I can’t remember any other NCAA season in which the top six teams set themselves at such a high level that they not only remained firm in the average and RQS rankings all season, but also qualified team by team into the Super Six at NCAA Championships.
This might be boring if the teams weren’t so impressive. Generally there’s usually at least one or two teams outside the top six rankings bubble that can fight their way in, and you actually really want them to, if only to make things more exciting even though it generally weakens the Super Six field. Last year, fifth- and sixth-ranked Utah and Auburn missed out, giving berths to the eight- and ninth-ranked UCLA and Georgia, but neither of these teams could challenge the top four for the title, both finishing half a point behind in what was otherwise a pretty tight battle for the top.
But this year, all six teams in the Super Six have the potential to win. All six have season highs of 197.825 or better, a level of talent, ability, and strength that is practically unheard of. But all six have also proved that no team is perfect, with each having at least one meet where not everything went as planned.
RQS rankings are great at showing us the teams that manage to consistently keep it up with the best work all season, but gymnastics is so fun because it’s all about hitting when it counts. As we learned yesterday with Maggie Nichols, ranked first in regular season by over a tenth every week, rankings mean nothing if the one mistake of your collegiate career comes in the competition that determines the titles.
Like Nichols, Oklahoma has led the rankings all season, and the team comes in as the reigning national champions, making them the team to beat in today’s Super Six final. But they weren’t quite as solid in yesterday’s semifinal as we’ve come to expect, letting a few things slide they normally wouldn’t. Coming in with a 197.7250, it wasn’t even close to a bad meet, but a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes on floor, a few big hops on vault, and Nichols’ fall on beam held them back from qualifying at the top.
Instead, it was LSU that made this happen, with the team putting up its best finish of the year to earn a 198.2750 after a monstrous and well-deserved 49.7125 on floor. Almost every piece of the puzzle came together for the Tigers, and they actually still have room for improvement. The couple of little things that didn’t go their way — Ashleigh Gnat not sticking her DTY, a little glitch from Kennedi Edney on beam — were so irrelevant compared to everything that went just right, giving the team a nearly five-tenth lead over second-place Florida.
If it does end up coming down to these two teams, I have to say, coming in from Oklahoma’s side of things is where I’d rather be. You want to hit in semifinals, but you don’t want to give so much of yourself that you peak there and blow it in finals. It’s rare that teams can keep up such a high level over two days, and LSU has a history of impressing right up until the very end, which is why they’ve gone the past few seasons without a title when they should’ve been frontrunners. If Oklahoma knows anything, it’s pacing, so letting some little things slide yesterday is no big deal because you know tonight is gonna be the time to blow it out of the water. For D.D. Breaux to finally get her national title, the Tigers — definitely the strongest team, athlete by athlete — are going to need to hold on to that momentum from last night in order to match Oklahoma’s sheer confidence and poise that has kept them at the top all season.
UCLA is the one team I can see breaking that stronghold. Yes, Florida outscored Oklahoma yesterday, but by less than a tenth and that was with Oklahoma’s uncharacteristic mistakes. I haven’t been over- or underwhelmed by Florida this season, so to quote 10 Things I Hate About You, can I just call myself whelmed? Because that’s how I feel. They’re good enough that you don’t wonder if they’ll get by, but not exciting enough to make me root for them going into postseason. With no graduating seniors, sans Claire Boyce who is medically retired, and lacking some of the depth of the more impressive teams this season, they’re kind of in this limbo of ‘meh’ and aside from a few key individual standouts, I don’t see them wowing enough for the title tonight unless other teams have mistakes. No hate, it’s been a respectable, solid season for the Gators, but it’s also nothing to put in the history books.
But UCLA does have some of that excitement and flash, and I think they could be a sneaky contender for a title. Their one problem? They can’t ever have something go right without something else going wrong. Case in point, semifinals. With a floor rotation that surpassed pretty much any of their meets this season, the Bruins were lackluster elsewhere, with mistakes on vault and beam and a mostly lackluster bars rotation, aside from a couple of stellar performances near the end. If everything comes together, the Bruins could get up near LSU and Oklahoma, as they still managed a 197.5000 even without top-notch rotations, but I don’t think I’ve seen that happen all season so they’d really need to fire on all cylinders to come out as national champions. Can you imagine a fully hit meet from them? It’d be amazing, and I’m totally here for it.
