Welcome back, Dawg fans! If you’ve been following along at home, I’ve used the first two entries in this Gymnastics season preview to cover the basics of the sport and the schedule; and the coaching staff. In this final entry, I’ll be covering the actual Gym Dogs themselves.
Our team composition is pretty unusual this year. Last year’s senior class was, without a doubt, the most talented class we’ve seen in Athens since the Suzanne Yoculan era. All 3 seniors (Mary Beth Box, Brandie Jay, and Brittany Rogers) earned All-America honors, and two of them won an individual national championship (Jay on vault, Rogers on bars).
So, even though we have 5 seniors this year, they have really big shoes to fill. Through a confluence of factors, we have a pretty unbalanced roster, with 5 seniors, 5 juniors, and only 3 sophomores and 3 freshmen. You’d hope that bodes well for our team’s experience and poise under pressure, but only time will tell on that point. Also, even though the underclassmen are small in number, they are probably going to be very well represented on the depth chart. In fact, our best competitors are probably going to come from those smaller freshmen and sophomore classes. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
Let’s dive in and examine this roster!
(Listed in alphabetical order by class, along with my guess at where they’ll contribute most. V = Vault, UB = uneven bars, BB = Balance Beam, FX = Floor Exercise)
Gym Dog Seniors
Overall, this group of seniors don’t look like the giants that came through last year, but they don’t have to be. These seniors don’t really have a single all-around star like a Brandie Jay or a Brittany Rogers, but we could possibly have 2 or 3 single-event or double-event stars like Mary Beth Box was. And with some of the talent we have down-roster, that might be all we really need from this class in order to have a great year.
Ashlyn Broussard (V, BB) - Ash is arguably one of our two best performers in this senior class. She is one of our best competitors on beam, though she struggled a little bit with consistentency from week-to-week last year. But then again, there wasn’t a single beam competitor for us who didn’t struggle with consistency last year. We need Ashlyn to be a leader on beam for us, and to provide the kind of anchor that Mary Beth Box and Brandie Jay did last year.
If Ash can put in the “E” difficulty passes on her floor exercise (which you have to have to reach the 10.0 start value), she has the potential to be a difference-maker there, as well. But it’s more likely, in my opinion, that she’ll continue to contribute on vault. She’s consistently been a 9.80/9.85 level vaulter, and we’ll need her to up her game to be more like a regular 9.85/9.9 level performer. That’s what seniors need to do... step up and lead. And as one of the most visible seniors, Ashlyn will be a key component for us, I think.
Lauren Johnson (V, UB) - Lauren is somewhat of a conundrum to me. As a freshman in 2014, she sat on the bench all year until a last-minute injury to senior Noel Couch meant that she was brought into the lineup on short notice to compete on Vault at the SEC Championships. She responded by winning the SEC Vault championship with a 9.975 score, and going on to card a 9.90 at the Super Six competition, as well.
Unfortunately, Lauren tore her ACL and missed her entire Sophomore season, and didn’t look like she was really 100% even when she returned in her Junior season. She never scored higher than a 9.85 in limited action last season, and was also very underwhelming in the 4 outings she had on the bars.
So Lauren clearly has potential, but we haven’t really been able to see it over the past 2 seasons because of injury. Can she make a huge comeback in this, her final season, and help lead the Gym Dogs to glory? Only time will tell.
Morgan Reynolds (V, BB, FX) - Morgan is another Gym Dog senior who has has spent a lot of time out with injury. After competing on 3 events as a freshman, Morgan missed the first half of her Sophomore season with an injury, and she contracted a freak and potentially deadly e.coli infection prior to her Junior season. After being hospitalized and in ICU for a long period of time, Reynolds actually managed to rehab in time to take the floor for the Gym Dogs in the final 2 meets of the regular season, and also in the SEC Championship and the NCAA Regional meet. It was an inspirational comeback, though it didn’t really reflect all that well in the scores.
