Thursday, March 24, 2011
Pac 10 Championships
This year's Pac 10 Championships were one of the most intriguing conference championships in years. Typically, Stanford or UCLA will win the title and everyone else is a major waste of the judges' time. This season has given us several previews for the Pac 10 Championships and it has been very clear that the race could be won by Stanford, UCLA or Oregon State. For years, the Oregon State Beavers have had a team capable of challenging Stanford and UCLA. They'll often push the other team at regular season dual meets but then wind up flubbing it just enough to blow their opportunity.
Last year, Oregon State was good enough to earn a trip to the Super Six. They erred during prelims and failed to deliver when it counted yet again. Something is different about this year's team. Yes, they have Brittney Randy, Olivia Vivian, Leslie Mak and Makayla Stambaugh. In the past they've had Tasha Smith, Mandi Rodriguez and Laura Ann Chong. Talented athletes have been on the roster for a while, but this team seems to have learned how to get it done and how to win. This year, we may finally see the Beavers and their ugly leotards in the Super Six.
On the contrary, UCLA continues to be running through mud this season. After losing Zam and Sato, the team has been without a star (and a true leader who competes.) When stars go down, a team can still succeed if other important players step up and become better than ever. When Zam first tore her achilles, I compared it to the situation with Kupets at UGA in 2008. When Kupets got injured, Katie Heenan and Tiffany Tolnay raised their game to become the best they ever were in college and finally had the spotlight focused on them. Courtney McCool and Grace Taylor also took it up another notch. UCLA needed Elyse Hopfner Hibbs and Brittani McCullough to reach that level of AA stardom. A curious thing has happened: Elyse seems slightly less convincing than she did last year. It seems that Elyse is losing her skills over time. She has never been one to dismount bars in an attractive or consistent fashion due to her tap, but she is making more mistakes on floor than she is accustomed to. At Pac 10s, Elyse even flubbed her Side Aerial+Layout Stepout on beam. Balance Beam is Elyse's event. It is the one event she actually deserves a 10 on if she hits without any errors. McCullough has also struggled this year on floor, which is her best event. Her ankles have been cited as an issue, as has her nursing schedule, but what is most likely is that McCullough's body is just ready to be done with gymnastics.
UCLA is lacking momentum. They've missed it all season. The team's philosophy of 'staying in the Bruin Bubble' hasn't worked as planned. Perhaps it is time to amp up the competitiveness and work off of that, but that is not their coaching staff's style. Unfortunately, the inward focus, team meetings and guilt trips haven't been paying off for this crew. Miss Val used to talk about upping the 9.750-9.850 scores to 9.9-9.950s, but that topic is long gone. It never happened. UCLA doesn't really have the routines to win this year. The return of Sam Peszek has helped, but Sam doesn't have enough numbers under her belt to be executing as an anchor. Her scores are mostly due to a name and a lack of huge errors, as she is competing minimal content in every routine. To sum it up, one knows the team is having a bad year when a coach of Val's stature continually praises the most obviously out-of-shape freshman on the team for her 'competitiveness.'
Stanford looked strong during the preseason, but its history of mediocrity continues. As usual, their names don't tend to become AA powerhouses. These girls never do seem to reach the 9.9-9.95 level of commanding routines. Scores don't tend to build in the Stanford lineups: the first girl and the sixth girl are equally likely to collect another 9.825 on any apparatus. Vaculik is not having a great year. Her consistency struggles left her to only be in the floor lineup at Pac 10s. Her 9.575 wound up being thrown out. Alyse Ishino and Shelly Alexander are two other big names on the team, but both found themselves in the 9.7-range far too often during a post season meet. Ashley Morgan did manage to tie for a share of the Pac 10 Floor Title.
With Regionals now a week away, all three teams are likely to advance to the NCAA Championships. While the major coaches always discuss the importance of parity, they never want to be the team on the losing end of what is 'good for the sport.' This year, perennial powers UCLA and Stanford are vulnerable. It could finally be time for Oregon State to leave them in the dust.