In a set of five parts, I wrote an analysis about the six competing teams in the first subdivision of the Women’s NCAA National Championships for the Red & Black. Below you can find the complete team analysis including my thoughts on the six session one teams as well as some fo the individuals and a brief discussion of the session two teams as well. To view the sperate parts that I produced for The Red & Black, visit: redandblack.com > Sports > Gymnastics
NCAA Championships Preview
In the words of UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, “This year’s NCAA National Championships is going to be a blood bath.” Realistically, all 12 of the qualifying teams have the potential of making the Super Six finals, and anything can happen on any given night. Although the teams in the second session — Oklahoma, Alabama, UCLA, Michigan, Utah and Arkansas — are considered to be in the more difficult subdivision, it’s not going to be easy for the first session teams — Florida, Georgia, LSU, Minnesota, Stanford and Illinois — either. This will be one of the most exciting national championships in years with so many teams capable of taking the title.
Considered to be the easier of the two preliminary subdivisions, session one boasts the likes of No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Stanford and No. 12 Illinois. Although it might be easier to make it to Saturday’s competition if you’re one of these six teams, it’ll still be a battle until the very end to find out the three teams advancing to the finals.
The Florida Gators have been ranked the No. 1 team in the nation for the better part of the season and are the favorites to take home their first NCAA National Championship title. As a team, the Gators have scored over a 198 — an average of 9.9 from each gymnast of 49.5 on each event — at three of their twelve meets this season, including a 198.4 at the most recent NCAA Regional Championship.
However, Florida has had to deal with some adversity over the last couple of weeks when senior and beam and floor leadoff competitor Randy Stageberg dislocated her shoulder to end her gymnastics career. Earlier in the season, the Gators beat both Georgia and Minnesota but fell to LSU, so they have shown they aren’t invincible. But Florida is still poised to break into the prestigious group of only four teams to have won a national championship. Barring not just one but a couple of major disasters on the part of Florida, there is no doubt the team will make it to finals Saturday night.
Besides merely team oriented results, the Gators have multiple gymnasts who are capable of doing very well individually as well. Since prelims serves as the all around final as well as event final qualifying, the athletes will have to perform to the best of their abilities on both nights of competition. Reigning NCAA All Around Champion Kytra Hunter looks poised to defend her title. However, her biggest competition could come from teammate and SEC Freshman of the Year Bridget Sloan. The only thing keeping a Florida gymnast away from the all around title could be the fact that they are competing in the first session. Typically, scores tend to escalate over the course of the two sessions. But if either Hunter or Sloan deserve the all around title, the scores won’t lie and the judges won’t be able to help but give them the near-perfect scores they deserve.
“We’ve had a great season so far and really feel like we’re getting to the point of peaking and doing the plan that we were hoping for,” Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time and really trying to enjoy the ride. The field is just so incredible strong and tough, and it’s going to be an incredible championship atmosphere.”
The Georgia Gym Dog have steadily moved up through the rankings throughout the season after initially being ranked No. 9 after the preseason coaches poll came out. Georgia is now ranked No. 4 in the country and is in a good position to make their first Super Six final since the end of the Suzanne Yoculan era in 2009. Georgia will have to be on their game if they want to make it to finals, but unless there is a disaster reminiscent of last year’s prelims where the team had to count two falls on beam, Georgia should have no problem advancing.
However, in order to be one of the top three teams in their session, The Gym Dogs will need to hit vault and bars like they’ve been hitting beam and floor in the past few weeks. During the regular season, Georgia faced LSU three times, losing to the Tigers during all three encounters. However, Georgia potentially has two more chances to overtake former head coach Jay Clark’s new team in the preliminary competition as well as in finals should both teams make the cut. Some of the top guns will have to falter for Georgia to regain the top spot they last saw in 2009, but they should have no trouble making it past the initial round of competition.
Individually, the Gym Dogs have a number of prospects for event finalists. If they hit their routines, like they have so many times this season, the Gym Dogs could potentially have six or more athletes competing on Sunday in event finals. Freshmen Brittany Rogers has been solid all year on vault, bars, and beam and has shown the potential of hitting big numbers on floor as well. She could not only place in the top-10 in the all around but also qualify for one or more event finals. Fellow freshman Brandie Jay has been the most consistent on vault and floor, boasting season-highs of 9.975. If she hits another score like that, she will not only make it to event finals, but also have a chance at the title as well. Sophomore Chelsea Davis is one of the favorites to win the NCAA National Bar title this year, and if she hits her routine like she has every single meet this season, she will be the 2013 champion. Senior Shayla Worley also has a shot at finals on bars, beam, and maybe even floor. She consistently hits 9.9+ every time out, but the main question will be if she can hit when the pressure is on.
“We are incredibly excited to be a part of this championship,” Georgia head coach Danna Durante said. “It’s going to be anybody’s competition. I think it’s one of the strongest fields of 12 teams, and it’s going to be certainly two exciting events on Friday and an unbelievable Super Six on Saturday. We’re just looking forward to another opportunity.”
