With another full weekend completed, we're seeing quite a bit of shakeup in the rankings. Several teams in the preseason Top 25 did not have an eligible score until this past Sunday, and they've now entered the rankings. Also, some teams that struggled a bit in their first meet rebounded with strong performances in their next. Other teams that started strongly stumbled a bit, especially when they took to the road and had to compete on unfamiliar equipment for the first time. The month of January brings a lot of change in the rankings, and the rankings will likely look different by the time April comes around. Coaches are figuring out their lineups and giving their newcomers a shot at competition. Frosh are experiencing college competition for the first time, and their learning curve will be steep. Although more and more teams are trying to ensure a fast start, the level of "readiness" for the first few meets varies considerably by team. Some teams have easier corrections to make (steps, wobbles, slow connections) and will see their scores rise while other teams that are fast out of the gate may plateau, as other improvements are tougher to make in a single season (e.g., lack of height in tumbling, labored swing, flaws in basic technique). Some teams are doing exceptionally well at "sticking" their dismounts and vaults early on in the season, while others are still taking large steps. This can result in a pretty large cumulative swing in a team's score. Teams that are having landing issues early on sometimes can address these issues as they begin to work on hard landing surfaces.
Beam Woes -- aka They're Human After All
Problems on balance beam are expected early in the season, but they've appeared at a number of teams across the country. Falls and medium-sized errors held back the team totals at a number of squads during the first two weeks, including some of our top preseason favorites. Part of this is possibly due to tighter judging in some meets, but the greater cause appears to be early season inconsistency and nerves. What's surprising is to see some sub-49 scores being recorded by the likes of Oklahoma, Florida, LSU, and Bama. In contrast, the top ranked team on beam thus far, Michigan, had experienced a number of issues on the event last season, as did the current #3 team, Utah. These errors have kept the gap in team scores between our pre-season favorites and the other challengers much smaller than expected and could produce some unexpected results later in the season if these problems persist. You can probably bet, however, that nearly every top ranked team with an early struggle on BB will figure the event out, for the most part, by the end of the season.
Scoring, Scoring, Scoring
As usual, discussion of scoring variance has dominated the early fan converations. Differences between strict evaluations and more relaxed scoring can occur in a given meet, on a given event, or even between judges assigned to a single panel. These differences are being noticed by fans, and are creating some confusion, and in some cases, angst. And yes, there are examples of strict scoring and liberal evaluations, but no team has a monolopy on either. There have been cases of missed obvious deductions (more on that later) and cases where obvious errors have been ignored by at least one judge in a panel. These scoring variation can distort the rankings and the regional qualification picture, but can also result in confusing "head to head" meet results for fans. For example, we even saw one team have it's score vary by over 2.5 points week on week, with no difference in the number of falls. That gap is the difference in team score between the #1 team and the #27 team in the current rankings. Before you get too distressed, this scoring variation does tend to even out as the season progresses. The judging panels will get mixed and rotated, and judging variation has shown a tendency to decrease as the season wears on as both execution improves and as the judges begin to "normalize" on a level of execution.
An Impossible Score
We did see our first example of an "impossible score". An "impossible score" results when clear and obvious fixed deductions are overlooked, and a score higher than the minimum is awarded. In years past, in a few extreme cases, falls have even been completely overlooked (by accident). This season, we have already seen a case in which an athlete who was attempting a twisting back salto to a front salto missed the connected and performed a flyspring (two footed front handspring) instead. The momentum carried her with a large flying, out of balance, step out of bounds (and a hop), requiring two steps to even return to the mat. The required deductions include 0.1 points for going out of bounds, 0.2 points for missing the special requirement for two saltos in a single pass, and 0.1 points for missing the front salto compositional requirements (front and back saltos are required for composition in the NCAA). That's 0.4 tenths before any execution deduction is taken for the out of control flying step out of bounds or for any other error in the routine. The routine scored a 9.6.
The New Compulsary Bars
Many people have complained about the lack of variety on vault, with the ever-present Yurchenko Layout Full dominating the lineups. However, the uneven bars is turning into another event with very little variety in routine composition. There are roughly four basic routines, with some small variations, being used by the plurality of gymnasts today. This is because the current NCAA code has little in the way of incentives or penalties in place to encourage variety, and the resulting execution emphasis on consistency, handstand position, and steps on the dismount forces coaches to design routines that are exposed to a minimum of deductions. The current NCAA code modifications have just 0.05 points available to a judge to evaluate the variety of skills used in the routine.
There is also a requirement for difficulty "up to the level", a requirement which almost all athletes on teams on the Top 36 teams have no trouble meeting. The ability of the athletes has outpaced the code, and there is tremendous parity in the selection of skills. And certain major skills tend to be more consistent once mastered, with fewer inherent execution errors. As a result, many of the routines among the Top 36 teams, including the very top teams, are virtually identical. The same releases (Jaeger, Tkachev, overshoot, Shaposhnikova/Maloney, Pak Salto) and connecting skills (giant 1/2, giant full) are often paired in the exact same fashion, with the exact same dismount (double layout, full in or giant full turn to double tuck). Despite the millions of possible combinations of skills, we're left with a relatively small set of substantially similar routines assembled in a similar order. One common routine includes a giant blind change to Jaeger to direct overshoot early in the routine combined with one of the dismounts listed previously. This routine, with a few minor variations like the choice of mount or choice of pike or straddle Jaeger, occurs at least once in the lineup of nearly every team in the nation. This means the main thing separating the teams is the execution of these skills and how strictly the execution is evaluated by the judging panel.
