Catch Me if You Can
OU is on top and dominating the current standings. They currently lead as a team on every event and by the all-important overall team total. After a slight show of vulnerability one week, they've powered through the season and pushing to break away from the field. They are currently hitting on all cylinders and appear to have mostly avoided the injury bug. However, LSU isn't letting them run away. They are solidly in 2nd, and just posted a 198.075. They are also 2nd as a team on UB, BB, and FX (tied with Bama). They are only 6th on VT, but the gap is not large and is due to some steps and landings earlier on in the season. The recent loss of Jessie Jordan (hopefully for a short period) didn't even throw the squad; they posted their best mark of the season.
Watch Your Back
Just behind the top two are Utah and Florida. Utah is depending on the standout performances of their seniors Georgia Dabritz, Corrie Lothrop and Tory Wilson. Their frosh are quickly adapting (despite some injury limitations to Maddie Stover) and others like Baely Rowe are stepping up. Florida has experienced some setbacks, with injuries to Bridget Sloan and Kennedy Baker. Baker should be back shortly, and Sloan looks to be ready for the post-season. The top two squads only hold a narrow edge over this pair, and anything can happen once they go "head-to-head" at the end of the season, along with the rest of the top squads.
One team suffered numerous graduation losses and also welcomed a large array of newcomers. It's tough in a situation like this to see who is going to step up in the absence of former stars, and predict how newcomers will adapt to college competition. #5 Michigan is doing extremely well early on, paced by step-up performances from senior Sachi Sugiyama and sophomores Nicole Artz and Talia Chiarelli. Frosh Brianna Brown is also making a large impact. With Michigan, however, there is some concern with depth and we'll keep a close watch as the season evolves.
Watch Out Below
The top five also have to keep a close watch on some teams lower in the rankings that are now making their moves. Bama is finding its way as their returnees adjust to their time in the spotlight. Bama lost a number of talented gymnasts to graduation, but they held spots in the lineup that essentially prevented others from gaining competition experience. Now these veterans are getting a chance to shine, and they are taking advantage of the opportunity. In the case of UCLA, a large roster and a number of newcomers provides numerous lineup options. This can result in inconsistency. And, a traditionally slow starting Bruin squad had a slow start, despite an effort to get ready earlier in the year. Over the last two weeks, however, the Bruins made several steps forward. In the last meet, several gymnasts upgraded their floor sets (Jennifer Pinches, Hallie Mossetts) while others removed the mistakes that had been holding their scores back. The health of Sam Peszek remains a big variable for the post-season, however.
A pair of squads are making strong bids for spots at Nationals, by using an impressive set of tumbling skills and power vaults. Auburn and PSU are very similar in that respect, pushing the envelope of tumbling difficulty. Both squads also share some struggles on UB and BB, but are making rapid progress in both events as consistency and execution improves. For Auburn, a veteran squad and the return of Caitlin Atkinson and Bri Guy has proven to be a big boost. In the case of PSU, their frosh have stepped in immediately, especially on VT and FX. Both squads are showing an impressive selection of full-ins, double Arabians and double layouts on FX.
Tighter or Looser?
At one point in the season, it appeared to be "off to the races" with escalating scores. Some recent meets have reigned in this trend, while loose scoring continues at others. Hopefully, by the end of the season this type of variation will smooth out. Tight scoring can increase the gap between teams, as finer points of deduction are taken from some gymnasts but not from others with better execution. It can alter lineup strategies, and increase or reduce the importance of steps and falls. What's really needed is some consistency, so that both the teams and the gymnast can eliminate an unneccessary variable from the competition floor.
Wildcards: Injuries and Recovery
Key injuries can have a big impact on a squad. We've unfortunately seen some key injuries to some impact gymnasts at teams all over the country. For example, at Cal, the loss of Serena Leong and the extended comeback of Jessica Howe has made a big impact on their BB lineup. The result has been some inconsistency as two of their top athletes on the event are gone. At Kentucky, two gymnasts, Alexis Gross and Khadijah Hudson, went down in the same meet. Although Kentucky is seeing step-up performances from the rest of the lineup, their overall depth has been impacted. At Stanford, the loss of Elizabeth Price removed potential 9.9+ routines from their score. Clearly, Cardinal fans anxiously await her return. Washington has been on the rise this season, but just lost Zoey Schaefer, a frosh who was undefeated on FX and one of only a handful of Top 20 ranked frosh. Their other top frosh, Alyssa Shermetaro, is rehabbing the same injury. These limitations have been hurting them on vault once again. Overall, injuries continue to be a big wildcard factor for teams throughout the Top 50.
The recovery of certain gymnasts is providing a big boost for many squads, especially those short on depth. For example, Florida fans are anxiously awaiting the return of Bridget Sloan and Kennedy Baker, while the return of Austin Sheppard is providing a boost at Michigan. At LSU, the return of Britney Ranzy should give the Tigers an extra bump on vault --- however, on such a deep squad, the impact will be muted. At Stanford, the return of Kristina Vaculik helps mute the absence of teammate Price. The return of both standouts to full strength will be a huge variable for Stanford. They have the potential of entering the Regionals with a low seed, and providing a dangerous "knock out" performance to a higher seeded team. Besides these stars, there are many other athletes working their way back from injury. They too could have a big impact as we head into the latter portion of the season. Getting that depth in the "5-6" spot in the rotation could prove to be the difference maker to the teams heading into Regionals. Often, the biggest upside for teams will not come from the stars at the end of the lineup, but by the role players in the front part of the lineup.