LSU has been having one of its best seasons to date. Sitting at No. 5 in the country going into NCAAs, the Tigers are in a good spot to make their first Super Six, like Georgia, since 2009. They have shown they can produce big score all season long, but they will really need to be on their game if they want to hold off the likes of Stanford and Minnesota.
The Tigers have shown they can beat some of the top teams in the country after outscoring Florida. They may not be able to content for the title, but all LSU should worry about for now is making the finals. They may be able to do it with the talent they posses on vault and floor alone. But too many mistakes on bars and beam could spell disaster. Speaking of beam, the Tigers will start their night on the elusive event. It’s always tough to go into a big competition and begin on the apparatus that’s only four inches wide right off the bat. Nerves and excitement can become too much and cause uncharacteristic mistakes. If LSU has too many problems on beam, even huge scores on floor and vault won’t be enough to make up for the mistakes. However, if LSU can hold it together, they will be able to score well enough to advance to the finals.
In terms of individual event finals, the Tigers have many gymnasts with the potential of qualifying and even winning event titles on Sunday. Although the Tigers will mainly produce finalists on vault and floor, sophomore Rheagan Courville not only have the potential of qualifying to all four event finals but also has the potential to give Florida’s Hunter and Sloan a run for their money in the all around competition. The SEC Gymnast of the Year shared the SEC All Around title with Sloan, and has the potential to do it again at NCAAs. Fellow sophomore and SEC Floor Exercise Champion Lloimincia Hall is hands down the favorite to win the NCAA floor title. Her energetic routine not only scores well but also engages the audience to the level that every fan in the arena can’t help but smile. Freshman Jessica Savona also has a chance at floor event finals as well as junior Sarie Morrison on vault and bars.
“It’s been a great season for us, and one of the reasons I think is because of the tremendous amount of parity throughout the country,” LSU head coach D.D. Breaux said. “The wins and losses against teams and the wins up and down the rankings has made for a really excited season and created a lot of excitement in our home arena and in our away trips. I think that the culmination of the season at UCLA is going to be very exciting for everyone.”
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of the Cinderella teams of the 2013 gymnastics season. Traditionally a top-36 team, the Gophers haven’t ever really been considered one of the top guns in the NCAA gymnastics world. This year’s NCAA championship will only be the third time in program history Minnesota has qualified a full team and the first time since 2002 where they finished ninth.
Unlike your typical Cinderella story, Minnesota actually has a very good chance of making it to the next round. They should still be considered one of the underdogs in the session, but with hit routines, they can challenge Georgia, LSU, and Stanford for one of the top three spots. The Gophers top score of 197.225 is well below some of the top scores of the other teams in the first session, but with tight scoring typical of a post-season competition, a low 197 may be enough to place in the top-3. Once they get bars out of the way at the very beginning, the next three are much stronger for the Gophers. The last event Minnesota will compete on is vault — an event it can really excel on.
Minnesota has some individual stars on its roster. BIG 10 Freshman of the Year Lindsey Mable had a standout season for the Gophers, placing on every event and winning vault at the NCAA Regional Championships in Gainesville. Before the regional championships, Mable was ranked No. 14 in the all around and No. 13 on floor. Junior Kayla Slechta was ranked No. 24 on vault and consistently hit 9.9s or higher on the event where some say many of her vaults deserved a perfect 10.
“We were really so proud of our team at the Florida regional and the way that they performed,” Minnesota head coach Meg Stephenson said. “We just had some outstanding performances from some individuals [there], and we’re very, very excited to be heading to UCLA.”
The Stanford Cardinal was the shock of the six qualifying teams to finals in 2012. This year, they’ve had to overcome some obstacles to even make it to the big show. The No. 9 Stanford team is better than its ranking and could easily make finals if other teams falter.
Of the 15 gymnasts on their roster this season, 10 of them are underclassmen. A young and inexperienced team could potentially spell downfall for most teams, but this year’s Stanford squad is anything but inexperienced. Sophomores Ivana Hong, Sami Shapiro, Kristina Vaculik and Becky Wing were all elite level gymnasts competing in international competitions around the world. Hong was the alternate to the 2008 US Olympic team, Vaculik represented Canada at the 2012 Games and Wing represented Great Britain in 2008 in Beijing. With experience not a problem, Stanford will need to focus on consistency and hitting perfect routines if they want to outscore Georgia, LSU or Minnesota for one of the top three spots. With Florida pretty much untouchable — at least during prelims — there are still two spots up for grabs, and Stanford will be fighting for one of them. The Cardinal will start on floor, on of their weaker events, and ending on beam, which could potentially be a problem. However, it is the team’s best event, so ending there could pose less of a threat to Stanford than to other teams.