I spoke with Morgan back in September, and asked if she felt like she had maybe pushed herself too much to get back last season, and if having a long, healthy offseason had helped her. Here’s what she said:
Well, right after I got out of the hospital [last year], I had it in my head that, “I gotta compete! I gotta get right back!” So, I was full speed ahead at that point, probably more than the coaches or anybody else really wanted me to be. So to be able to come down a little bit over the summer and build myself back up again and do it in a healthier way has helped a lot. I feel like I’m at a good spot right now. I think I’m in a better spot than I’ve personally been before on every event.
So I’m encouraged to hear that Morgan is in such a good place personally, and I hope it’ll translate to a great performances on the mat! I’d think Morgan is most likely to be helping us on floor and beam, but if she’s improving on vault and bars, too, then anything is possible.
Beth Roberts (V) - Beth is a senior. I can confirm this.
Ok, I don’t want to throw shade on anyone, so I’ll just say that she has only really seen any meet time in her sophomore year, when she competed on vault (and was usually the owner of the score we dropped). So she’ll have to have improved quite a bit for us to see her in competition this year.
Rachel Schick (UB, BB) - Rachel is another senior who has had a lot of injury trouble (a lot of this senior class has been kind of snakebit on the injury front). She missed all of her freshman year with an injury, and broke her thumb at the beginning of her sophomore year, though she fought through it. Rachel has been a solid bars contributor for us over the last 2 years, but we need her to up her game and become one of the top performers on bars this year. She had a nightmare start last year, with 2 falls on bars in her first 5 routines (in addition to 2 falls and 1 near-fall in her first 4 balance beam routines), but she rebounded well and ended the season on a strong note. If she can build from there, she could have a good senior season for us on bars and beam.
Gym Dog Juniors
It’s been an interesting journey for these juniors, who had very different freshmen and sophomore years. A copule of them had strong freshman seasons combined with sophomore slumps (Babalis and Vaculik), while one had a quiet freshman campaign combined with a sophomore break out points to a ton of potential for the future (Marino).
Jasmine Arnold - Based on what I saw in the Periscope with Coach Durante, Jazz has personality for days, which is always great. But she hasn’t been able to break into any competitive lineup yet.
Vivi Babalis (BB, FX) - One of the most important things to know about Vivi is this: she is tough as nails. Last season, Vivi had a major injury to her elbow, which required her to avoid putting any serious strain on it. So what did she do? Well, nothing but go out there and do her entire routines on floor and balance beam without using her arms. Think about that... an entire routine on the balance beam and on the floor without using your arms. All year long. At a top NCAA level. Vivi Babalis is metal as hell.
On top of that, Vivi did a Periscope session with Coach Durante a couple of months ago. Danna said that she never could figure out why Vivi looked super-serious all the time as a freshman, and why she didn’t respond to her when she was giving her some directions during a meet. Well, she came to find out afterwards that Vivi was trying to translate Danna’s instructions and coaching remarks into French in her head, which slowed down her response time and the rate at which she could process what Danna was saying. (Vivi is from Quebec, and was used to getting her gymnastics training in French. That includes names for the skills, etc., so it wasn’t always just a “simple translation” thing.) So, without complaining, she was trying to absorb all of this stuff that was being thrown at her in a foreign language, apply it to her gymnastics, and keep moving at the same speed as everyone else.
Fortunately, Coach Durante saw this was happening and made sure to make extra time to give Vivi her instructions, make sure she understood the directions, etc. But I just think it’s amazing that Vivi was just trying to “suck it up” and do her job, even when she couldn’t process what was being yelled at her as quickly as others could.
(And hopefully the use of her arms this year will help her bring her scores up even more. But even if not, Vivi is still metal as hell.)
Gigi Marino (V, FX) - To put it quite simply, Gigi has the potential to be our best vaulter and our best floor gymnast. She has the power, the strength, and the control to be a star... it’s just a question of consistency and confidence.
When I spoke with Gigi, she credited her breakout sophomore season on increased confidence, thanks to encouragement from her team, so let’s hope she continues to improve and build this season. She also said she was training on beam and bars, so she’s hoping to break into the rotation there, as well.
