The Florida Gators gymnastics program’s quest for a fourth national championship begins this Friday night in the NCAA Championships’ Corvallis Regional — and under a new format for postseason competition that could produce some drama.
Don’t expect it to derail the Gators this weekend in Oregon, though. A new multi-day format, a departure from a long-standing one-day competition, will definitely make things more challenging for the bubble teams, but Florida stands as the top seed in its regional for good reason.
In the past, NCAA Regionals were one-day competitions in which the top 36 teams qualified to the postseason competed at six regional sites, with six teams each. Those six teams all competed in one six-rotation meet with two bye rotations each, and the top two teams from each regional qualified for the NCAA Championships (also variously referred to as “nationals”), producing 12 qualifying teams.
Those 12 teams would then compete in two six-team meets — just like at Regionals — for the right to qualify for a final six-team team final that was popularly known as the Super Six.
This year, that’s all changing.
In an effort to eliminate bye rotations — to improve TV coverage as well as cater to the athletes, as gymnasts generally prefer not to have rotation breaks in the middle of their competition — the field for the national championships has been reduced from those 12 teams to eight qualifying teams, who will compete to then take part in a four-team team final that the NCAA would like you to call “Four on the Floor.” (Note to the NCAA: You call everything else the Final Four, so, uh, I’ll pass on that one. — Andy) And in conjunction with this change, the Regional format was also changed.
Regionals will now feature a three-day “competition weekend.” Action starts on Thursday with a “play-in” meet for the two lowest seeded teams in each regional; the winner of that competition will then move on to a Friday regional semi-final. On Friday, there will be two semi-final meets; the top two finishers in each of these semi-finals will move on to a regional final meet on Saturday, which will produce the top two teams will move on to the national championship.
So, in Florida’s case, the Gators’ first action at the Corvallis Regional — hosted by Oregon State — will be in Semi-Final II, and it will make for a late Friday night, as that meet is set to get underway at 10 p.m. Eastern. If the Gators are in the top two of this meet, they will advance to the regional final on Saturday at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The full regionals schedule and order is available here. A mixed feed from the Corvallis Regional, which will cover all of the teams (as in: don’t expect to see all of the Florida routines), will be available for free through Oregon State’s official site. Individual event cameras will be behind a paywall on FloGymnastics, and I’ll be tweeting out thoughts on and scores from Florida’s routines as fast as I can as well.
As for the field? It’s not as imposing as it could be.
While the Gators may not have been thrilled that they were pushed back to No. 4 after spending most of the season ranked No. 2/No. 3 and could not topple LSU in SEC Championships action, the Gators should have been thrilled with their regional draw. Out of all of the regional draws for top teams, the Gators got what would seem to be the easiest one — specifically, the one with the lowest risk of upsets.
Joining the Gators at the Corvallis Regional as of Thursday were No. 5 Denver, No. 12 Boise State, No. 16 Oregon State, No. 18 Washington, No. 24 Southern Utah, No. 25 Stanford, No. 32 Iowa, and No. 33 Arizona. On Thursday, Iowa came from behind to knock off Arizona in that play-in meet — the only time during the entire season where the results of a dual meet actually have any bearing on what happens to a team, and a result that rewarded the team that came in with a razor-thin edge of 0.005 in their NQS.
But Iowa’s score in that meet was a mere 195.850 — and, for the purpose of perspective, Florida has posted just two meet scores lower than that this decade, with both of them coming in 2010. And this is one of the three teams that would need to edge Florida to advance to Saturday action.
On Friday evening (5 p.m. Eastern), the first semi-final will feature No. 5 Denver, No. 12 Boise State, No. 18 Washington, and No. 24 Southern Utah. Denver should come out of this semi-final easily, as the Pioneers’ NQS (197.545) is significantly higher than any of the other teams (Boise State has a 196.725, Washington a 196.505). Boise State does seem to have the edge to take the second spot in the final, but I wouldn’t count out Washington, a clean team with a strong floor rotation. I think I will still pick Denver and Boise State, but I would love to see Washington come in and grab the upset.
