By Christina Marmet
At first glance, this regional looks like it could be a walk in the park for the top two seeds Utah and Denver. However, Cal and Auburn are silent threats that will jump on the opportunity to advance if the first two falter or have an average meet. All six teams are ranked in the top 28, which makes this regional likely one of the toughest ones out there this season. Additionally, host team Arkansas is the No. 5 seed and it will be more than comfortable competing at home so it could definitely surprise as well. Remember when Arkansas beat Alabama? If the Razorbacks bring their A-game, we are likely in for a tense and exciting evening in Fayetteville.
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.
Utah is coming off a fantastic championship meet where it won the 2017 Pac-12 title, and it is undoubtedly one of the favorites to not only make it out of this regional but to also qualify to the Super Six. Despite having to deal with two season-ending injuries with Sabrina Schwab and Kim Tessen earlier on, the Utes have found their groove and have shown great consistency throughout the second half of the season. They are led by two of the nation’s best all-arounders: Mykayla Skinner and Baely Rowe. The Utes’ best events are vault and floor where they are ranked No. 4, but are also ranked No. 6 on bars and beam. Obviously, Utah has thankfully gotten its beam woes under control after last season’s heartbreak at nationals. The Utes will start on bars here just like they did at Pac-12, and should make it out of this regional comfortably if they perform the way they have all season long.
Not many anticipated Denver to have such a successful season with this small roster, gymnasts recovering from injuries and especially after losing its superstar and 2016 national floor champion Nina McGee. The Pioneers have shattered all expectations by being ranked in the top 10 all season long and by putting up even better performances than last season. Their outlook to make it back to nationals for the first time since 2008 has never looked so good. Although, they also did come into regionals as the No. 2 seed last season (albeit ranked No.11), but were ultimately topped by Minnesota to advance to nationals. But let’s put that in the past. The Pioneers started the season with little depth and were only putting five up on vault and floor, but were recently able to fill in these spots and give themselves a little more cushion score-wise. Denver placed second at the Big 12 Championship and was led by strong all-around performances from Maddie Karr and Julia Ross. The Pioneers will have the luxury of starting on vault and should hopefully put up big scores right in the first rotation on their best event to gain some traction going into the rest of the meet and into floor, an event that’s been quite up and down for them this season.
California has been dealing with injuries all season long but has also proved that it has more than enough depth. Despite their poor Pac-12 showing on beam, that apparatus is actually the Bears’ strongest event. However, they are actually a pretty even and consistent team on all four events. Just like last season, they showcase a variety of 10.0 SV vaults, including an impressive Ilg vault from Arianna Robinson (which was beautifully stuck at Pac-12s). Despite being ranked No. 16, Cal is very much capable of challenging Denver for that second qualifying spot as both teams have pretty similar season-highs (197.150 for DU to 197.075 for Cal). However, it will need to put up a much stronger showing than at the conference championship, and it cannot afford to count a fall on any event if it hopes to beat Denver.
The Auburn Tigers are coming off their best meet of the season after a season-high score at the SEC Championship and appear to be peaking at just about the right time after quite a slow season filled with adjustments and difficulties winning dual meets. The Tigers are a young team but a dangerous one that could surprise. The loss of senior Abby Milliet has been quite significant to this team, and coupled with the loss of last year’s senior class, Auburn has been scoring a full point lower this year than in 2016. While it is not impossible for the Tigers to repeat their historic feat from last season, it will take the performance of a lifetime for them to grab one of the qualifying spots as their season-best is only a 196.550 while Denver’s RQS is essentially the same (196.533) and Cal has regularly scored well above it as well.
Host team Arkansas is coming in as the No. 5 seed, and the potential for an underdog upset is very much present. That said, the loss of Amanda Wellick earlier in the season and more recently of Mia Bargiacchi has really hurt the Razorbacks. In their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad meet a few weeks ago, they could only put up four competitors on floor. Moreover, Sydney McGlone had also been dealing with injuries and pains, but fortunately having her back to full strength has helped the team bring its total back up and to put at the very least five strong competitors on floor. The Razorbacks did not have the SEC performance that could foreshadow a potential upset here. Five up on floor forced them count a 9.650, but balance beam was really what did them in as they were forced to count a fall. They will have to put that beam performance behind them, however, as they will be starting on beam in the first rotation and need a strong score right off the bat if they want to stay in the race and take advantage of other teams’ mistakes.
Central Michigan is the sixth team that will compete at this regional, but should not be discredited nonetheless. The Chippewas’ highest score this season (196.575) is actually higher than both Arkansas’ and Auburn’s. However, to contend for a spot at NCAAs, they will have to top that and crack the 197 barrier. Realistically, it will be tough for CMU to advance, but look out for junior Macey Hilliker who will be one to watch on floor as she scored a big 9.95 at MAC as she led her team to a 49.400 total and a third place finish.
As for individuals, we are just going to skip over Mykayla Skinner and Baely Rowe because Utah is advancing, duh. Denver’s Maddie Karr and Julia Ross should also advance with their team or in the worst case scenario as all-arounders if they continue with their steady performances. Assuming Utah and Denver advance, this is actually quite a cushy regional to be in as an all-arounder. Cal doesn’t have any, and Auburn’s only one is Katie Becker but she has only competed it four times this season and hasn’t scored above a 39 yet. Consequently, this leaves the door wide open for UIC’s Mikailla Northern and Arkansas’ Jessica Yamzon, both of whom are next in line in the rankings after Skinner, Rowe, Karr and Ross. Furthermore, the four individual all-arounders qualified here are relatively even especially in their season-high scores, and it will really come down to who will hit that day. This is exciting as we have the potential to have schools like UIC, SEMO or NIU represented at nationals this year!
As for the individual event specialists who qualified, it will be extremely tough to be an event winner and make it out of this regional especially on vault and floor because...Skinner. NIU’s Jamyra Carter is a bars specialist and is one of the most realistic potential qualifiers here, as her season-best is a 9.95 and she has scored above 9.9 multiple times this season. Even within the six qualified teams, it will realistically be hard to match Skinner’s or much of Utah’s scores.
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Days until the 2017 National Championships