Cool Stuff: UB Edition
A number of gymnasts continue to go above and beyond the ordinary, setting aside the safer skills and combinations to compete unusal skills and combinations. UCLA's Peng Peng Lee is throwing a Bharwaj (full twisting Pak) and a Van Leewen (toe-on Shaposhnikova 1/2 aka Maloney 1/2). Stanford's Elizabeth Price is swinging a Maloney (toe-on Shaposhnikova) to immediate uprise free hip circle to handstand to immediate Church (piked toe-on Tkachev or Ray) directly connected to an overshoot to handstand. We're seeing a number of pike Tkachevs and Church (pike Ray aka toe-on pike reverse hecht) releases, and more than one Comaneci salto (kip to straddle front). Intricate invert and stalder work is more rare, however, as is the Weiler kip and toe-on handstand with a full turn.
Cool Stuff: Beam Edition
More good stuff is happening on BB, where there tends to be more variety. We're seeing some risks being taken, and a wider variety of skills being thrown. For example, UCLA's Danusia Francis is competing her sideways aerial to a back layout full while teammate Samantha Peszek is throwing a tuck full twisting back salto. LSU's Rheagan Courville continues to hit her standing Arabian. This season, we're also seeing more teams take advantage of the extra bonus the NCAA has added in the NCAA Code Modifications for triple flight acro series. These three element tumbling combinations are now eligible for an extra tenth of bonus. This was true last season, but many gymnasts were not ready to consistently compete a triple flight acro series. A back handspring to back hardspring to back layout series is now worth three-tenths in bonus (0.1 for the D, 0.2 total for the series). A traditional back handspring to back layout series only earns 0.1 points for the D salto, and requires another D salto in the routine to meet the "up to the level" compositional requirement. Doing a triple flight series not only provides for more bonus, but allows a gymnast to eliminate the extra salto. This tradeoff means that for gymnasts with consistent backward tumbling, a triple flight series is a better option than attempt two separate saltos.
A Plethora of Viewing Options
For dedicated gym addicts, the plethora of gymnastics viewing options is amazing this season. The advent of dedicated conference networks and the proliferation of school video streams means your viewing options are nearly unlimited. From Division III meets with free streams to on-demand replays available for subscribers via the networks, you can easily watch many meets live or via on-demand replay. Every weekend, our "It's Meet Time" feature collects the available links for live viewing. However, there are a number of schools and subscription networks that are making their archives available. These networks sometimes require a separate fee or TV provider login, but others are available for free. For examples, see the 30 day archive at ESPN3 (including the SEC Network) and the full archive at CollegeSportsLive. Big 10 meets can be viewed at BTN2Go, although an additional subscription may be required for meets that were not broadcast on the network. Select meets are also archived for individual schools like SJSU.
NCAA Autonomy: Changes Ahead
This past weekend, representatives from the Big Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC) met to discuss and vote on potential changes to rules related to student-athlete wellness. These actions were enabled by the so-called autonomy rules enacted by the NCAA, which leaves more decision making power to groups such as the Big Five. The group, which included 15 student-athletes representatives (including one gymnast, Washington senior McKenzie Fechter) voted to enact so-called "cost of attendance" scholarships that would increase the total value of a scholarship to include travel expenses and other related expenses. This could mean an additional (estimated) $2,000 to $5,000 per year, per full time equivalent scholarships. A proposal to prohibit non-renewal of scholarships for athletic reasons also narrowly passed. These and other related changes for student-athlete wellness will provided much-needed benefits to athletes, who are often unable to cover the full costs of attendance due to the time demands (both required and "voluntary") of their sport. What do these changes mean for gymnastics? No one knows for certain, but virtually no one disagrees that college budgets will be impacted by the need to increase payouts to remain competitive. Other schools and conferences have announced plans to match the offer, but many schools will be grappling with the budget realities of the extra expense. Especially at risk is Men's Gymnastics, which is now sponsored at only at a small number of schools. The schools in the wealthiest conferences (the ones with the largest TV contracts) may be able to more easily afford to extend the increased funds to the full complement of sports, but budget pressures may impact facility, travel and other budgets at many programs. And while athletes will undoubtably benefit and be justly awarded the full cost of attendance and participation, we may see the lack of parity in recruiting increase, as the schools offering more valuable scholarships gain an edge. In the worst case, we may see some programs cut, especially if additional legal judgments (e.g. the Bannon case) working their way through the court systems are enacted. This regulatory and legal environment is something we'll all have to watch, and hope for the best for all parties involved.