Michigan Hosts Reigning NCAA Gymnastics Champions UCLA At Regionals

kyla ross

This year marks the first in the revamped NCAA women's gymnastics postseason format, beginning with three days of competition at four regional sites, one being Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

You'll be able to watch complete coverage from Ann Arbor, as well as the Corvallis Regional, on FloGymnastics!

The University of Michigan will host Illinois and Central Michigan on the first day of competition. On the second day of competition, Michigan will compete against Alabama, Penn State, and Ohio State in the first semifinal session and UCLA, Nebraska, West Virginia, and the winner of the Illinois versus Central Michigan play-in in the second session. The top two teams from each Friday session will compete for two spots to NCAA Championships on Saturday. Full details and clarification on the new regionals format can be found here.

The Ann Arbor Regional should be exciting as it features two conference champions, a regular-season rematch on the first day, half of the Big Ten, and three teams separated by 0.11 in the rankings.

One Last Dual For Illinois And Central Michigan

Only eight teams will have the chance to advance to nationals from each regional, and the two teams battling for the eight spot to compete in Ann Arbor on Friday are both coming off strong conference championship performances. No. 29 Illinois finished second at Big Ten Championships with a season-high 196.650 while No. 30 Central Michigan also came in second at MAC Championships with a 195.575. 

The Fighting Illini are ranked higher and have been progressing well and peaking at the right time, but the Chippewas aren't far behind and have been pretty consistent in scoring, earning a team total of 195.000+ for the past seven meets. The two teams actually met at the start of this season in a quad meet with the Chippewas finishing ahead of the Illini. However, both teams have changed and progressed since that initial meeting. 

Illinois is without NCAA individual qualifier Rae Balthazor but has added beamer Rachel Borden to its roster. Mary Jane Otto is back competing in the all-around, and Haylee Roe is returning from an injury, but Nicole Biondi has been out for a few meets and has been seen with her knee taped. Central Michigan has competed with a few different lineups, sometimes competing with more depth and has improved on vault, its weakest event.

Big Ten & Pac-12 Champions Lead The Way 

Michigan and UCLA are the top two seeds and have had excellent seasons so far with both winning their respective conference championships. It would take quite a few uncharacteristic mistakes for neither team to not reach Saturday's regional final.

The No. 7 Michigan Wolverines have a season high of 197.750 and a season average of 196.842. Only once this season have they scored below 196.000, and that was early in January, pretty early in the season. They earned a team total of 197.000+ for five straight meets until just missing that mark with a 196.800 in their regular-season finale against Centenary, Minnesota, and Missouri. The Wolverines had no trouble improving and reaching 197.000 again at Big Ten Championships, hitting 23 out of 24 routines and counting no mistakes.

With two weeks separating conference championships and regionals, carrying the momentum over from one meet to the other can be difficult, but the Wolverines have been able to carry it over into their training.

“It’s definitely a confidence booster to have that good meet under our belts and have that pressure situation with a lot of great teams competing against us,” junior Lexi Funk said. “So we’re definitely using that and building off of that going into regionals.”

But that isn't the only thing Michigan hopes to bring into regionals from Big Ten Championships 

“We realized we had a lot of fun at Big Tens, and this team is something very special,” freshman Abby Brenner said. “And we all just genuinely enjoy each other and genuinely enjoy competing, so for sure keeping the fun in it, and like we say, have a little party. So [we want to carry] that momentum and that mentality in the gym every day and these few practices and just continuing that into regionals.”

This regional format is new for every team and presents more opportunities to compete. In order to even have a chance at advancing to nationals, Michigan will have to qualify to the regional final. So ideally for Michigan, it will be competing back-to-back on Friday in the first session and then again on Saturday. Back-to-back competition isn't something the teams are used to, so it required preparation throughout the season.

The Wolverines have been getting ready by practicing the day before home meets instead of having a day off before home meets. This has allowed them to get two days of gymnastics in as if they were competing two days in a row.

“I think it’s preparing us perfectly,” Brenner said of the practices before home meets. “In gymnastics, it’s kind of a fine line of pushing just enough and then trusting ourselves just enough, not too many numbers. But also preparing ourselves and making sure we’re prepared enough with enough numbers. So I think with those two days, those practices, strategically placing them where they are has been really beneficial for us.”

The No. 2 UCLA Bruins are taking a different approach to the ideal situation of competing back-to-back and plan to utilize their depth. 

