Good morning, Dawg fans! Well, we've reached the conclusion of another season of Gym Dogs gymnastics. Whenever we reach the end of a campaign, it's natural to get a little reflective and ponder the state of the program and what changes, if any, are warranted based on the results we've seen over the season. So let's do that.
In my 2016 season preview, I said that the goal for UGA gymnastics every season, including this season, was to win a national championship. And though Danna Durante has made great strides in rebuilding a program that Jay Clark had allowed to become moribund and stale, she still hadn't even come close to "winning the big one." And winning the big one is, quite literally, what the Gym Dogs are all about. In my preview, I was intentionally very direct about the "timetable" and what it meant for Danna Durante's tenure as head coach:
Now is the time. 2016 is the year. The Gym Dogs have been stuck in mediocrity for too long. The pieces are in place, and now our ladies need to go make it happen.
Now that the season is concluded, the results we achieved were, to put it generously, rather inconsistent. And unfortunately, I think that's pretty thematically correct as a summation for Coach Durante's tenure in Athens.
This year, we had the most talented senior class we've seen since Suzanne Yoculan's final year of 2009. It was pretty obvious that if this team was going to achieve greatness, the seniors would have to lead the way... and they did. Brandie Jay and Brittany Rogers won the individual national championship titles on vault and uneven bars, respectively; and in doing so became the first Gym Dogs to win multiple individual championships in the same year since 2008. (And it's only the second & third time overall that a Gym Dog has won an individual national championship since Yoculan retired.) So 2/3 of our senior class came up big exactly when we needed them and when the lights were shining the brightest.
Unfortunately, the rest of the team simply didn't rise with them. We did make it back to the Super Six (the national team finals) for the 3rd year out of 4 in Durante's tenure... but we're the Gym Dogs, dammit. Making the Super Six is a baseline expectation. You don't get extra credit just for making the Super Six. And even though we've made the finals 3 out of the last 4 years, we've never finished higher than 5th. In fact, we haven't finished higher than 5th in the country since Suzanne Yoculan's final year of 2009 (when we won it all). This year, we finished sixth. We were only 0.013 points behind 5th-place UCLA, but we were over half a point (0.538) behind 4th-place Florida, and over eight-tenths behind national champion Oklahoma. So from a competitive standpoint, we were basically in a dead heat for 5th-best team in the country, but just not any better than that.
After 4 years of Danna Durante's tenure, we've managed to firmly entrench ourselves back into high-tier-2 status, but we're still not one of the elite programs in the country. And the Gym Dogs should always be an elite team. Every year.
So as we stand at the conclusion of the 2016 season and look ahead into the future, the state of the Gym Dogs program is solid, but not yet where it should be.
So what does that mean for the future? Should Danna Durante continue to be the head coach? Has she made sufficient progress in rebuilding the Gym Dogs to merit another season at the best collegiate Gymnastics program in the country?
I believe that answer is yes, but just barely, for the following reasons:
1) Coach Durante has made progress in bringing the Gym Dogs back to greatness.
It might not be the pace we'd like to see... scratch that; It's definitely not at the pace I'd like to see, but there's no denying that Danna Durante's 4 years in Athens have been markedly better than the previous 3 years under Jay Clark.
I want to win a national championship, but even more than that, I want to see the Gym Dogs be competitive in the national championship hunt year in and year out. And though we've made the Super Six, we haven't actually been competitive yet in the fight to bring home the team trophy. We have actually made the Super Six, though, which Jay Clark didn't do. And this year we got a couple of individual national titles, which is definitely the kind of progress we want to see. So steps are being taken in the right direction. We just have to keep taking those steps. Which leads me to my next point...
2) The 2017 season will show us the full measure of how successful Coach Durante's program (re)building has been.
This year's senior class was Danna Durante's first recruiting class in Athens, and it was an unqualified success. But what we'll really see in 2017 is what Coach Durante can do with the rest of the roster, which was significantly underwhelming in 2016.
