By Caroline Medley
Buckle up gym fans! We’re in for another big SEC showdown at the Gainesville regional, featuring conference-mates No. 3 Florida, No. 10 Georgia and No. 15 Missouri as the top three seeds. Joining them will be No. 30 New Hampshire, No. 33 Penn State and No. 35 North Carolina, all teams who are capable of solid scores but have had inconsistencies left and right. Many of these teams have already faced each other at least once this season, so almost all of them know what to expect out of their opponents. This big rematch-fest may get really interesting really quickly.
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Competing in Gainesville as the top seed is a dream come true for Florida, practically guaranteeing itself a berth to nationals. It’s faced three of its five opponents before as well and has beaten each of them pretty soundly, so the Gators should easily get by with a clean meet. That being said, just having a clean meet isn’t how you build momentum to make a push for the national title, which is something Florida is absolutely aiming for. They’ll be looking for another high 197 to try to nip at the heels of LSU and Oklahoma, because even though they’re not in the same regional, these teams are always competing with each other. Kennedy Baker finally returned to the all around last week, and there was much rejoicing, as she didn’t miss a beat and went 9.9+ on three of her four events. Even so, teammate Alex McMurtry beat her out for the AA win at the SEC Championship with a 39.7 total. It’s those kind of performances that will carry Florida to the phenomenal score (and eventually the Super Six, at least) it really needs. A host of 9.8ish scores kept the team’s floor total down last week, though, so improving landings and capitalizing on the home crowd energy will definitely be important to bring that back up. Overall, the Gators should expect to be first with no problems. If they aren’t, that’s when we’ll know things are getting interesting.
Close behind should be Georgia. Despite a rocky start to the season and some injuries and illnesses along the way, the Gymdogs have put together a strong campaign this year and should expect to qualify to nationals over Missouri and the rest of the competitors. However, this will be called into question now after a disappointing injury on floor to all arounder Rachel Dickson last week at SEC Championships. If she’s not well enough, coach Danna Durante will need to find replacement routines on every event, and fast, so as not to risk failing to qualify. Without Dickson, most events only have six remaining competitors, and there’s a reason Dickson has been in the lineups instead of each of those seventh gymnasts. Senior Beth Roberts could probably fill in on vault and floor, but she won’t be capable of pulling 9.9s out of thin air like Dickson has in recent weeks. We would hope that Natalie Vaculik would be able to return to bars, should she be needed, but from the way things sounded during the broadcast last week, the team needed Dickson on bars regardless of an injury. This points to the idea that there may be yet another issue with Vaculik joining the lineup, despite competing twice in the middle of the season, so if not her… would Pedersen be ready? She seems the only other possible option, unless someone has secretly been training bars that we don’t know about. It seems highly unlikely that Georgia would choose regionals, of all times, to only put five up on an event, but stranger things have happened. That would leave the Gymdogs with absolutely no room for error, which would give another team the perfect opportunity to sneak in.
The name of the game for Missouri will be keeping pace with Georgia and staying clean. If the Tigers can hit 24 for 24, they should find it fairly easy to sneak past the Gymdogs should they slip up. This may be a challenge, but Missouri is definitely capable. Both teams have only broken 197 at home, so since they’ll both be away in Gainesville, let’s look at their best away scores. Georgia’s is a 196.975, while Mizzou’s highest away meet totaled a 196.75, at their last faceoff against the Gators. It wouldn’t even take a fall from Georgia for Missouri to make up that difference. Just a couple of missed landings or beam bobbles and the Tigers could sneak right in and qualify instead of Georgia. Missouri will need to capitalize on its big players, though, to try to keep it close in case Georgia leaves the door open. Britney Ward will need big scores on her usual vault and beam, but they’ll also want a hit out of her on bars, which has been a bit spotty for her recently. Kennedi Harris cannot get stuck under the 9.85 threshold on vault and floor - she can do significantly better. And all arounder Aspen Tucker needs to be back to full strength on all events, as she was noticeably absent from the bars lineup and scored lower than usual on both beam and floor at SECs. If Missouri can put all of that together in one meet, and Georgia can’t, the Tigers could very well sneak into nationals and surprise everyone.
New Hampshire doesn’t have quite the chance at an upset that Missouri has, though they did break 196 on the road once this season. (Just in case - note that I never said never!) The feat for the Wildcats was getting to this point, but a good showing would really put the cherry on top. With beam as their best event - something none of the above three teams can claim - New Hampshire definitely has the opportunity to capitalize where few others can, putting pressure on some of the higher-ranked teams. Strong beamers like Meghan Pflieger and Casey Lauter could very well be the key to upping the team’s game (and score) here in a field of teams where beam can be a bit uncertain and wobbly.