Floor, an event the Bruins are known for, is arguably the most draining gymnastics event as it is the longest and requires the most tumbling in addition to dance skills. Head coach Valorie Kondos Field said it will be a challenge for some of the Bruin gymnasts to compete on floor two days in a row but the team can rely on its depth on floor. 

Floor is also the last event the Bruins will compete on Friday, so it gives Kondos Field and her coaching staff the opportunity to see if certain gymnasts need to compete floor that first day or if they can rest their bodies and compete floor only Saturday and give other gymnasts the opportunity to compete. 

“It’s not only to save their bodies, but it’s a great boost for the team when you can have people work hard all season come in and help kind of save the day,” Kondos Field said. “They’re teammates. They help me, because they’ve prepared well to compete and do well. I think we’re in a very fortunate situation because of our depth.”

With a week until regionals, the Bruins did an intrasquad in practice with the goal of reaching 198.000. Kondos Field said her team isn't as sharp in intrasquad as they are in competition but still managed to score 198.000.

“They did really well [in the intrasquad],” Kondos Field said. “They’re excited. There’s no letdown. There’s no fatigue. They’re just doing really well.”

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. One thing UCLA would like to focus on as it prepares for regionals is vault.

“We need to get more consistent with our vaults, our 1.5s,” she said. “And we’re making really good progress with those.”

UCLA has a season-high team total of 198.400 and a season average of 197.781, which puts it in a great position to advance to nationals so long as it does what it's been doing. So far this season, it has yet to score below a 197.000, so Kondos Field feels the team is “in a good position.”

6 Teams To Compete For Spots In Regional Final

Realistically speaking, because of the dominance UCLA and Michigan have displayed this season, the Friday sessions will be a competition to see who else will advance to the final regional round on Saturday with Michigan and UCLA.

No. 10 Alabama, No. No. 23 Penn State, and No. 26 Ohio State will be in the first session with Michigan. Alabama has the best chance at advancing to Saturday's final as it's consistently scored in the high-196.000, low-197.000 range for majority of the season. And although it didn't compete in the evening session at SEC Championships, Alabama still placed third. Penn State and Ohio State's season-highs are both around 196.800, but neither team has scored that high in recent meets. With Alabama's latest team total being a 197.350, Penn State and Ohio State would have to be at their absolute best to contend with Alabama. Unfortunately, Ohio State will be without its star senior, Jamie Stone, who got injured at the Buckeyes' last regular season meet at WVU and hasn't competed since. Her absence makes the Buckeyes' shot at making the regional final unlikely.

No. 14 Nebraska, No. 27 West Virginia, and either Illinois or Central Michigan will be in the second session on Friday with UCLA. While Nebraska is ranked significantly higher than West Virginia, Illinois, and Central Michigan, that doesn't matter. Illinois actually beat Nebraska by .100 at Big Ten Championships for second place. So if Illinois advances to Friday's competition, it's not out of the question for Illinois to reach Saturday's competition by beating Nebraska. However, West Virginia, Illinois, and Central Michigan are so closely ranked with just .110 separating West Virginia and Central Michigan.

Illinois, UIC Lead Individuals All-Around & Event Specialists

In addition the teams having the opportunity to advance to nationals, individuals are also selected to compete at regionals. Illinois leads the list of individual qualifiers at the Ann Arbor regional with four: Mary Jane Otto (AA), Kasey Meeks (VT), Shaylah Scott (BB), and Kylie Noonan (FX). UIC follows with three gymnasts representing the Flames in the program's final season: Kayla Baddeley (VT), Serena Baker (UB), and Alyssa Sheremeta (FX). Anna Martucci (FX) and Mia Lord (BB) will represent Northern Illinois.

Other Michigan gymnastics programs will be represented through individual competitors, including Denelle Pedrick (AA) and Gianna Plaska (BB) for Central Michigan and Emili Dobronics (AA), Allison Smith (VT), and Courtney Bezold (UB) for Eastern Michigan. 

Dara Williams (UB) and Abby Fletcher (FX) will represent Kent State, and Emerson Hurst (BB) and Mary Elle Arduino (BB) will represent Towson.

Individuals from Illinois or Central Michigan will not compete as individuals if their teams advances to Friday's competition.

Of these individuals, the most notable are Illinois' Otto, who qualified to nationals as an all-arounder in 2015 and Martucci, who is ranked No. 28 on floor.

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