Friday, March 18, 2011
SEC Gymnastics Preview
The Southern Gymnastics Powers descend upon Alabama this weekend for their annual conference championship. As with most years, it should be a hotly contested event. Alabama and Florida have both shown that they are capable of winning it all this year. Unlike previous years, the depth of the overall conference just isn't there. There is a rather large drop off after Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The graduation of Susan Jackson and her classmates has LSU looking like complete shit, which has made the team a non-factor. Arkansas is capable of doing decently well if they hit and no one else does, but they're a bit beastly to contend when everyone is at their peak. That team is all about Jaime Pisani on two events. Everything else is just filler.
The Florida Gators have been #1 in the rankings for the entire season. Like most years, they started out the season a bit quicker than everyone was comfortable with (given their history.) Rhonda always recruits powerful athletes who tend to leave a bit to be desired in the execution area. This year, Macko Caquatto and Alaina Johnson are adding some much needed finesse and style to the team.
After several meets of high 197 scores, Rhonda slowed the team down by switching up the lineups. The coaching staff was caught a bit off guard by a sloppy loss at Arkansas and a so-so win at Utah, but they've had two weeks to regroup and peak for the post season. This year has been all about Florida from day one. If UF loses, it comes down to the strategy of the coaching staff and how they handled the athletes in the gym, in meets and how they've peaked.
One of Florida's strengths is that they've had the same girls compete for much of the season, so they're very experienced and prepared for the post season. Macko, Alaina and Ashanee will see All-Around action, Marissa King will likely do three events (and be the alternate on bars) and Maranda Smith will add power on floor and vault. Randy Stageberg is steady on beam and floor, Alicia Goodwin is lovely on bars, and Ellis and Mahlich should each contribute two events. These girls are ready and have been rebuilding since their big wins mid season.
If Florida hits, they should win. Overall, they have more 9.9-worthy routines than any of the other schools competing. Their other routines should all be in the 9.75-9.85 range unless serious errors are made.
Sarah Patterson's Crimson Tide team is the main obstacle between Rhonda Faehn winning her third SEC title in five years. Starting the season off slowly, they've improved almost every week. The team is led by Kayla Hoffman and Geralen Stack Eaton. These two veterans have ample difficulty and strong execution. Ashley Sledge has stepped it up this season and made herself a real team player.
One of the most curious coaching decisions has been the handling of Ashley Priess. A year ago, Ashley Priess sat out of bars during the Super Six Finals due to an injured ankle. She later competed on balance beam, but we haven't seen Ashley compete since. The World Silver Medalist was shown training during pre season, but she's spent a full year coming back from ankle surgery. It is unusual for an athlete to take this long. There have been reports for some time that she has been getting it back together and challenging for spots on bars and beam, but the coaches are deciding to red shirt her and give her a fifth year. Automatically, the NCAA fans said that this is a smart move. I'm the minority on this one.
Looking at Ashley Priess' track record, her days as a gymnast are numbered. Years of injuries have taken their toll on the graduate of MLT's House of Pain. Ashley took it easy for the fall semester of her freshman year to recover from a back injury, yet still managed to struggle with a stress fracture in her leg during her 2009 campaign. Her difficulty has waned in college due to injuries and the inevitable changes in her body. Ashley has struggled to be an All Around gymnast, when her body would likely be more comfortable with two or three events.
If Ashley has indeed beam ready to contribute on bars and beam, the Alabama coaching staff is making a huge tactical error. Sarah Patterson doesn't win National or Conference titles all that often. Her brand of bullshit takes specific circumstances for her team to rise to the top. Even when they do win, they tend to sneak in at the last moment and be consistent. That situation seems an awful lot like what is going on this year. With most of the main powers struggling, this is the perfect moment for Alabama to dominate. As a team, they aren't all that far behind the Gators. Having Priess on two events would likely tip the team over the top. If Priess competed beam, she'd likely get a 9.9 due to her ability to be a rock. No matter what her dismount looks like on bars, she'd likely add a tenth to the team total by getting the hot mess that is Becca Alexin out of the lineup and putting up a 9.85+. This is a situation to watch closely.
For Jay Clark's Gym Dogs, this is the second season they've fumbled to the finish line. Like last year, the team has just never seemed to get it together. There are injuries at play, recruiting decisions at play, but much of it has to come down to team chemistry and the level of focus and motivation going on. Jay tends to be visibly stressed when the pressure comes down on the team. That was the very thing that motivated Suzanne Yoculan to manic levels of coaching excellence.
Based on the standards of 2011, the Gym Dogs could be anywhere from a Super Six team to a team left at home when NCAAs come around. This season is similar to last year's in many ways. The 2011 squad has less talent and potential, but has actually done a better job than the 2010 team which had pissed off seniors and a level of suck all around. The best thing the Gym Dogs can do this weekend is to find a way to hit. If they can hit, anything is possible. They Gym Dogs have about half of the 9.85+ and 9.9+ routines that they strived for under the Yoculan era (which Jay was a big part of), yet they do not need to be a 198+ team to be competitive this season. Gina, Kat, Shayla, Cassidy, Hilary and Cheek provide a steady base to the team. The rest of the lineup is weaker, but they can keep the dream alive if they can all manage to hit. The team's mistakes have come from everywhere, which is a bit discomforting by this point in the season. Georgia has yet to really put a full meet together. They're running out of time and desperately need some momentum.
Looking ahead, things don't look like they'll improve much next season. Sarah Persinger will likely add two or three events, but she is pretty yet slow. Chelsea Davis has the ability to be strong everywhere, but she has year of injuries that could make her a question mark each and every week. The best case scenario is for Jay to medically retire Kati Breazeal and convince Bridget Sloan to join the team next season. While it hasn't been widely reported, Sloan recently had shoulder surgery and is a major question mark for the 2011 elite season. Even Bridget isn't sure what her Olympic plans are at this point. With the door on her Olympic dream slamming shut, Jay's best moment of the year will come if he can get her in a leotard for 2012. It is the very thing that could turn this team around.