Welcome to another season of Georgia Bulldogs women's gymnastics! Danna's Dawgs will be officially starting their season in about 24 hours in Stegeman Coliseum, so let's refresh ourselves on where we are, and let's get to know the 2015 Gym Dogs.
This will be Coach Danna Durante's third year at the helm in the Classic City, and I'd have to give her a solid B+, maybe even in an A- in her tenure to date. When Coach Durante was tapped to lead the UGA gymnastics program in 2012, our program was at the lowest point it had experienced in 30 years. We had failed to make the Super Six for 3 straight years (for the first time since the Super Six format was introduced in 1993), and we had even failed to advance to the NCAA national meet at all in 2010. The Gym Dogs were clearly on the decline. Coach Durante not only started the rebuilding process from her first day in Athens, signing a much-heralded recruiting class, but she hit pay dirt starting with her first season, taking the Dawgs back to the Super Six in 2013 for a 6th-place final finish.
We had expected continued improvement last year in Coach Durante's second season, and though it might not have been as much as we'd hoped, we did get better results on paper, as the Gym Dogs once against made it to the Super Six and finished 5th above an overmatched Nebraska squad that competed like they were just happy to be there. We were also hampered by a season-long injury to a great upperclassman, junior Sarah Persinger, and a late-season injury to our best all-around gymnast, Brittany Rogers, which hurt us in the postseason tournaments. We still finished 5th, though, and that's better than we'd done in the previous 4 years, so I can't complain too much about that. We had significant adversity, but didn't use it as an excuse and overcame preseason expectations to finish strong as a team.
And now, we come to 2015. Those of us who vividly remember the days of Suzanne Yoculan's squads steamrolling every competitor in every meet are still slavering to return to those results, but I think those dreams are still a little unrealistic at this point. First, because a couple of our best ladies are still battling a bit of the injury bug, and second, because the national gymnastics stage is even more competitive now than it used to be. But I'll expound on that in a moment...
Georgia comes into the 2015 season ranked #7 in the preseason (coaches) poll. Those are the only rankings we'll see all year that are decided by votes instead of statistical measurements, so it's really a reflection of our prestige and status among other gymnastics coaches. Still, it's a useful marker to let us know how we're viewed in the gymnastics world.
The preseason Top 25 rankings are as follows (first place votes in parentheses, SEC teams in bold):
1) Florida (19)
2) Oklahoma (8)
3) LSU (2)
5) UCLA (1)
6) Utah (1)
11) Oregon State
16) Penn State
18) Ohio State
19) Boise State
20) University of Denver
23) Central Michigan
25) Iowa State
Just as we see in every other preseason poll in every sport, recency bias reigns here. Florida and Oklahoma were the co-national champions in 2014 (producing the first ever tie at the top in the NCAA finals), and they are shockingly ranked 1 and 2 by the coaches. Alabama manages a spot in the top 4, also, even though they didn't pull any 1st-place votes and their better-than-everybody-except-Suzanne-Yoculan head coach Sarah Patterson retired in the offseason. Personally, I'm interested to see if Bama's version of Jay Clark (Dana Duckworth) will do any better than Georgia's version of Jay Clark (Jay Clark) did. I'm hoping not, but we'll see. (The Crimson Tide come to "friendly confines" of Stegeman Coliseum on February 20, by the way.) Also, the SEC is once again expected to be the dominant conference in the sport, with 7 of our 8 teams ranked in the top 25 (Sorry, Mizzou.).
Georgia's starting position of 7th in the national rankings is exactly the same as it was in 2014, so I'm not overly worried about national perception. One of the great things about college gymnastics is that human polls don't matter at all. Literally every poll from this point on will be determined by actual scores teams put up in their meets, so hopefully we can take that #7 ranking and put it on the bulletin board as a motivational tool. Nobody thinks we're any better than last year, so let's show them that they're wrong. We do have some adversity to overcome early in the season, though, so a fast start would go a long way towards ameliorating those concerns.
Without further ado, let's look at your 2015 Gym Dogs:
This senior class has been through a lot at Georgia, since they were here for the end of the Jay Clark era and had to transition to a new head coach after a string of disappointing results. And while they're certainly not the strongest senior class that UGA has ever seen, I think there's a lot of opportunity here.
