Monday, 09 January 2017 21:18

Week 1 Rewind: Opening Weekend

Written by
LSU's Myia Hambrick LSU's Myia Hambrick (c) 2015 Lloyd Smith, Used by Permission

The first big weekend of the season is in the books, and what did we learn?  OU and LSU are off to a quick start in the Championship Race, and the others have a lot of work left to do to close the gap they've established.  There was a lot of great gymnastics and a lot of opportunity out there.  Here's our rewind of the weekend performances of the Preseason Top 25.


Oklahoma was near-perfection in their debut, showing off both depth and superstar talent.  Maggie Nichols met every lofty expectation out there with a spectacular 39.725 debut AA performance, including a 9.975 on UB.  She threw all the sets and skills she showed during the preseason, including a Yurchenko 1 1/2 on VT and a Van Leeuwen transition on UB.  Teammate Brenna Dowell was also in fine form after her year off from NCAA competition.  This 2017 edition of the Sooners showed increased power on FX and VT, closing the gap on LSU.  Interestingly, they took their lowest team total on BB, where some small execution errors and one non-counting fall held down their score.  Bama outscored the Sooners on the event 49.35 to 49.225.  The Sooners were stellar on the UB, with a closing lineup of Nichols, Dowell, and Wofford anchoring a lineup that dropped a 9.9 in the opener.  A 49.75+ on the event during the season is quite possible, even under a tighter judging panel.   


LSU had a powerful debut this past weekend, with terrific performances from Myia Hambrick and Ashleigh Gnat.  Both have not missed a beat from last season, with powerful double layouts on FX.  McKenna Kelley also looked strong, tumbling a double layout and a full-in second pass. LSU held back a bit in the opening meet, "only" competing three 10.0 start value (SV) vaults (and having some landing deductions).  One of those vaults came from frosh Kennedi Edney, who posted a 9.95 in her debut.  Classmate Ruby Harrold did not compete.  She'll be a key addition to the UB lineup; an event where the Tigers may cede some ground to the Sooners.  There are still opportunities for cleanup on this event, including some deductions that tend to be harder to improve (steps and short handstands usually improve over the course of the season; dismount technique is harder to fix).  They could gain these tenths back on the other events, in particular on VT where they have higher start values, and on BB, where Finnegan, Ewing, Gnat, Macadaeg and Hambrick are all back in force.  Lauren Li made her debut here, showing her intent to keep the third spot that Coach Breaux usually reserves as a "tryout" spot.  


Alabama made a solid debut against Oklahoma, showing strongly on UB and BB but struggling a bit on the leg events, VT and FX.  Kiana Winston was superb, though, hitting for 39.5 and winning the BB.  Bama showed just one 10.0 Start Value vault, potentially ceding 0.2 in start value to the other top teams.  They also suffered mistakes on FX, and did not display the same level of power as the top two squads.  While the tumbling upgrades look to be in the works, the VT gap will take more work to narrow.  Frosh Madison Desch, Wynter Childers and Shea Mahoney (in exhibition) all made debuts.  All three have been impacted by injury and their continued progress back could provide the lift Bama needs on the power events.  UB and BB, however, are their early centers of strength, especially with Winston, Mackenzie Brannan and Aja Sims.


UCLA had a good first half of a meet, with solid vaults and some exceptional UB work.  The clear highlight was the highly anticipated debuts of frosh Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross.  Their UB lineup could prove to be a major advantage for them, with Ross, Kocian and Peng-Peng Lee providing the potential for some very high scores.  Vault was powerful and showed continued improvement, but lacked the 10.0 start values they showed in the Fall training.  Upgrades are clearly being trained, but injuries and the early start to the season led to a more cautious approach in the opening meet.  The Bruins made several mistakes on BB, with Ross and Meraz missing their required dance combinations (an element of C value must be connected to another dance skill) and both Lee and Katelyn Ohashi suffering near-falls on their super-difficult series.  The Bruins also had issues on FX, with a lack of endurance and a somewhat depleted lineup yielding some lower scores.


Florida made a strong debut at North Carolina State, breaking 197 behind a trio of AAers:  Kennedy Baker, Alicia Boren and Amanda Hundley.  Baker seem to settle into her role as team leader quite comfortably, vaulting a Yurchenko 1 1/2 and drilling a high Dos Santos mount on FX.  Boren vaulted a superb Yurchenko 1 1/2 and kept pace with Baker in the AA.  Hundley did not throw her 10.0 SV vault and left out her double layout on FX (whip double tuck) but was solid throughout.  Classmate Megan Chant had a very strong debut, with her Tsukahara Layout Full (10.0 SV) on VT and a double layout on FX.  Another frosh, Rachel Gowey, had a rough fall on UB (her hand slipped on her second handstand attempt on the low bar) but was solid on BB.  The Gators already threw four 10.0 SV vaults, counting a huge pke front 1/2 from Rachel Slocum in exhibition (which will surely be in the lineup shortly).   


