A sprained ankle that could determine anything. The most impressive display of masks you have ever seen. Two viral superstars. And an underdog story for the ages.
It’s been two years since we crowned an NCAA gymnastics champion. But those eight teams – and loads of qualified people – might be worth the wait.
In front of a limited crowd of approximately 3,250 at the new Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, action begins with Florida, Minnesota, California and Michigan in the first semi-finals on Friday (1:00 p.m. ET; ESPN2) and Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah and LSU attends the night session (6 p.m. ET; ESPN2). The top two teams from each semifinals will advance to the team finals on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET; ABC). Individual event winners and the all-round champion will be crowned on Friday evening.
From Oklahoma’s quest to defend its title to LSU’s dynamic duo potentially reversing the program’s NCAA fate, here’s what you need to know before the final weekend of the season.
Trinity Thomas: Comeback Queen?
During the afternoon session of the semi-finals on Friday, all eyes will be on Florida’s Trinity Thomas. She was restricted to bars only last month with an ankle injury, but her teammates and fans hope she is healthy enough to return to all four events this weekend.
If so, there isn’t much to say about any other team other than good luck. You will need it.
As a long-time member of the national team, also aiming to secure a place on the Olympic list for Tokyo this summer, Thomas is the only gymnast in the country this season to be recognized as an All-American at every single event and for the all-rounder. She is number 1 in bars and number 2 in floor and has received four perfect 10.0 points this year (two in floor, two in bars).
If you still don’t understand what makes it so (so) good, the floor routine below may help.
. 𝐏𝐄𝐑𝐅𝐄𝐂𝐓 𝟏𝟎 𝐅𝐎𝐑 𝐓𝐑𝐈𝐍𝐈𝐓𝐘 𝐓𝐇𝐎𝐌𝐀𝐒 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ha9HOe42GQ
– SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 13, 2021
To quote commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke, “The double layout is out of this world. Others are amazing. Yours are really – exponentially – bigger.”
Thomas will be looking to lead the Gators to their fourth NCAA title and for the first time since 2015, taking home some shiny hardware for himself.
It’s not uncommon to see a team from California compete in the NCAA championships.
It’s usually just the other state university – the one in Los Angeles – and not the one in Berkeley. But after one of the best seasons in programming history, Cal is making his third appearance as a Citizen.
The Golden Bears held the Bruins back during the regional finals earlier this month to secure their spot by earning their second-best team rating in program history (197,750). While they’ve been strong at all four events, what they’ve done in bars at Regionals and throughout the season is what sets them apart.
How good is Cal at the event? In addition to being number 1 in the nation as a team, the Golden Bears took four of the seven spots on the All-Conference team and tied the college record for best combined score (49,825) in bars. That’s right – they’re making NCAA records well.
And in case you missed this last month, Senior Emi Watterson got a perfect score during the meeting – only the fourth in school history – and went viral. She also wore a mask throughout the routine.
Check out the routine below and look forward to seeing the live stream of all bars on Friday.
– Cal Athletics (@CalAthletics) March 7, 2021
Why not LSU?
The phrase “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” is thrown around a lot, but in the case of LSU it really couldn’t be more specific. As a consistent contender, the Tigers have come so close to winning the title over the years. They reached the team seven times in the finals and took home three runners-up – but never quit the job.
But could 2021 finally be the year for LSU? In his first season as head coach after the legendary DD Breaux retired, Jay Clark struggled with the consistency of the team, but anything is possible in this unprecedented pandemic season.
The Tigers enter the nation # 3 this weekend, led by sophomore Kiya Johnson and freshman Haleigh Bryant who collectively get five perfect results this season.
Johnson is the nation’s top ranked gymnast and won the SEC title last month. You’re going to want to make sure you can clear the next 95 seconds of your life here to see this in full because you don’t want to miss out on their flawless Double Pike Final Tumbling Pass.
Bryant was named SEC Freshman of the Year and took home a portion of the conference title on Vault. She is number 3 in the country of the event as well as number 4 on the floor.
Even when the attendance is capped at 25%, the Tigers always bring one of the rowiest, liveliest fan bases – and it will likely feel like they won, regardless of the actual outcome.
Lucky number 7?
LSU won’t be the only team looking for their first national title this weekend. Cal, Michigan and Minnesota all hope to make history for their respective programs. With only six teams combined to win all 39 championship trophies in the history of the event at the NCAA level, it won’t be easy.
In fact, we haven’t seen a first-time winner since Oklahoma in 2014.
