The up and down season for UCLA Gymnastics came to an end on Friday at Birmingham, as the Bruins placed 5th in their semifinal, with a team score of 197.00. Florida and Alabama tied for first with a score of 197.65, and Nebraska took third with a team score of 197.100. Utah was fourth with a score of 197.025, and Penn State was sixth with 194.825.
Coach Valerie Kondos-Field was proud of the effort put out by the Bruins:
"We went 24 for 24 routines, something we certainly didn’t do at Pac-12 or regionals. The national champions didn’t even go 24 for 24," said coach Valorie Kondos Field.
Yes, the Bruins did not have any major mistakes in their semi-final, but they had plenty of little ones that added up. The biggest one was not sticking their landings, as the Bruins gave up tenth after tenth in their scores with their small hops on their vault, bars and beam landings.
UCLA started the meet on balance beam, one of their weaker events but has two consistent performers in Samantha Peszek and Danusia Francis. But a weak leadoff performance by Hallie Mossett and followed by a not optimal performance by Sophina DeJesus led to the Bruins having to count a 9.675 score, and the Bruins were playing catchup from there. Peszek scored a 9.850, Francis was not given the connection bonus on her dismount and only scored a 9.875, but a delightful surprise was Ellette Craddock scoring a 9.875 on an event where she had been removed and then essentially "demoted" to anchor so that if she fell early in her previous leadoff spot, the team wouldn't be pressured to hit their routines. The team score of 49.075 on beam was not going to cut it if UCLA waned to make the Super Six.
After a bye, UCLA moved to the floor and showed why they were one of the top floor teams in the country, even if the routines felt a bit underscored. Sydney Sawa and Peszek led the way with 9.90, leading to a team score of 49.400. At the halfway point, the Bruins were in fourth place, with a team score of 98.475.
UCLA then moved to the vault in the fourth rotation, led by a spectacular 9.95 by Olivia Courtney. Unfortunately, no one else could hold on to the landings on their vaults, as the team scored a respectable 49.275 on vault, but ideally needed to be 49.30 or higher to make their overall score competitive and to erase some of the points they left behind on balance beam. After three full rotations for the Bruins with only bars left, the team had scored 147.750 and was in second place, but that second place spot was an illusion at best. After five, the Bruins were bumped down to fifth place overall.
In the final rotation, UCLA moved to bars, knowing they had to score ideally a 49.40 to overtake Nebraska and move into third place. Utah had already finished with a score of 197.05 (tough day on the beam for Utah.) UCLA's season high was a 49.525, so it is possible for the Bruins. While all the routines were consistent, there were still major steps on the landings, costing the Bruins tenths. Even with Peszek's 9.925, the Bruins could only score 49.275 on the bars, around their season average, but not enough for the Bruins to move on.
(Oklahoma and Florida, by the way, tied for the national championship on Saturday. This is Florida's second straight title, and the first for Oklahoma, and thank you OU for preventing SEC Saturday insanity.)
Peszek took fourth in the all-around, 0.50 out of the title, with a score of 39.575. Olivia Courtney and Peszek both advanced to the event finals, with Courtney ending her UCLA career with an 8th place finish in the vault finals. Peszek wound up overshooting a handstand during her routine causing her to come off the bar, a major mistake, and she only scored a 9.10 in the bars finals. (I think i saw a pre-cursor to this in the team semi-finals, she wobbled on a handstand in the same way Nastia Liukin fell off the bars at 2012 Olympic Trials and I thought she was going to fall off then too.)
This meet encapsulated the UCLA season for me - potential that was not realized, plus injuries (i.e. Mattie Larson medically retiring this season) causing the Bruins to scramble with their lineups at times. As we look ahead to next year, the Bruins will have to realize life without Olivia Courtney, and hope that Samantha Peszek returns. They also will hope that Peng Peng Lee's knee returns to form, and wondering if Jennifer Pinches will return in the fall. Also, will the Bruins learn to exploit the point system to their favor, instead of trying to land perfectly, land cleanly enough that they won't hop on their landings (this was brought up on a college gym forum - many of the gymnasts land on vault and bars with their knees apart. Optimally, you want to land with your knees close together, but if your knees are apart you may get more stability to keep you from hopping on your landing and you are not deducted for this - many 10s have been awarded for this type of landing...) So many questions surround the Bruins, plus with the other Pac-12 schools on the way up, we'll see how the Bruins fare next year.