Alabama is a bit like Florida in my mind, good but not so impressive that I’m excited for them. In fact, despite enjoying Alabama especially with some of the team’s newest recruits over the past couple of seasons, I found myself rooting for Nebraska to upset them yesterday, and I don’t even really particularly like Nebraska much at all. But Alabama showed a tremendous fight, putting up some heroic performances in the latter half of their beam performance after a fall from Abby Armbrecht, finishing third in their division and fourth overall with a 197.6000, a score that also puts them in contention with the others in this bunch, though I’m still just not feeling it here.
Utah was the bottom qualifier to the Super Six with a 197.05000, nearly five tenths behind the rest of the pack. It wasn’t because of a particularly bad day, and they didn’t have any falls or major mistakes, but their vault landings were shoddy and bars were rough, with mistakes from nearly everyone — including an arched handstand from MyKayla Skinner, major leg separation from Missy Reinstadtler, and an ankle-crunching dismount from Kari Lee — dragging their event score way down. I don’t see them contending, honestly. Their best scores this season all came at home, with more realistic outcomes on the road, so I don’t really see them challenging without major mistakes from some of the other teams.
The Utes actually didn’t place in the top six in semifinals, with second-session team Nebraska outscoring them with a 197.2125. Like the two-per-country rule at the Olympics, Nebraska was the victim of the rules, as the top three from each semifinal qualify and not the top six teams overall. It’s a shame, as they had an incredible day, coming back from an early fall from Sienna Crouse on bars to post strong scores throughout the rest of the meet.
Coach Dan Kendig was a little salty about his team’s scores as they compared to the scores from some of the top teams in his session, commenting that he didn’t really want to say much more because he didn’t want to get in trouble, and while I agree that the team was a bit short-changed on a couple of routines, I don’t think they would’ve finished ahead of Alabama either way. Also, we could say that it’s too bad fate sent the team to the second rather than first subdivision, but with the scoring in the first session a little lower overall, who knows if they would’ve outscored Utah there? You can’t say for sure that they would have, so let’s just chalk this up to a fault in the rules and that no scenario in NCAA semifinals will ever be truly fair.
The other teams finishing out of contention were Washington, Denver, Michigan, Oregon State, and Georgia, in that order. Washington, am I right?! The eighth-best score at nationals?! I can’t get over how insane that is, and even though I’ve been gung-ho about them for a few seasons now, I never expected them to get this far this fast. It was an epic season with an epic end, and they’ve got to be very happy. The same goes for Denver, which fought back from TWO falls to finish strong, and Oregon State, which had a few small blunders that added up but overall still had a mostly good day.
Unfortunately, Michigan — a real potential threat for a top finish in the Super Six — ended up counting a fall on beam after both Lexi Funk and Talia Chiarelli came off in the third and anchor spots. Otherwise they were okay on vault and bars, and had an explosive performance on floor, finishing on a high note after the bummer that was beam, but the damage was done and the Wolverines ended up tenth overall.
As for Georgia, I don’t think anyone expected a magical finals appearance from this team in its rebuilding period — after their first meet this season, just staying in the top ten and making nationals was impressive enough! — but I definitely didn’t think they’d have the rough performance they ended up with. Beginning on beam, last season’s nemesis but not quite as bad this year, the team had lots of wobbles and then a fall from anchor Rachel Schick, so while they didn’t have to count a fall, they only counted one score above a 9.8 — Vivi Babalis in probably the best beam performance of her career — with the rest all in the 9.6-9.7 range. The Gym Dogs also gave up quite a few landing errors on vault, and had to fight back from Rachel Dickson’s fall on floor and Lauren Johnson’s scary Gienger catch on bars to post just a 195.8000 at the end.
Basically, this season has been the most boring in a way, with no real upsets at all thus far, from the regular season to regionals through to semifinals. But with the six strongest, most consistent teams of the season all ending up in the Super Six, we have the potential for one of the best NCAA team finals in years. While some teams are slightly better than others, anything can happen in gymnastics, and unlike in previous years, literally any of these teams has the potential to pull off the win. It’s gonna be an exciting night in St. Louis.
Article by Lauren Hopkins