Late Friday night, Florida will compete against No. 16 Oregon State — whose roster includes former Gator Lacy Dagen — No. 25 Stanford, and Iowa. Advancement should no sweat for Florida, as the Gators have over a point’s NQS lead (197.760) over Oregon State (196.625) and over a point and half over Stanford (195.995). Hopefully, that relative lack of pressure will translate to a nice clean meet for the Gators; barring disaster — and by this I mean counting multiple falls — Florida should be very comfortable in believing it will advance to Saturday.
I would also expect Oregon State to have no problem taking the runner-up spot behind Florida, as the Beavers have a decent lead over Stanford in the NQS and will be performing at home. Stanford, which has fallen back after making the Super Six in 2015 and the the NCAA Championships in 2016, has struggled with consistency this season, but if the Cardinal are able to hit both bars and beam, and Oregon State has some mistakes, they may be able to come it and take the spot. I wouldn’t bet on it, though, and Florida and Oregon State are my picks.
The regional final will be on Saturday night (10 p.m. Eastern) and will feature the top two from each of the semi-finals. My prediction for this field is Florida, Denver, Boise State, and Oregon State. Florida and Denver would definitely have the edge on the other two teams, in both the NQS and in high scores (Florida: 198.025, Denver: 197.775, Oregon State: 197.45, Boise State: 197.175) and should thus progress to nationals. But if any of the top two teams need to count a fall, then things could get very interesting. I expect things will go according to plan, and that Florida and Denver will be packing for Fort Worth.
And if things do go without major incident, Saturday night’s meet could also serve as an interesting foreshadowing for Florida and Denver meeting again in a national semi-final against the qualifiers from the Athens Regional (most likely Oklahoma and either Georgia or Kentucky). The Gators and Pioneers could very possibly be competing for the fourth slot in the four-team national final in Fort Worth, so it will be curious to see if either team flinches when they go toe-to-toe in Corvallis.
In addition to the top two teams, the top individual on a non-qualifying team on each of the events will qualify to nationals, as well as a top all-around finisher on a non-qualifying team. Without going into too much detail, keep your eyes on Stanford’s Kyla Bryant (season-high AA: 39.525), Utah State’s Madison Ward-Sessions of Utah State (season-high AA: 39.525), and Washington’s Evanni Roberson (season-high AA: 39.500) as the front-runners for the all-around qualification spot. Oregon State’s Mary Jacobsen (season-high VT: 9.95), Boise State’s Sarah Means (season-high VT: 9.925), and Oregon State’s Kaitlyn Yanish (season-high VT: 9.925) will be some of the top contenders for the vault qualification spot.
Things will get very interesting on bars, where four athletes on teams that are not expected to qualify to nationals have scored 9.975 this season; this spot will be a fight between Arizona’s Christina Berg, Washington’s Madison Copiak, and Boise State’s Emily Muhlenhaupt and Courtney McGregor. Beam is a fairly open field where numerous athletes have scored 9.925+ on the apparatus this year; topping the NQS rankings in the field are Oregon State’s Madi Dagen, Means, and Oregon State’s Maela Lazaro. On floor, expect stunning performances from Ward-Sessions and Yanish, who have scored 9.975s already this year and will be looking to grab that spot.
If you have any extra time this weekend that you want to dedicate to non-Gator gymnastics, I would recommend at least checking in on the scores and highlights from the other regionals, where upsets are much more likely. (The Ann Arbor Regional features No. 2 UCLA, No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Alabama, and No. 14 Nebraska — and only two of those four teams will go to Nationals.) If you are looking to watch any of the other meets, Balance Beam Situation has an excellent breakdown of how you can check out the other regionals.
For your viewing pleasure this week, I’ve compiled some of the highest scoring non-Gator routines that will compete at this regional. Those include a vault from Maddie Karr (Denver), bars routines from Muhlenhaupt and McGregor (Boise State), beam work from Alexis Vasquez and Kaitlyn Schou (Denver), and floor routines from Lynnzee Brown (Denver) and Ward-Sessions (Utah State).
Personally, Vasquez’s beam and Brown’s floor are two of my favorite non-Gator routines of the whole season. Vasquez was a training partner of Gator Rachel Gowey in their club days at Chow’s in Iowa, while Brown trained at GAGE — the same gym that produced LSU star Sarah Finnegan.