Going into the NCAA team semifinals in Forth Worth, Texas, on Friday afternoon, we fans of the Georgia Gym Dogs had reason for cautious optimism. We appeared to be making significant progress as the regular season ended, and even though we had a poor SEC Championship meet, we put in a strong enough effort to win our regional meet. As long as we could make improvements on beam and keep ourselves at the same high level we'd achieved on the other apparatuses, the Super Six seemed to be firmly within our grasp, despite the fact that our performances for most of the regular season put us near the bottom of the pack in terms of ranking.
When the smoke cleared at the end of the day, however, the #10-ranked Georgia Bulldogs finished with the 9th-best score of any team across both semifinal sessions, somewhat confirming our season-long malaise. We only outscored #7 UCLA in our session, and from the evening session, we outscored #12 Oregon State and, surprisingly, #4 LSU (The Jay Clark postseason curse continues?). In fact, there were a couple of surprising results, as #11 Stanford came up with one of their best meets of the season to beat out #6 Michigan for a Super Six spot, and #8 Auburn took advantage of LSU's multiple falls on beam in the evening session to qualify. This year's Super Six is Florida, Utah, Stanford, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Auburn.
Here were our scores by rotation (I see no need to go in-depth into each routine, since it's pretty much the same story we've seen all year long.):
Vault - 49.100: Persinger - 9.75, Marino - 9.775, Broussard - 9.80, Davis - 9.85, Rogers - 9.75, Jay - 9.925
Bars - 49.350: Jay - 9.85, Vaculik - 9.80, Schick - 9.1, Brown - 9.85, Davis - 9.90, Rogers - 9.95
Beam - 48.900: Reynolds - 9.85, Babalis - 9.725, Rogers - 9.30, Broussard - 9.825, Box - 9.725, Brown - 9.775
Floor - 49.250: Reynolds - 9.85, Persinger - 9.65, Marino - 9.80, Babalis - 9.825, Box - 9.90, Jay - 9.875
Final Overall Score: 196.600 (5th out of 6 in first Semifinal session)
Our semifinal session turned out to be the higher-scoring one overall, and we would have had to improve our 196.600 by nearly 6 full tenths to qualify for the Super Six, so it could be fairly said that our scores in every event other than bars were just not good enough. The real killers for us, though, were beam and vault. We didn't have to count a fall on beam, but we only had 2 scores above a 9.8 and no 9.9's, which just isn't good enough at nationals. And I didn't see our vault rotation, but judging by the scores (and by seeing a similar trend and score in past meets), I suspect that we just didn't stick our landings. If you want a high scores, you gotta get a rock-solid stick on the landing in vault.
As it was, though, we did have 3 competitors qualify for the Individual event finals, and who were named first team All-Americans. That group, wholly composed of juniors, were: Brandie Jay on vault, Brittany Rogers on bars, and Mary Beth Box on floor. On Sunday, those 3 will compete for individual national championships in their respective events. Good luck to Brandie, Brittany, and Mary Beth!
If we step back and evaluate the entire season, though, it's impossible to judge the 2015 campaign as anything but a failure. That word is considered rather harsh by today's social morays, but we're Georgia, dammit. We're the Alabama football of gymnastics. Reaching the Super Six is considered a base-level expectation for our program, and anything less is simply not acceptable. And let's be honest, it would have been an upset for us even to reach the Super Six this year, given our #10 national ranking. It was doable, yes, and we had the talent on had, but we just never could seem to put it together this year.
We started off this season by clearly missing our All-American junior Brittany Rogers, who was recovering from injury (and didn't really look 100% even when she did come back until nearly the end of the regular season). And then we had a minor injury to Brandie Jay that took her out for a meet or two. And losing individual event contributor Rachel Shick to a broken wrist after a promising start to her year certainly didn't help, either. But I think our biggest problem this year came from a lack of strong senior leadership. I don't mean to besmirch Chelsea Davis and Sarah Persinger too harshly, but they simply didn't contribute at the level you expect of your seniors. They undoubtedly fought hard as the season went on, and Coach Durante gave them many, many opportunities to shine and show what they could do. But at the end of the day, they only competed on 2 events each, and only Davis was one of our best contributors overall. And even then, Davis never really got back to the All-American level she displayed earlier in her career.
Again, I'm thankful for the hard work put in and the loyalty displayed by our senior Gym Dogs this year, but an object analysis of their contributions has to conclude that we could have been helped by having a better showing from them. (It's also the case that this year's senior class was Jay Clark's final recruiting class in Athens, which probably says more about the class itself.)
As we look forward to 2016, I'm very much encouraged by the potential this team has. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I believe we have the foundations in place to win the national championship next year. In 2016, we'll have a rock-star senior class with Brandie Jay, Brittany Rogers, and Mary Beth Box (who has had a real breakout year this season). Our juniors will be solid contributors in Ashlyn Broussard, Kiera Brown, Rachel Schick, and Morgan Reynolds. Our sophomores will rival only the senior class in potential, with Natalie Vaculik, Gigi Marino, and Vivi Babalis making major statements in their competition routines this year. And if Danna Durante's recruiting acumen has taught us anything with those first 3 classes, it's that she'll be bringing in some additional new freshmen with the potential to make a major impact on the mat. The 2016 season will legitimately be the first season I've thought we've had a chance to win the national championship since Suzanne Yoculan hung up her stiletto heels.
Of course, setting that level of expectation this early puts a a lot of pressure on our gymnasts and Danna Durante... but this is Georgia, dammit. This is our expectation. We are, historically, the best collegiate gymnastics program in the country. We want to compete for championships every year, and and win them as often as not. In spite of a sputtering 2015 campaign, I still think Danna Durante is the woman to lead that charge. She's proven that she and her staff (Jay Hogue, Phil Ogletree, and former Gym Dog Cassidy McComb) can recruit and develop well, and I think the future is still bright for this program.
2015 might have been depressing, but 2001 was rather depressing for the football team, too. As was 2004. And 2011 (after a fashion). The succeeding seasons for those teams were exceptional, and I think the 2016 campaign for the Gym Dogs has the potential to be truly exceptional, indeed.
And so, we sign off from the gymnastics beat for now. We'll return as events warrant, but if not before then, we'll see you again as we get ready for the 2016 season!