Chelsea Davis - Specialties: Bars, Vault, Beam. First-team All-on bars, 2014, 2013, 2012; First-team All-American on vault, 2013 and 2012.
Chelsea is easily our best performer in the senior class. She is, hands down, the best bars performer on this team, and she has also performed on vault in every meet during her previous 3 years as a Gym Dog. She was totally robbed of a perfect 10 on the bars at themeet last year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her rack up a 10 or few this year. She hasn't competed on beam since her freshman year, but Coach Durante has said she expects Chelsea to step up as a senior and compete for playing time on that apparatus, as well.
Sarah Persinger - Specialties: Beam, Floor, Vault. Second-team All-American on floor, 2012.
Last season was an unfortunate one for Sarah. She sustained a significant injury during the autumn leading up to the 2014 season (see, "fall" is a bad word for gymnasts, so I say "autumn"), and that injury sabotaged her entire season. She did come back late in the season on beam and competed once on floor, but she just wasn't the same, not having had the same practice and prep time as everyone else. During her freshman and sophomore years, she was one of our best performers on both floor and beam, and man, we could sure use her back at full strength in those events this year. I'm hoping for a strong senior season from a Sarah Persinger who's motivated to prove that she's still one of the best gymnasts on this team.
Demetria Hunte - Specialties: Beam, Floor
Hunte has mostly been on the sidelines during her UGA career, and has only competed in one rotation in her 3 years in Athens (a vault rotation against Kentucky in 2013, where she scored a 9.425). Still, she fought hard enough in the offseason to be awarded the Sam Sheehan Spirit Award by the coaches, so that's a mark in her favor. It would be difficult for us to get much worse on floor than we were last year, so I'd say that's the most likely spot for her to break through this season, if at all.
The junior class are the "stars" of this team, and they were the first recruiting class signed by Danna Durante. It's not hyperbole to say that our fortunes this year will depend heavily on whether or not this year's juniors can perform at the highest level consistently week in and week out.
Mary Beth Box - Specialties: Beam, Floor. First-team All-American on beam, 2014; Second-team All-American on floor, 2014.
Mary Beth had a quiet freshman year, but really broke out in her Sophomore season. She was our lead beam performer for most of the 2014 season, and while her floor scores weren't exactly in the stratosphere, she was easily one of the best floor performers for us. We'll need her to continue performing at a high level on beam while bringing up her floor performances even more this year.
Brandie Jay - Specialties: Vault, Bars, Floor. First-Team All-American vault, 2014, 2013; First-Team All-American on floor, 2014.
Brandie was one of the two stars of this signing class back in 2012 (along with Brittany Rogers), and she has definitely lived up to the hype. She's also originally from Fort Collins, Colorado, so maybe she put in a good word to a former offensive coordinator of ours about the place... She has been a remarkably consistent performer, and she's unquestionably one of the leaders of this team. For the Gym Dogs to get where we want to go this year, though, Brandie will have to step it up even more on floor (as is the case with basically the entire team).
Whitney Kirby - Specialties: Beam, Vault.
Whitney has only been able to break into the competition rotation once thus far, in the Metroplex challenge on beam in 2013, though she has performed a number of exhibition beam routines at various meets in 2013 and 2012. She's also apparently using last season as a redshirt season, since she didn't compete at all in 2014, but is still listed as a junior by UGA.
Brittany Rogers - Specialties: All-Around. Second-team All-American on bars and all-around, 2013, 2014.
Brittany was the biggest star from the 2012 signing class, and is the only former Olympian on the team. (She was on the Canadian team at the 2012 London Olympics.) One could say that she has underperformed during her two years thus far, but that's only when you consider the ultra-high expectations we had of her coming in. She's still one of the best and most consistent competitors on the team, and her lack of 2014 awards stems from the fact that she picked up a significant injury prior to the SEC Championship meet. In spite of that injury, however, she still competed on bars and beam in the SEC's and on bars at the NCAA's. Still, we would normally have relied heavily on her scores on vault, beam, and floor, and there's no doubt that we missed her leadership on those rotations.
