Note: Follow up post here.
The 2016 Women’s NCAA season begins in earnest this weekend (Michigan won the Cancun Classic tri-meet last Saturday night against Arkansas and Iowa to kick things off). On the road to Fort Worth, Texas — the host of NCAA Championships for a 2nd straight year — there will be the inevitable heartbreaks and triumphs that each season brings. Who will be on the podium when the confetti rains down? Here’s my best guess at the 6 teams that will vie for the title come April.
I know a lot of people are putting Oklahoma at #1, but I’m of the mindset that you’re #1 until you’re dethroned. That goes double, maybe even triple, when you’re the 3-time defending national champions.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question if the Lady Gators can continue their run. Over the off season, the team lost a number of key routines, most notably the 4 contributed by Kytra Hunter, and Jenny Rowland takes over as head coach for the departed to USA Gymnastics Rhonda Faehn.
But one thing you can’t question with Florida: talent. Alicia Boren, the ruler of Junior Olympic Nationals for the past 4 years, is expected to contribute early and often, with a very small learning curve. And, oh yeah, they still have the services of one Bridget Sloan, who is entering her senior season (where did the time go?). And that’s before you get to Kennedy Baker and Peyton Ernst, among others.
The team is so deep that they rarely use all-arounders. However, the 2014 co-NCAA champion is still in search of its first unshared title. When the time comes, Oklahoma will have the scoring potential to do it. Whether it can depends on how the team handles the pressure of finals as a favorite. The Sooners downfall during 2015 Super Six was a shaky performance, especially on floor.
This team has fooled me too many times to put it too far down this list. Have a roster that doesn’t seem as talented as the others, yet win an SEC Championship? Yep, that happened. Last year, in fact. This year, with a roster than looks deeper than 2015, the Tide could rise to championship contender instead of challenger this year.
Last year was nothing short of heartbreaking for LSU. Expected to challenge for the title, the Tigers didn’t make it out of the semifinal, due largely to a meltdown on beam. Departing seniors comprised a large percentage of the high scoring routines, but the incoming freshman class should be able to make up the difference. Much of LSU’s success for 2016 will be dependent on how many of these freshmen, including Sarah Finnegan and Lexie Priessman, fare on their road to recovery from injuries sustained while senior elites.
This has to be Wolverines year to breakthrough…right? 2015 showed the team can be consistent. This time, with another year experience and increased difficulty — not to mention a potential standout in freshman Olivia Karas — anything short of the Super Six would be a disappointment.
Utah is another team that went through a departure of a number of significant routines and a coaching shuffle this off season. However, this team lost a lot of key routines that it didn’t seem to fully replace with its incoming freshmen. But the Utes still have too much talent and experience to be counted out. Behind sophomore Kari Lee, who is expected to become a key gymnast for the Utes, Utah should be making a return trip to Texas this spring.
Just Outside of the Super Six
I like the way the GymDogs roster is shaping up for the year. They can throw multiple 10.0 vaults under the new scoring rules, and retained their uneven bars proficiency. Jury’s still out on how much beam and floor have progressed, though. If they can find consistency on those two events, they’ll challenge for a Super Six spot.
It may have taken a little longer than Georgia fans wanted, but it seems Danna Durante’s plans for this team are starting to gel.
The Cinderella of last season, I see Auburn as one of the teams making it to Fort Worth, but not going further than the semifinals this year. UCLA and Stanford are another two I believe will narrowly miss out. I like the rosters of both, but I have reservations about their consistency and depth. Watch me be wrong. Those two teams seem to usually find a way against all odds.
Team That Could Surprise: Illinois
With a strong returning foundation of scores on all four events from Giana O’Connor and Mary Jane Horth, impressive spot performers like Sunny Kato and Erin Buchanan, and solid newcomers like Lizzy LeDuc, the Illini could turn heads in 2016.
Photo Credit: GymFocus