In terms of any Stanford gymnasts making it to event finals, Amanda Spinner is a regular season All-American on beam and was ranked No. 4 on the event during the last week of the season. Hong is also superb on the event, and Ashley Morgan has the potential of making floor finals. Nicole Dayton also boasts a finals-worthy vault but with so many good vaulters in the session, only a perfect stick will send her to finals.
“It gets tougher every year to qualify to this meet,” Stanford head coach Kristen Smith said. “It’s a deep and talented field, and it will be a battle for sure. I really enjoyed watching my team over the course of the year really grow. We’ve had some bumps in the road this year, but I guess that’s what’s expected when you have 10 underclassmen. We are definitely looking great. We’re mentally and physically and emotionally peaking at the right time, so we’re very excited about the opportunity.”
The Illini are another one of this year’s Cinderella teams, but they don’t have the same chance of making the finals as Minnesota does. On any given night, any team can have the meet of its life and win a competition, but this Illinois team is mainly here to have fun. After shocking gymnastics fans at regionals when they knocked BIG 10 Champion Nebraska out of contention, the Illini booked their ticket to only their third NCAAs since the program started. After making the trip in 2009 and 2011, the Illini are ready to get back to the big show and demonstrate to every fan in the stands that they deserve to be there.
During the season, Illinois was consistently ranked in the top-25 on three of the four events with beam and floor being its best where they sat at No. 13. Since the Illini start on vault and close out their competition on beam and floor, this should bode well and fans should expect a strong finish from the team. Their season-high team score was only a 196.475, so they aren’t expected to challenge for the top spot in the session or even the second or third. However, they have performed well under pressure situations. It will take a lot of mistakes from the other teams for Illinois to advance to finals, but the Illini have shown before that they know how to take advantage of other teams’ downfalls.
Although the team may not have a very good chance of advancing to the Super Six, there are a lot of very talented gymnasts on the Illini squad capable of making it to event finals. Senior Alina Weinstein is No. 11 in the all around and No. 4 on floor where she scored a career-high 9.975 this season on the event. She should most likely make the floor finals if she hits. Weinstein also earned a perfect 10 on vault earlier in the season and has the potential of doing very well on that event should she make the final.
“We are very excited about qualifying for the NCAA Championships at UCLA,” Illinoi head coach Kim Landrus said. “Our team looks at this as a great opportunity. The Morgantown regional was very exciting, and to advance to the NCAA National Championships for the third time in school history was an experience that our girls will always remember. In 2009 and 2011 when we made NCAA nationals, it was a remarkable experience for the athletes. Going into NCAA Nationals, we’re not going to change anything because that’s what got us to where we are today.”
The second preliminary session is seen by most as the more difficult of the two subdivisions. All six teams have the potential of making it to the Super Six. Even having to count the smallest mistakes could mean a team will be sitting in the stands come Saturday night. Oklahoma is the closest thing to a shoo-in in the second session. They have flip-flopped between No. 1 and No. 2 in the country all year long and have the potential of throwing up Florida-sized scores. Alabama has also come on strong in the past couple of weeks and is starting to look like the back-to-back national champion that it is. The third spot could go to any of the next four teams. Most likely, Michigan will take the spot. The Wolverines have been solid all season and can challenge any team when they hit. UCLA shouldn’t be counted out, though. Because of the fact that the competition is being held in their home arena of Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins will have home fans to give them the edge and potentially push them over the top and into the finals. Utah is the dark horse of the subdivision. They have qualified to every single Super Six final. However, they may have to rely on the other teams to make mistakes if they want to add another Super Six to their streak. Arkansas is probably the weakest of the six competing teams, but that doesn’t mean much in a field so strong. The Razorbacks have a history of doing very well during the post-season and just last year made it to finals after knocking out a couple of other very worthy teams. It will be a hard fought competition, but in the end, only the best teams will continue on in the hopes of becoming the next national champion.
“We know it’s going to be a blood bath to get to the Super Six, and we’re really excited for that challenge,” UCLA head coach Kondos Field said. “It’s great actually because that’s what we all have been hoping for — to get a lot of parody and for a Cinderella team to be able to knock off a powerhouse. When I say it’s a blood bath, that’s really how I feel. In the old days, you had the luxury of really holding back, and maybe even sitting someone out that first night, knowing that you were going to make it to the Super Six so that you could put your guns in. I don’t think there’s a team in our session that could feel that way.
12 individual all around competitors and three event specialists qualified to the national championships. A lot of the all arounders have the potential to do very well in the all around competition and even qualify to the event finals. The three event specialists not only are capable of making it to event finals in their respective events but also have a chance of taking home the title. Of the 12 qualifying all arounders, Sharaya Musser of Penn State and Emily Wong and Jessie DeZiel of Nebraska have the greatest chance of challenging for the all around title. Auburn’s Caitlin Atkinson also has a shot at finishing in the top-10. Although Musser, Wong and DeZiel all compete in the first session where scores tend to be lower, they should still have a fighting chance to finish on the all around podium.