I still haven't seen any official word on what Brittany's injury was, but it obviously wasn't good. She had to have surgery in the offseason, and it's clear that she hasn't yet fully recovered. Georgia's media guide says that they hope she "will be ready to return to the vault lineup at midseason." Vault is one of the most strenuous events on the lower half of the body, so that's understandable if she had a lower-body injury. Without knowing anything more about the situation, I'd say it's a good bet we'll see Brittany on bars and possibly beam before then, but I wouldn't expect her to be at full speed early in the season. What I fear, and really hope doesn't happen, is that she has a nagging injury that keeps her out of any meaningful competition all year, like Sarah Persinger had last year. That would be a worst-case scenario for the entire team, since she has been our only legitimate all-around threat for her two years in Athens.
The sophomores are the largest single class on the Gym Dogs' squad this year, which is fairly common. There usually are more freshmen and sophomores on most teams from a numerical standpoint, since by the time we get to the junior and senior classes only the regular contributors are usually sticking around. Several of these sophomores had surprisingly strong freshman seasons, and we'll need even more out of them this year to continue to reach greater heights.
Ashlyn Broussard - Specialties: Vault, Beam, Floor.
Ashlyn had a fairly solid freshman season, though it's worthy of note that her vault scores were the ones that were dropped in most of the meets in which she competed last season. She got squeezed out of the rotation on floor and beam as the season went along, but she stepped back in after Brittany Rogers' injury in the SEC Championship to give serviceable performances in the NCAA's. Once again, though, we're going to need much better floor routines to make some waves this year.
Kiera Brown - Specialties: Bars, Beam. All-SEC on bars, 2014; Freshman All-SEC team, 2014
Kiera had a very strong freshman season for the Dawgs, as evidenced by her Freshman All-SEC selection. The Gym Dogs were the #1 team in the country on the uneven bars last season, so the fact that she was able to contribute in every meet on that apparatus is a significant indicator of her talent there. She was also good for a consistent 9.825 on beam throughout the last half of the season, though I'd love to see that beam score come up to a consistent 9.875 or higher this year.
Lauren Johnson - Specialties: Vault SEC Individual Vault Champion, 2014
Lauren practically came out of nowhere to have her "one shining moment" during her freshman season. She had only competed in one rotation during the entire regular season, but after Brittany Rogers went down during warmups at the, Lauren stepped up and promptly won our only 2014 individual championship of any kind - the SEC Individual Vault Championship, with a 9.975 score. Unfortunately, Lauren suffered a significant knee injury during practice in the autumn, and she will be out the entire year.
Morgan Reynolds - Specialties: Vault, Beam, Floor
We had three or four significant freshman contributors last year, and Morgan was the one with the most competition routines. She performed on floor in every meet, got shuffled in and out of the rotation on beam after some inconsistent performances, and worked her way into the vault rotation late in the year. I like a lot of our sophomores, but I think Morgan's ceiling might be the highest of them all if she continues to improve. She's clearly a strong competitor, especially on the floor, and we need her to upgrade her routines to improve that apparatus score for us.
Beth Roberts - Didn't compete as a freshman
Beth didn't see any competitive action as a freshman, though she did perform an exhibition routine on floor once last season. Coach Durante's remarks in the preseason preview indicated that Roberts will most likely be competing for playing time on vault and floor.
Rachel Schick - Didn't compete as a freshman
Rachel was hampered by a hip injury during her freshman year and didn't see any competitive action. Coach Durante's remarks in the preseason preview indicated that Schick will most likely be competing for playing time on vault and bars.
As is usually the case with the new signees, we don't really know too much yet about these ladies. It is notable, however, that we have 2 gymnasts with international experience, both from Canada. Perhaps Danna Durante has been able to parlay her success with Brittany Rogers into an established recruiting pipeline with our neighbors up north, eh?
Here's the list of the 2015 Gym Dog freshmen, along with their hometowns:
Jasmine Arnold, Murfreesboro, TN
Vivi Babalis, Montreal, Quebec (Canadian National Team, 2010, 2011) (Bienvenue, Vivi! Bonne chance!)
GiGi Marino, Scottsdale, AZ
Hayley Sanders, McKinney, TX
Natalie Vaculik, Whitby, Ontario (Canadian National Team, 2013) - Also noteworthy: Natalie's sister, Kristina, is currently on the Stanford gymnastics team, and was a teammate of Brittany Rogers on the 2012 Canadian Olympic team. Guess we won that recruiting battle over Stanford! Go Dawgs!