Our seniors were the stars this year, but make no mistake... there is a lot of talent on Georgia's roster. The problem is just that we've been wildly inconsistent. On beam, Ashlyn Broussard could be a national champion. On bars, Rachel Schick could be a champion. On floor and vault, Gigi Marino could be a champion. And Sydney Snead could be a champion in every event. But inconsistency plagued every non-Senior this year, with the exception of Snead, who was felled by an injury late in the season (Though she did return to perform well in Ft. Worth.)
Going down the roster farther than that, we have a significant number of ladies who might not be individual champion material, but have what it takes to contribute scores high enough to make the entire team national champion material. But very, very few of them showed that class this season, and almost none of them showed it consistently from week to week.
With this year's seniors now rotating off the roster, the 2017 Gym Dogs will have no gymnasts returning that have been All-Americans. What will Danna Durante do with that roster? Will she continue to build them into champion material, coaxing them to rise above the level at which they've been competing and continuing to improve their performances? Or will we have a 2017 season that fails to meet the minimum baseline expectations of making the Super Six? Those will be the results by which Coach Durante will be measured next season.
And to be honest, given the talent that we're losing, I think making the Super Six in 2017 would be a bigger accomplishment than making it in 2016 was.
3) If we were to fire Danna Durante, Greg McGarity would be in charge of hiring her replacement.
All of the excitement around the new football coach and #93KDay #OMG #PeopleTurnedOutToWatchFootball seems to have a lot of people forgetting just how splotchy Greg McGarity's track record has been in Athens. For the sake of brevity, I won't rehash all of those points here, but the bottom line is that I simply don't believe our Athletic Director could make a gymnastics hire that's any better than the coach he originally hired (Durante). The old adage about the impetus for change is that "The pain associated with making a change needs to be greater than the pain of the status quo." And right now, at the end of the 2016 season, I don't see enough that's wrong with Danna Durante's current tenure to justify putting another hiring decision in Greg McGarity's hands.
To sum up, I think that this year's results have bought Danna Durante another year.
Unfortunately, there's no reliable "crystal ball" that can accurately project the future in college gymnastics. You can look at talent on the roster and past performance, but it has proven to be a relatively poor predictor in projecting future results. More than anything else in college gymnastics, we've seen that the actual title winners are impossible to predict, but great coaching is what makes programs elite year in and year out.
On the positive side, K.J. Kindler has built Oklahoma into the kind of perennial powerhouse that UGA used to be. D-D Breaux (and, more notably, her top assistant Jay Clark) has kicked LSU up a notch into the "perennially elite" status over the past 3 or 4 years. Dana Duckworth looks to be the real deal after replacing Sarah Patterson at Alabama 2 years ago. And though the jury is still out on Rhonda Faehn's replacement at Florida, Jenny Rowland had a pretty good first season. Also, Valerie Kondos Field at UCLA has had some up-and-down seasons recently, but has won 7 national championships, and has kept the ball rolling for the best gymnastics program in the Pac-12.
On the negative side, Utah simply hasn't been the same since Greg Marsden retired, slipping back into the "tier 2" status that UGA now inhabits. And no other program has had a great coach that catapulted them into tier 1 status.
Talent is great, but coaching is the bottom line in college gymnastics. Is Danna Durante the coach that we want to see setting up camp long-term in Athens? I think we need another 12 months to make that assessment.
In the grand scheme of things, you have to call 2016 a disappointing season. We did win 2 individual national championships, but as a team, we fell short of expectations. This was our year to reach heights we haven't seen in 7 years, and all we did was once again reach the plateau at which the Gym Dogs seem to be stuck.
If Coach Durante can mold the 2017 UGA squad into winners, she'll have done an exceptional coaching job. But in this fan's opinion, that will be a tall order. And while I think it's a tall order, I sincerely hope that Durante is up to the task. Because if there's one thing upon which we can all agree, it's that we want the Georgia Bulldogs to be champions.