Fifth seed Penn State has had some major ups and downs this season. After a coaching change mid-season, the girls finally seemed to break through, scoring a season high of 196.2 to win a quad meet at Penn. Their RQS, however, is a 195.590, which is far less likely to compete with any of the higher-ranked teams in Gainesville. The Lions will need more than standouts Briannah Tsang, Nicole Medvitz and Sabrina Garcia to hit if they want a good meet. The consistency needs to be there for everyone in order to finish this tumultuous season on a high note for PSU.
Lastly, I cannot say enough about North Carolina this season. Though it qualified for regionals just by the skin of its teeth, UNC is a team worth rooting for. Their gymnasts have unique skills with big difficulty, and they’re super responsive to their fan base both in Chapel Hill and on social media. They should be proud just to be in Gainesville competing at regionals, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a good time doing it. This team thrives on energy, as best exemplified at their meet against UCLA. The crowd at UF should have some similar energy, especially with a competition this big, so if the Tar Heels can really feed off of that atmosphere, they may be able to turn in some of their best performances of the season and really close out this season with a bang.
This particular mix of teams should bring us an excellent all around competition, even when removing the Gator gymnasts from the mix. Assuming Florida and Georgia qualify, Missouri’s Aspen Tucker will likely be their lone all arounder, vying for a nationals berth as just a freshman. New Hampshire will likely see Danielle Doolin and Meghan Pflieger make bids for the all around, though both have weak events that they may not be able to overcome. Penn State’s excellent AA gymnasts in Tsang and Garcia actually rank Nos. 28 and 33 respectively, which is commendable, especially considering the lack of supporting scores their team has offered them to build up to their routines. Really, either one of them could have the scores on the day of to punch their ticket to nationals. Individual qualifier Chelsea Knight, of NCSU, may also be in the mix, ranked only a few places behind UNH’s Pflieger and ahead of Doolin. However, aside from Florida and Georgia, the highest-ranked all arounder at the Gainesville regional will actually be North Carolina’s Morgan Lane at No. 26. With a yurchenko full-on back tuck, the most beautiful press handstand mount to layout stepout-layout stepout series on beam, and sky-high floor tumbling, all done with gorgeous execution most of the time, Lane absolutely has the scores to earn herself an individual berth to nationals.
In terms of individual event qualifiers, the field will be incredibly tough, competing against the likes of Alex McMurtry, Kennedy Baker and Alicia Boren, who all regularly score 9.9+ on all of their best apparatus. McMurtry has three 10.0s on three different apparatus this season, so it’s quite likely she’ll be the one to tie or beat in order to qualify on an individual event. On vault, the most likely candidate is Missouri’s Britney Ward with her Omelianchik, which has scored 9.9+ more times this season than it has not. On bars, PSU’s Garcia is ranked tenth in the nation and has crossed the 9.9 threshold six times this season, including three in the last five meets. New Hampshire’s Danielle Mulligan also has a decent shot, though her scores have dwindled in the past few weeks, scoring only a 9.775 against LSU in their final regular season meet and a 9.875 at EAGL Championships. Also, while not ranked very high, NC State’s individual qualifier Amanda Fillard scores a 9.875 almost every week, and randomly got a 9.925 in her last meet of the regular season, so if she can have another awesome night, she may end up with a ticket to nationals.
On beam, things open up a little more, as this is typically the weakest event for the Gator all arounders (though not “weak” by any means, really). Missouri’s Ward again is an excellent contender, actually tied in RQS with McMurtry. UNC’s Lane and New Hampshire’s Casey Lauter are also both solid possibilities, as both have crossed the 9.9 mark more than once this year and can usually be counted on to hit in a pinch. Lauter’s only fallen twice this season… and I’m going to casually not talk about how little Lane falls because I don’t want to jinx her. Yup. Anyhow, on floor, Mizzou again has high hopes for an individual qualifier in Kennedi Harris. Ranked No. 20, she scored a 9.925 the last time she was in Gainesville, so a repeat of that could earn her a share of the event title and a trip to nationals. PSU’s Tsang can also put up some big numbers, with a 9.95 season high just three weeks ago. Also worth mentioning is Towson’s individual AA qualifier, Tyra McKellar. While perhaps not an AA threat against the stacked field of qualifiers with teams, McKellar’s potential on floor is huge. She’s scored 9.925 on the apparatus twice this season and hasn’t missed a routine yet (again, not to jinx anyone!). She could definitely contend with the best of this regional if she’s having a good meet.
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Days until the 2017 National Championships