But Michigan is hoping the 25th time is the stimulus (yup, the squad has made the semifinals so many times) and is running a serious hot streak. The Wolverines swept all event titles, including the all-round, during the regional finals and even set a program record on bars (49,725). Junior Natalie Wojcik has got two perfect scores in terms of vault and bar this season, and as a 2019 NCAA radiation winner she definitely has what it takes to get that natty.
Michigan’s Big Ten opponent Minnesota has its own superstar in senior Lexy Ramler, who was runner-up for the national teams in 2019. She scored 9.90 or better in every event at the regional finals and scored two 10.0 points on the vaults and beams in 2021.
In contrast, Utah is on the lookout for its record-breaking 10th NCAA team title, but only since 1995. And if there is ever time to break that title drought, it might not be until 2021 at the 39th NCAA championships For the first time in a row – yes, this is every year for those of you who keep track – the Red Rocks are led by their own Beam Queen in Maile O’Keefe. The second year this season received a 10.0 for the event and won the conference crown – as well as the all-round title and on bars and floor.
While Florida and LSU got their fair share of headlines and expectations this season, it was Alabama that astounded almost everyone by winning the conference title in March.
The Crimson Tide is led by sophomore Luisa Blanco, who won the SEC team win and all-round title with a 9.95 on Beam to end the meet. Later named SEC Turner of the Year, Blanco is number 4 in the nation in all-round and number 6 in beam.
If you don’t recognize her name, you may want to take the rest of the day to familiarize yourself. Blanco has proven that she is at her best in the clutch and could be a serious contender for several Fort Worth titles.
We’re just going to drop their SEC winner beam routine here. Come for the exploits, stay for the art. And the elegance. And show your toes. And the flexibility. And the trust. We think you have the idea.
Warning: This could make even the most ardent Alabama hater scream “ROLL TIDE”. You have been warned.
Looking for revenge
OK, you didn’t think we’d write this without talking about the defending champions, did you?
The Oklahoma Sooners are heading for their fourth title since 2016 and are associated with Florida as the nation’s top ranked team. The team had their unbeaten season and eight-year Big 12 title streak that Denver captured last month, but sought revenge in the regional final with 198,175 – the highest score of any team at any location.
The team is led by Senior and Co-Big 12 Gymnast of the Year Anastasia Webb, who has one of the most impressive résumés in college gymnastics. She is among the top 5 in all-round and on the bar and the top vaulter in the nation. She has won 30 event titles and has scored four perfect 10.0 points this year (one on the bar, one on the bar and two on the safe).
IT’S A PERFECT 10 FOR ANASTASIA WEBB !!!!! pic.twitter.com/PC7mkByp08
– Oklahoma Women’s Gym (@OU_WGymnastics) February 14, 2021
And while Webb is more than impressive on its own, do you know what’s better than having a senior Vaulter on your roster?
Two senior vaulters. Webb and teammate Evy Schoepfer are tied for the top spot. And both Schoepfer and Olivia Trautman also achieved perfect results this year.
So yeah, did we mention Oklahoma is really good?
And the Sooners are certainly not lacking in additional motivation – with a win on Saturday they would only be the fifth team in the history of NCAA gymnastics to have reached the milestone of five titles.
The solo acts
One of the most unusual aspects of the competition is the addition of individual qualifiers. For the uninitiated, the gymnasts with the highest score in regional competitions from teams that have not qualified are eligible and will then rotate with one of the eight teams for the competition. For example, UCLA failed to qualify for the team competition for the first time since 2006, but Chae Campbell, a newcomer, qualified for the all-round race and will compete with the LSU team on Friday.
What makes it so funny Let’s just start with this tweet from Bryant at LSU:
Did we just learn Chae Campbell’s entire floor routine so we could do it with her on the fringes of the Nationals?
– Haleigh Bryant (@ haleighbryant3) April 11, 2021
And you’d better believe the Tigers will dance with Campbell and cheer them on all along, as will some of the teams for their new honorary members. (Of course, individuals’ scores are only used to win individual prizes. So if Campbell squashes them, their scores do not help LSU in any way other than morale.)
Lynnzee Brown from Denver, Kennedy Hambrick from Arkansas and Hannah Scharf from Arizona will also fight for individual events and the all-round crown. (And if you don’t know Brown’s inspirational story, read it before the contest begins.)
Campbell’s UCLA teammates Margzetta Frazier and Nia Dennis will compete in bars and in the vault. We could go on and on about what a farce it is that Dennis, a senior citizen, didn’t get a chance to do any of her 2020 or 2021 internet routines at NCAAs, or that neither of them ever got a 10.0 score deserved, but let’s just watch the QUEEN together one last time, for the sake of the old days, and do the aerial spelling of her name from the comfort of our couch.