Hayley Sanders (UB) - Hayley has only broken into the competition rotation twice in her previous two years, both on bars. So, that’s likely to be the area she contributes in this year.
Natalie Vaculik (V, UB, BB) - (Her last name is pronounced “Vah-cue-lick,” not “Vah-soo-lick,” as Bart Conner seemed to think on a few SEC Network broadcasts last year.) Natalie had a relatively disappointing sophomore season last year, as compared to her freshman season. She has been a regular contributor on vault, bars, and beam as a freshman, but she got taken out of both the vault and beam rotations at different points in the season last year. And her scores on the bars were a little lower, overall, as well.
We really need Natalie to be a scoring leader on bars like she was as a freshman, and providing stability and consistency to the beam lineup would be especially welcome, as well. Let’s hope Natalie can get her mojo back this season and give us those high-quality performances again.
Gym Dog Sophomores
Like this year’s freshmen, these sophomores are a small class, but hopefully they’ll be able to make more of an impact this year. Certainly, Sydney Snead leapt into the picture last year and was a big difference-maker right off the bat, but ideally we’d get more competition from the other two ladies in this class, too.
Caroline Bradford (?) - Caroline didn’t break into the lineup at all as a freshman, so it’s hard to know where she’ll be competing for a spot.
Gracie Cherrey (UB, BB) - Gracie looks to be a great athlete, but there’s no question that she had a tough freshman year. To my eyes, it looked like her confidence took a shot early in the season, and she never really recovered. Certainly not on beam, where she fell on 3 of the 4 routines she attempted, and had a near-fall (major deduction) on the other one.
And on the bars last year, she was a steady 9.75/9.80 performer, but to be brutally honest, a 9.80 should be the score that we’re dropping every week. So we need to get those scores up in order to bring them to what we expect regularly from the Gym Dogs.
As I said, though, it looked to me like confidence was a key for Gracie, and I hope that she’s gotten the confidence she needs this year to really step up and become a major contributor. Lord knows, we need all the help we can get on balance beam.
Sydney Snead (V, UB, BB, FX) - The unquestioned star of last year’s freshman class, Sydney looks to be gunning for a spot in the all-around competition this year. (“All Around” just means you’re good enough to make the lineup in all 4 events. They do give out individual All Around titles at meets, too, so it’s nice to be competing for those.) She competed in almost every meet last year on vault, bars, and floor, so she needs to add beam to the lineup to make the all-around list.
And unlike some college programs, we don’t add ladies to the all-around just so we can “have a competitor on the list.” Our competitors only get the all-around spot if they’re one of the best 6 competitors on the team in all 4 events. If they’re weaker in 1 event than the others... well, then they don’t get to be in the all-around. As I said in my first post, it’s all about the team, not the individual.
Still, though, it’s always nice to have an all-around performer, and it looks like Sydney has the potential and talent to get to that level. She’s one of the Gym Dogs that you definitely want to be watching on every event.
Gym Dog Freshmen
It’s usually difficult to say or know too much about the freshmen on the team, but we have a little bit more data to go on this season. We know that two of our new Gym Dogs have significant international-level experience, so hopefully that reflects well on their potential to contribute right off the bat. And given the talent we lost after last season, we definitely need some freshmen that can come in and compete at a high level.
We’ll find out more as the season rolls on, but at first glance, this looks like a very solid recruiting class for Coach Durante.
Rachel Dickson (UB, BB) - I got a chance to interview Rachel back in September (freshman availability to the media definitely not being something that Danna Durante got from Kirby Smart), and I was very impressed by both her presence and the way she answered my questions. She admitted to being a little homesick (but I think all freshmen go through that), and she also gave a little bit of perspective on what makes college different than the elite/club level.
Basically, Rachel was impressed with the support you get from your team and the overall “team focus” at the college level, compared to the mostly-individual focus of elite/club gymnastics. (I mentioned this in a previous post, but it’s nice to see in reinforced by what the gymnasts themselves say.) She said feeling that support and encouragement was very confidence-building and uplifting.
