabama (bye before bars): Storyline: Alabama is going for their third consecutive national title. They have a history of winning national titles after being underestimated and counted out based on their ranking in the regular season. This talented and well-coached team should show up at Nationals doing their best gymnastics of the season and has a good chance to win. If Alabama does win, they have a chance to go for four in a row next year in Birmingham. Don't underestimate their motivation to do this.
Key Rotation: Vault, vault, and also vault. If Alabama wants to challenge Florida, they have to beat the Gators on this event. Look for Alabama to win this event in their semifinal and easily advance because of it. Key Routines: Aside from vault, look for 9.9+ scores on Ashley Priess' bars and beam, and Kim Jacob's beam and floor.
Side Comment: Ohio State's Sarah Miller will be rotating with Alabama and performing on beam only. I'm really interested to see what kind of score she gets after "following" Jacob and Priess, and whether she makes event finals.  

Michigan (bars):
Storyline: After missing out on Nationals last year, the tenacious and powerful Wolverines are back with a vengeance and a great chance to get into the Super Six. Michigan has already competed at Pauley Pavilion this year and set a season high when doing so. I expect a confident performance.
Key Rotation: I'm going to call attentiont to Michigan's beam- the only rotation where the Wolverines don't look like a Super Six team. Watch to see whether or not the Wolverines lose ground to Alabama, Oklahoma, and UCLA on this event. Michigan's other events are 49.500 worthy when hit.
Key Routines: Watch Joanna Sampson on all four events, as she could be a challenger for the all-around title in the evening session. Her floor is particularly impressive.

UCLA (beam):
Storyline: What's not to love about these scrappy Bruins? UCLA lost a good chunk of their 9.9 routines due to injury this season, and the gymnastics "peanut gallery" worried that the Bruins could miss out on the Nationals which they are hosting. However, UCLA rallied. While this Bruin team doesn't have the scoring potential of past Bruin teams, they are actually quite consistent and less likely to count falls. If UCLA manages to pull off a Super Six appearance in this competitive session, it would thrill the crowd and be quite an accomplishment of triumph over adversity. By the way, new Pauley looks fantastic, and Wooden references are everywhere. UCLA should give the fans a scavenger hunt to find all the Wooden memorabilia and quotations on campus while we wait between sessions.
Key Rotation: Floor. If UCLA wants to maximize home-field advantage, it's on this event where they'll have to do it. Look for 49.500.
Key Routines: Vanessa Zamarripa on all four events. Aside from being a strong contender for the all-around title, Zamarripa will have to deliver 4 9.9+ scores (on the mend from an ankle sprain) to give UCLA any shot to advance.

Utah (bye before floor):
Storyline: You know this story as well. We always think this is the year where Utah misses the Super Six based on their regular season, but they never miss. The Utes should have tremendous fan support in LA. Can they pull off their 3959830th consecutive Super Six appearance?
Key Rotation: Beam. Utah has not scored particularly well on beam when on the road this season. Look for the Utes to have an unexpected yet comfortable lead going into the last rotation to have a good chance to move on. (That said, I don't think that there's any such thing as a comfortable lead in this power-packed second session.)
Key Routines: To be honest with you, I haven't watched enough Utah meets this season to be sure.

Oklahoma (floor):
Storyline: Over the past four season, Oklahoma has emerged as another team that has a chance to be the fifth team to win an NCAA gymnastics title. I won't hesitate to say that there have been points over the past four years where I've thought that Oklahoma (not Florida) would be that fifth team. (I love both Oklahoma and Florida, and I think the fact that there are two schools that could break in and win makes NCAA gymnastics more compelling as a whole.)
Oklahoma has impressed with their polish, their strategy, and their ability to make beam look like a choreographed dance done on the floor. However, the Sooners seemed to hit their peak in February in their home meet against UCLA. Can the Sooners find a second peak performance?
Key Rotation: In addition to beam, pay attention to Oklahoma's bars. This bars rotation is probably underappreciated for its scoring potential. I feel Oklahoma must win bars in this session to easily advance.
Key Routines: Routines that must go 9.9+ are (among others): Maile Kanewa on vault. Brie Olson and Taylor Spears on bars (watch to see if they stick two very difficult dismounts). Taylor Spears on beam. Haley Scaman on floor (she has the best toe point in a double layout that I've seen).

I know there will be an online broadcast tomorrow and plenty of quick hits. I'll be attending both semifinals and will tweet any notable observations that I think might not show up on the online feed. (I know sometimes there are things you can actually see better on the online feed, such as vault heights and landings.) If you have anything specific you want me to look for, let me know via the comments or on Twitter and I'll make sure to watch for it.

Before ending the post, I wanted to share a few snippets of my day in LA with you. Read on if you like.

I was walking around the UCLA campus earlier today when I was approached by someone trying to get a charity donation. He greeted me with "So, how does it feel to be short?" I just smiled- it's amazing to me how many people (and strangers) comment on height, and I'm used to it. Everyone who tells me "your bag is bigger than you!" thinks that I've never heard that before.

I'm only four foot ten, and I've always been happy to be short. After all, my mom enrolled me in gymnastics because she thought it would be a good sport for me due to my height. It was the best sports-related decision she's ever made. (For the record, the worst sports suggestion she ever made was that I try lacrosse. I decided that the purpose of the lacrosse stick was to cover my head to prevent myself from getting hit by the ball, and the coach never bothered to explain otherwise. I just got benched.) I definitely should have stuck to gymnastics.


If you've read my blog for a while, you know that one of the things I enjoy about traveling to gymnastics meets is the road trip itself. I pride myself both on my sparkling-clean driving record and ability to drive long distances. When I drove to NCAA Nationals in Gainesville, I visited my grandmother as well and drove from Ohio to South Florida. If I'd had time, I would have wanted to drive to LA, but I had to fly.

So, I wanted to have the experience of driving up Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, and decided to rent a car. I learned that the combination of a completely unfamilar car, traffic I didn't know was possible, and hilly instead of flat Ohio terrain was too much. I was proud of myself for making it around the block and back to the parking lot.

There's a big difference between driving in Ohio and driving in LA. Gymnastically speaking, it's like mastering all the gymnastics skills in Level 5 to perfection, and then figuring you're ready to try for elite. (I was able to drive around Westwood later, so that was progress. I apologize if any of you were behind me.)

Happy Gymnastics Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

1997: The Last Time a New Team Won

In 1997, UCLA broke into the winner's circle and joined Utah, Georgia, and Alabama as the only four schools ever to win a title in NCAA women's gymnastics.

So, the last time a new team won a gymnastics title:

  • Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated into his second term as president.
  • Republican Pete Wilson was the governor of California.
  • Unemployment was at only 4.9 percent.
  • There was no Facebook, no Twitter, and no Harry Potter.
  • Apple Computer underwent extensive layoffs as they struggled to keep pace with Microsoft.
  • ER, Seinfeld, and Friends were the top-rated shows on television.
  • The top songs were "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" by Puff Daddy (that was his name then), "Foolish Games/You Were Meant for Me" by Jewel, and "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls.

UCLA won their first title in Gainesville, Florida. You can relive their win in the videos below. Can Florida break into the exclusive group and win their first title in Los Angeles, sixteen years later? We'll find out in four days!

I'm leaving for LA tomorrow morning. I want to wish everyone who is going to LA safe travels, and I hope all the teams have a healthy and happy week of practice and competition.

Thanks for reading and wishing you all a wonderful week!