Utah had a strong debut, easily defeating the visitors from Michigan.  MyKayla Skinner made all 14,600+ Ute faithful dream of past dominant Utah squads, as she threw her double twisting Yurchenko vault, rocked her UB/BB sets and hit the toughest FX set in NCAA history:  a double twisting double back mount and a full-in dismount.  While she'll need to continue to clean up her UB and BB sets, she'll be contending for an NCAA title come April.  The Utes threw four 10.0 SV vaults (with some landing issues) and sailed through UB and BB.  The Utes did run into some problems on FX, and we may see other Utes fight for spots in that lineup in the future (in particular frosh Kim Tessen and Missy Reinstadtler).  The Utes will also have some cleanup work to do on their UB routines and will continue to build experience and confidence on BB.    


Michigan dropped their opening meet at Utah, having problems on their first event, UB.  Injuries and a general lack of depth on the event led to a relatively low 48.3 on the event.  Sophomore Oliva Karas had off-season wrist surgery and is not all the way back.  She sat out UB.  Getting her back on the event and getting solid improvements from the rest of the lineups (possibly first meet jitters) will be the keys to the Wolverine's ambitions this year.  There are pieces available to put together a 49+ post-season UB event score, but it will take some work and the avoidance of further injury.  Superstar Nicole Artz also had offseason surgery and was not quite as sharp last season.  As the injuries heal, the training time builds and the frosh adjust, we'll see a much stronger Michigan team come April.  


Auburn made a solid debut but lost their home opener to Oregon State.  The loss of their veterans and superstar Caitlin Atkinson was quite evident.  (Stephanie) Gracie Day had a strong debut, and as expected, shows the potential to step into a leading role in the future.  She vaulted a Yurchenko 1 1/2 (big bounding step out) and tumbled a full-in on FX, and had AU's top score on UB.  This Auburn squad does not quite have the power of year's past on the leg events, but shows the potential to gain back those tenths on UB and BB with beautiful lines and strong execution.  


Georgia's debut likely did not meet their own expectations, let alone the expectations of a demanding fanbase.  A disaster on BB (47.225) and a generally sub-par performance overall led to an incredibly disappointing 193.6 opening score.  Sydney Snead was a clear highlight, posting a 39.225 in the AA.  The coaching staff tends to rely on veterans early on, so we may see more of the frosh as they adapt to college competition.  Also, as injuries have tie to heal and the new lineups gain experience, we'll see a different UGA squad later in the season.        


Cal won the NorCal Classic, posting a 195.35 to defeat their Northern California rivals.  Toni-Ann Williams competed strongly, showing an improved UB set that featured a high Hindorff.  She was not in the BB lineup this week and thus sat out the AA.  Cal did have some first meet issues, counting a fall on UB and some stumbles on FX and BB.  Cal was also missing both Howe sisters and BB/FX ace Zoe Draghi (out with illness).   The Bears have a huge squad and we'll likely see a lot of lineup experimentation throughout the year.


Stanford had a rough start to their 2017 season, starting slowly in their first meet and managing just a 193.25.  They struggled on BB (48.0) and especially on FX (46.925), where they counted several falls.  With injuries and the recovery from surgeries slowing or limiting several of the key veterans, Stanford gave an opportunity for some new gymnasts to gain competition experience.  They have a history of starting slowly and finishing strongly, especially when their stars have a slow start due to injury.  Stanford will need some strong improvement from their squad on FX, however, because the gap is quite large in difficulty and execution compared to the top teams.   One gymnast began their routine with just a back layout 2/1 twist

Oregon State

Oregon State impressed in their opening weekend, knocking off host Auburn.  They welcomed back some key gymnasts, like a fully healthy Kaytianna McMillan, Dani Dessaints and Erika Aufiero.  The Beavers looked especially improved on VT, where they threw three 10.0 SV vaults.  FX was their weakest set relative to other squads chasing a spot at Nationals, and it'll be an area where they'll look to add some difficulty later in the season.  Also key will be avoiding injury to their stars, as that derailed the team last season.     


Frosh Maddie Karr met some pretty lofty expectations, returning to her home state with her new team, the Denver Pioneers.  The Pioneers defeated the host Minnesota Gophers, behind the 39.5 debut AA performance of their new frosh superstar.   There are some areas for concern, however.  The Pioneers only fielded five gymnasts on VT and FX, due to injuries to some key veterans.  


Minnesota dropped their first meet to Denver but managed a respectable 194.725 score.  The Gophers posted a big 49.2 on FX but managed just a 48.025 on BB.  Bailie Holst joined Ciara Gardner in an AA role, while frosh Paige Williams and Ivy Lu had solid debuts.


Arkansas had a strong debut, nearly knocking off host UCLA and posting a 195.35.  They were led once again by senior Amanda Wellick, who posted a 39.3 in the AA.  They also got solid debuts from frosh Hailey Garner and Jessica Yamzon (38.925 AA).  As the frosh mature and gain experience, the GymBacks will only get stronger.   


Arizona posted a 194.025 to defeat TWU and USU.  They had some struggles on UB, BB and FX, and generally have a number of areas to work to bring up their overall competitiveness.  Frosh Heather Swanson's 9.85 layout Yurchenko Full was the only Wildcat score above a 9.8.  Their loss of their graduated seniors hurt in this regard, as they were the top performers on each event and provided these higher scores.  The other returnees and a talented frosh class will continue to improve, and we'll see more scores at this level as the season progresses.     