And those are your 2015 Georgia Gym Dogs!
Now, turning to the competitive standpoint this year, it really breaks down pretty simply. In 2014, Georgia was the #1 team in the nation on bars. We have to keep that bars supremacy going, and we'll have to do it by finding someone to fill the very large shoes left by 2014 senior Lindsey Cheek. Not to mention Brittany Rogers' injury, which leaves two big holes in the lineup. We'll need some of the sophomores or freshmen to step up and compete hard to keep us in the mix.
After bars, we have to fix whatever was wrong with our floor routines last year. Our performances were downright abysmal at times on the floor exercise, and we finished the year ranked #10 in the country on that apparatus. Tenth might not sound that bad to the untrained ear, but it's horribly, terribly bad. When you're trying to be the best gymnastics team in the country, you can't be #10 at anything. Hell, you practically can't even be #5 or #6 at anything. I think part of our problem was that our floor routines were far too simplistic, but there's no question that we simply sucked at executing them at times, as well. Most teams struggle through a rotation or two and pull out their biggest scores on the floor, but we were the exact opposite for most of the year. We built up big leads on vault and bars, and gave most of it back on the floor (and sometimes on beam, too).
Our vault rotation started pretty slowly, but by the end of the year we were among the best vault teams in the nation, and that vault performance has to stay as high as it was at the end of 2014. (Because of our low early scores, we only ended up 6th in the nation on vault.)
And we all dread beam because it was frequently Suzanne Yoculan's teams' worst event (if some of those teams could have been said to have a "worst event"), but we were solid on beam... except when we weren't. Consistency is the name of the game for us on beam, and falls killed us too many times there in 2014. If we consistently cut out the falls, I think we'll be fine on beam.
Overall, just as with every year, the first team goal is to make the Super Six. As we've discussed many times before, making the Super Six is Georgia's baseline expectation. We've now returned to that baseline performance for two straight years, and anything less than that in 2015 would be an unmitigated failure. We have the pieces in place to compete for a national championship, as well, especially if Brittany Rogers can get completely healthy before the end of the season. At a minimum, I want to do better than we did last year and finish higher than 5th. If we can finish 4th or better, this season will be a success. Ultimately, I want Georgia to be competing for and winning national championships, because that's what the Georgia gymnastics program is born to do. But even Suzanne Yoculan didn't win the national championship every year, and she didn't even finish in the top 3 every year. I recognize that progress is being made in Athens, and as long as we can continue making progress, I'll be happy.
(Note: This is the point where I expect the honorable Mayor Emeritus Kyle Weblog to go all Alabama-football-fan on me and write a 10,000-word rant about how if UGA doesn't win the national title this year, "DANNY DE-RUN-TAY JUST AIN'T THE WOMAN TO LEAD THIS PROGRAM, PAAAAAWWWWWWLLLLL." And, like most of the Mayor Emeritus' rants, I look forward to reading it.)
Finally, here are my predictions for the starting lineups on each apparatus, from strongest to weakest (Note: I'm leaving Brittany Rogers out of all the rotations until we know if and when she can compete, but she would otherwise be on every list):
Bars - Davis, Jay, Brown, 3 from Shick/Vaclik/Sanders/Kirby
Vault - Davis, Jay, Persinger, Brown, Reynolds, Broussard
Beam - Box, Persinger, Brown, Davis, Broussard, 1 from Babalis/Vaculik/Kirby
Floor - Persinger, Box, Jay, Reynolds, 2 from Broussard/Marino/Brown/Babalis/Hunte
The Gym Dogs' first meet of the season is Saturday afternoon at 4:00 PM in Stegeman Coliseum versus the #8 Michigan Wolverines. This meet will be broadcast live on the SEC Network+, which is available on the WatchESPN app for anyone who gets the SEC Network as part of their TV package. But if you're in the Athens area, why watch it on the internet when you can come on down to the Steg and enjoy the action in person? Come on down and cheer on the Gym Dogs with 9 or 10,000 of your closest friends! (And there will be a huge crowd, as there always is for Gym Dog meets.)
I'll be back with a recap after the action on Saturday night, so until then...