I also noticed that Rachel had been recruited by Oklahoma when she was in high school, so I wanted to ask her what made her choose UGA over a team like Oklahoma (and potentially others) that was currently the biggest powerhouse in the sport. Here’s what she said in response to the question, “Why did you choose Georgia over Oklahoma?”
As I visited all these schools, I remember walking around Georgia’s campus, and immediately, everyone was so welcoming and so nice. And when you went to these other schools, they were nice, too, but here I felt like I “fit in” immediately. So I feel like once you feel like you can “click” with all these people, the coaches and the girls and the facilities, then you really know where you want to be. And it’s just like my second home. That’s why I chose Georgia.
Great stuff, and I hope UGA keeps being so good to her for her entire career! Rachel said her favorite event was the balance beam,
so she’s clearly a psychopath, but she also said her best event from a performance standpoint was probably bars. So we might see her on either of those events this season, I think.
Jordyn Pedersen (V, UB) - Jordyn has had elite experience competing on the Canadian national team, which is a signal to me that she has a lot of potential. her best event appears to be vault, so I’m looking for her to make an impact there, at least.
Sabrina Vega (BB, FX) - If you follow the US Gymnastics team at the international level, you’ve probably heard of Sabrina before. She was on the USA team that won the gold medal at the 2011 World Championships (along with other names you’ll probably notice... like Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Alicia Sacramone). Unfortunately, injuries kept her from continuing to compete at the level that is required to make the U.S. team regularly, but the elite level’s loss is UGA’s gain, since Sabrina retired in 2015 and enrolled at UGA this past summer.
Sabrina isn’t your typical college freshman... due to her extended time competing at the elite level, she’s actually 21 years old. So, hopefully this translates into an ability to come right in and contribute, at least in her best events, which appear to be Beam and Floor.
Overall, this is a roster that is much more uncertain than those we’ve had in previous years. There are a bunch of upperclassmen that are recovering from injuries or who just haven’t stepped it up as much as we’d hoped they would over their careers, and their production (or lack thereof) will be what causes the Gym Dogs to either have a magnificent year, or to sink back into the doldrums of 2015.
What are we looking for in routines? Well, that’s a great question. Generally, when we take to the mat against preseason #2 LSU on Friday night at 7:00, these are the things you should be looking for, in terms of what separates a “good” routine from a “great” routine.
- Vault: Stick the landing. This means that when you land, your feet don’t move at all... they’re just “stuck” there. Sticking the landing on a vault is usually the biggest difference between a 9.9+ and something less than that.
- Uneven bars: 1) upright handstands - If your handstands on the bars aren’t completely vertical, that’s a deduction every time it happens, and 2) stuck dismount - You gotta stick the landing on the dismount
- Balance Beam: Few, if any “wobbles” or balance checks. Absolutely no near-falls or, basically, anything that doesn’t look like it was pre-planned. Sticking the dismount is always a plus here, too.
- Floor: Looking artistic and crowd-pleasing is an inexact science, but it’s definite a subjective component in some judges’ minds. On the tumbling passes, you need to stick the landings there, and also have good tumbling fundamentals (chest high, etc.)
And as far as what to expect Friday night: Hell, I got no clue. LSU is the preseason #2, and will be one of the best teams we face all year, but we’ll also get pretty used to them, since we’re probably going to see them at least 3 times (Friday night, at the Gym Quarters Invitational, and at the SEC Championships). They’re going to be a challenge, but we need that challenge. We need to see what the best country in the team looks like, so we can measure ourselves in comparison and see how we need to improve, and what we need to be working on.
Honestly, since this meet is in Baton Rouge, I’m not holding out a large hope of a win. It’s always possible, of course, but hometown judges are always a thing, especially on floor exercise, so there’s a little disadvantage already built in. What I want to see are our ladies competing hard and putting up a solid score. Being the first week of the season, if we score into the 196.5 range or better, I’ll be very happy.
I’ll be back with a recap after the LSU meet, so until then...