Missouri sent a strong message to the SEC and the rest of the NCAA, posting a 196.225 to easily defeat Illinois and Ball State.  What's even more impressive is that they did this without the services of last year's top AAer, Morgan Porter.  She sat out the meet as part of a suspension related to her arrest last year.  The Tigers did not count a fall, and performed solid, consistent and competitive gymnastics on all four events.  Based on this meet, they will clearly will be in the leading group of contenders for a slot at Nationals.  As a squad, however, they don't have a huge level of difficulty, with only one 10.0 SV vault (Britney Ward's Pike Omelianchik) and one E tumbling skill (Becca Shugel's triple full on FX).  At the same time, they don't have any glaring weaknesses and only have to work on small details to continue their improvement throughout the season to make a serious challenge for a spot at Nationals.      


Kentucky posted a 195.075 to win versus EMU.  They were led by a Sidney Dukes, Alex Hyland and frosh Mollie Korth.  Korth proved herself to be the future standout on the squad, vaulting a Yurchenko 1 1/2 and show a high quality level to her gymnastics on all four events.  Hyland picked up where she left off last season, shining on three events.  The squad also avoided major problems during the meet, for a clean start to the season.  Overall, they don't have quite the execution level of their SEC rivals Missouri and lack some difficulty on FX.  These are areas they are likely looking to upgrade in the future.  


Iowa posted a 194.2 in their opening meet, falling to NIU but defeating WMU and Lindenwood.  UB was their undoing, as they suffered three falls and were unable to capitalize on the generous scoring on the event.  Frosh Charlotte Sullivan (an elite from New Zealand) had a strong debut, posting a 38.9 and demonstrating that she has adjusted to the NCAA system quite well.  Classmate Clair Kaji, an elite from Canada, also had a solid day in her three event debut. 


PSU posted a 194.625 to defeat BYU, Temple and BGSU.  Briannah Tsang, as expected, was the clear leader and posted a 39.35 AA.  The Nittany Lions struggled the most on UB, with some subpar performances from Nicole Medvitz and Jessica Jones.  They were also without the services of Kiera Brown, a key athlete on the event.   Overall, however, it was a good start to build upon for the season. 


Illinois posted a 194.2 in their loss to Missouri.  They started the meet with some issues on UB, with misses from two frosh and a 47.575 team score.  BB was their best set, where they posted a 49.25 and defeated Illinois.  They did welcome back Mary Jane Horth and Haylee Roe on three events each, and had frosh Karen Howell debut as an AAer.        


GWU impressed again with a 195.55 in a win over Yale.  The three top AAers, Alex DeMoura, Camille Drouin-Allaire and Jillian Winstanley, shone once again.  The core eight gymnasts from last season will continue to power the squad.  They essentially hit 23 for 24, one of the best overall performances of any team in the Top 25 last weekend. 


Other Observations

  • Scoring was highly variable across the country, and even event to event within the same meet.  We'll likely see a similar trend from last season, but with even higher scores this season.  A new National scoring record is within reach, and many teams will set school records.
  • Some vault panels are treating the Yurchenko 1 1/2 very lightly with deductions.  Large steps and large hops are being given the benefit of the doubt and still earning very good scores.  Some teams won't debut all of their upgraded vaults until later in the season.  We may also see some gymnasts revert back to the Full if the execution deductions begin to increase. 
  • We saw very few layout Yurchenkos from the Division I squads this past weekend, with most teams throwing full lineups of 9.9+SV vaults (at a minimum).   The depth of talent continues to grow in the club ranks, and we're seeing teams outside of the Top 36 with vault lineups that compare to Top 15 teams of years past.
  • On UB, very few teams had trouble having six routines that did not get an "up to the level" deductions.  This means they had either a major single bar release, two D releases, or two E skills.  In general, the performance of cast handstands to the vertical position has greatly improved across all teams.  Some judging panels seem to be taking appropriate shape and form deductions on E dismounts like the double layout, and evaluating other, less obvious execution issues like release amplitude and technique, bent arms and the lack of good swing mechanics.  This is possibly because as more athletes are able to execute routines with good handstands and stuck dismounts, other areas of execution are needed to separate out the athletes.  
  • BB continues to be an event where nearly all squads are capable of 10.0 start value routines.  Many of these routines are not being performed with very few wobbles or other obvious mistakes.  This means the judges are now able to take other form, amplitude, flexibility and rhythm deductions to separate the athletes.  Missed or slow connections are a typical problem early in the season, especially when the athlete may be nervous.  
  • FX remains the one area where the "up to the level" difficulty requirement causes some issues.  Some teams had issues with landing their second D tumbling skill (typical in the early season) or with completing the D dance element correctly.  
  • With the advent of major conference channels, nearly every meet in the country is now available on broadcast TV or via online streaming, many with streaming archives.  We're now down to only a few exceptions (with the Cal-hosted NorCal Classic being a very odd exception).

Let's look forward to another great weekend!

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