By Christina Marmet
Every year, this regional promises a showdown between the second and third seeds. However, this season is likely to be even more exciting but also heartbreaking. While Oklahoma is the favorite to advance, the race for the second spot is going to make gym nerds cry. Kentucky has had a fairytale season, shattering expectations and looking like a strong contender to make it to the NCAAs for the first time ever as a team. However, it won’t be an easy path for the Wildcats as host team Washington is right on their heels and may just as well make it to nationals for the first time since 1998. Add to that Stanford as the fifth seed and that can definitely spoil the party. We are in for a tense evening in Seattle.
Don’t forget to enter your postseason predictions in the 2017 NCAA Gym Bracket Challenge! The deadline for submissions is Friday, March 31 at 7 p.m. ET.
The Sooners will qualify easily and advance to nationals to defend their title, with or without Maggie Nichols in the all-around. As they have shown at the TWU meet where they recorded one of their best scores of the season, they have depth and can do just fine without their freshman superstar. Nichols’ scores offer some cushion with essentially guaranteed 9.9+ on all four events, but she has been resting a sore knee and restricted to a few events so she can be fully ready to go in St. Louis where the extra tenths she brings on each event might make the difference between first and second place. The Sooners will start on bars where they are ranked No. 1 and should just cruise from there. They will end on vault, the only event where they are not the top-ranked team and will want to start getting more stuck landings from everyone if they want to stay competitive with LSU on that event come nationals. This should not be an issue here to advance.
The race for the second qualifying spot is really where things are going to get insane. Kentucky comes in as the second seed, but it really is a toss-up between the Wildcats and the Huskies. Washington is coming off its season-best performance at Pac-12s where it tied with UCLA for third place and a high of 197.100. With Washington having the home floor advantage and riding that momentum, Kentucky will need to get out of the high 196 range it has been in the last few weeks and will have to channel the same energy and performances it displayed at the Alabama meet. The Wildcats have had quite an exciting season and have gone above and beyond everybody’s expectations. After a few years struggling with numerous injuries and lack of depth, this year’s team has been incredible, has broken records week after week and has raised the program to new heights. The Wildcats have four all arounders (Mollie Korth, Katie Stuart, Sidney Dukes and Alex Hyland), and they will need strong performances from all four of them if they want to guarantee a bid to nationals. They will need all four to be in the 39.300-39.400 range and not the 38.600 range that has happened every so often for all but Dukes during the regular season. Kentucky will start on vault, which is its best event as it’s ranked No. 9, but it will need to stick its landings from the start to take the lead over Washington. The Huskies are far behind at No. 22 on that event, so vault will likely be a decisive factor between these two teams. The Wildcats have Korth’s Yurchenko 1.5 and have just been stronger overall on there all season, but the Huskies showed up at Pac-12s with a lot of sticks and clean vaults that, if replicated, could match Kentucky’s score on an average rotation. Kentucky will then go into its second best event and will need to continue building before heading to beam and floor when Washington has just been stronger there as a team throughout the season (although both are pretty even on floor). The Huskies will start on a bye, they will end on beam which is their best event while the Wildcats will be on floor. Ending on floor is always a plus, but Washington’s beam has been incredibly steady and impressive, and the home advantage promises a tight race right until the very last rotation. Kentucky’s season-high is slightly higher than Washington’s (197.475 to 197.175), but not significantly enough to single out Kentucky as the clear second favorite. That second spot will go to the team that hits that day.
While this is going on, we should also keep our eyes out for Stanford, because we have all learned our lesson over the years: Never count Stanford out. The Cardinal has honestly had a pretty awful season, plagued with injuries, lack of depth and also lack of steam on floor exercise. As per usual. The potential of Stanford causing an upset will also depend on which Stanford team shows up—the 193 one or the 196 one? This season for the Cardinal has just been up and down all along, and there really is no way to know what we will get from it in Seattle. We should know fairly soon as Stanford will start on beam and head to floor where it is ranked a staggering 46th. If the team can put up a 49+ rotation on floor like it just did at Pac-12s, then we are in for a battle. That said, it would take a lot out of this team to realistically challenge Kentucky and Washington especially if scores start heading towards the high 196s and the 197 range. Elizabeth Price can score all the 9.9s she wants, but she can’t do it all on her own. The Cardinal will need to be above 49 on all four events if it wants to stay relevant, but that’s something it has not been able to do yet this season. But again who knows; we didn’t expect much from Stanford last year, yet it won regionals and qualified over Michigan… at Michigan. However, if both Kentucky and Washington are on, it will be difficult for Stanford to catch up.
Utah State has had a great season overall, staying in the top 25 for most of it and placing second at the MRGC Championship by beating rival Southern Utah with a score of 196.100. The Aggies are very well capable of scoring in the low to mid 196s, but realistically will need mistakes from Kentucky, Washington and potentially Stanford to hope to qualify. Similarly, BYU will almost certainly not challenge the top seeds. The Cougars barely sneaked into regionals at No. 34 so being there is already quite the accomplishment on its own. That said, their season-high score is a 196.425 while USU’s is a 196.300. If anything, the battle between these two could get interesting, although USU has just overall been more consistent than its in-state counterpart.
The individual race for an all-around spot is going to be tough, exciting and mostly heartbreaking. Why can’t all our favorites go? Oklahoma will advance, along with Chayse Capps and Maggie Nichols (whether she does AA here or not), so at least we will still have these two to hang on to. Elizabeth Price needs to be competing in the all-around here, and yes, we are very well aware she hasn’t done so at all this season. So what? She’s Ebee. Although, remember last year when Stanford didn’t have her in the all-around either, we all freaked and Stanford was like “ah ah suckers, joke’s on you, we qualified as a team anyway!” And all was well. Honestly, Stanford’s chances as a team are slimmer this season, so we are really going to need Price in the AA in the starting lineups so we don’t have a heart attack before the meet even starts.
If Kentucky and its parade of all-arounders advance, this leaves the door open for Washington’s Hailey Burleson and Joslyn Goings. Burleson has been in the AA all season while Goings has done four events only recently, so it will be up to who hits that day although Burleson is the favorite and has a higher scoring potential. If Washington advances, then it becomes problematic because that leaves us with Korth, Dukes, Hyland and Stuart battling it out with Price for only two spots. See the issue here? Korth comes to mind as the favorite out of that group as she has the biggest skills and has been the most talked-about this season. But all four Wildcat all arounders have been going back and forth a lot all season and all four have more or less the same scoring potential.
As for event qualifiers, it will be extremely difficult to match or surpass Oklahoma’s scores (basically Maggie Nichols’) on all four events, but a few individuals have the capability to do so. If Ebee doesn’t compete all around, she definitely should be right up there on bars, floor (although less likely) and vault to a lesser extent as she would need a perfectly stuck Yurchenko full to challenge the scoring potentials of Dowell, Nichols and Jackson. Korth could challenge on vault and bars, Goings, Dukes and especially Hyland on beam, and maybe BYU’s Brittni Wilde on bars if she has one of her great days. Finally, it will be tough for all the individual gymnasts who qualified without their teams here to move on to nationals. That said, do watch for Lauren Rice from Sac State who brings out a lot of personality on floor (A+ music choice, seriously don’t miss it), and who does a super exciting and unique “elbow drop” on her beam mount as well as the robot.
Want to receive the latest collegiate gymnastics news in your inbox? Sign up for the NCAA Gym NewsLetter here.
Days until the 2017 National Championships