PREVIEW: 2019 NCAA Championships
The time is now. Champaign, IL is the place to be this Friday and Saturday as a 12-team field featuring U.S. National Team members, former NCAA champions and numerous other talented student-athletes will do battle for eight titles — including the all-important team championship.
Still looking for tickets to see the show? Go get yours and we’ll see you at the State Farm Center.
Here are the twelve teams that will be competing for the national championship:
The field is nearly the same as it was last year, however there is one exception. The Army Black Knights punched their ticket and will be making their first appearance at NCAAs as a team since 2015.
The other prominent story-line, of course, will be the potential continued dominance of the Oklahoma Sooners. As the favorites heading into this weekend, Mark Williams will look to lead his team to a fifth-straight national title, potentially becoming just the second team EVER to win five in a row (the other being the Nebraska Cornhuskers from 1979-1983).
Here is a breakdown of which teams will be competing in each of Friday’s qualifying sessions. The top-three from each session will advance to Saturday evening’s NCAA Team Finals:
2 p.m. ET: No. 2 Stanford Cardinal, No. 3 Michigan Wolverines, No. 6 Minnesota Golden Gophers, No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers, No. 10 Navy Midshipmen, No. 11 California Golden Bears
8 p.m. ET: No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners, No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini, No. 5 Penn State Nittany Lions, No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes, No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes, No. 12 Army Black Knights
Along with the 12 qualifying teams, individuals from the remaining four schools will be competing on Friday as well:
Now let’s get on to our breakdown of the 12-team field, followed by our set of writer predictions…
Conference Championship Finish: 1st - MPSF
2019 High/Average: 425.7/417.975
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Gage Dyer (1st - 14.65), PH - Yul Moldauer (4th - 14.325), SR - Moldauer (1st - 14.95), VT - Levi Anderson (3rd - 14.763), PB - Moldauer (1st - 14.988), HB - Anderson (1st - 14.5)
What’s Going For Them: Yul Moldauer. The legendary senior is having one of the best seasons of his career. While it seems obvious that having the No. 1 gymnast in the country is an advantage, it becomes even more profound when you look at how that translates on the floor. Moldauer is capable of scoring a 15 on four events, taking this team’s potential to a whole new level.
What’s Going Against Them: Pressure. We saw it last year. Illinois came out of the gate swinging in the NCAA team final, putting an unfamiliar strain on the dominant OU dynasty. The Sooners had some uncharacteristic falls on rings with the Illini on their heels. Everything turned out just fine in the end as they won their fourth-straight NCAA title. Will it happen again this year? Who knows, but there are certainly some teams who are hungry to dethrone the king.
X-Factor Gymnast: Peter Daggett. The senior has battled injuries his entire career but has recovered to play a vital role in his team’s success in his final season. Daggett will have to put up solid routines on rings, parallel bars and high bar to give his team its best chance at number five.
X-Factor Event: High bar. OU is flat out dominant on floor and vault. It would be a stretch to say they are not good on high bar, but their potential on this event is not what it is on their bread and butter. Despite a No. 1 ranking in the country, teams like Stanford and Illinois could make up some ground on the Sooners with high bar.
Conference Championship Finish: 2nd - MPSF
2019 High/Average: 419.35/415.22
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Connor Lewis (3rd - 14.425), PH - Joey Ringer (12th - 13.813), SR - Josiah Eng (3rd - 14.513), VT - Brody Malone (8th - 14.588), PB - Blake Sun (3rd - 14.475), HB - David Jessen (5th - 14.1)
What’s Going For Them: The smell of victory. Stanford turned heads by coming within two points of OU at MPSF Championships despite having to count two falls on their last event. The finish reinvigorated the Cardinal’s hope for a big upset at NCAAs. If they can avoid mistakes and perform a bit better than they did at MPSF, Stanford could pull of something they haven’t done in years: capture an NCAA team title.
What’s Going Against Them: Vault. Vault, a historically strong event for Stanford, has been a surprising difficulty for the Cardinal this season. Stanford has had to test out a few different lineups throughout the season, and their mistakes on the event at MPSF showed that the lineup is still not quite figured out. Stanford will need the boost that a successful vault rotation can bring in order to challenge for a title at NCAAs.
X-Factor Gymnast: Brody Malone. There’s so much to say about Malone, a freshman and the MPSF Gymnast of the Year. His 84.05 at MPSF was counting a fall on high bar and a big break on horse, meaning his 85.25 against Cal in March was no fluke. Malone has been in the lineup on every event this season, and for the Cardinal to peak at NCAAs, they’ll need him to be in top form.
X-Factor Event: Pommel horse. Stanford’s two falls on vault seemed so dramatic because of how late they came in the meet, but their two (and a half?) falls on horse hurt them just as much. Stanford has immense talent on horse and the potential to be the highest scoring team on the event at NCAAs. To seriously take on OU, they’ll need to not only avoid falls, but also hit cleanly.
Conference Championship Finish: 3rd -B1G
2019 High/Average: 413.9/410.863
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Jacob Moore (2nd - 14.65), PH - Mack Lasker (6th - 14.088), SR - Cameron Bock (10th - 14.15), VT - Emyre Cole (2nd - 14.813), PB - Bock (4th - 14.475), HB - Bock (9th - 13.938)
What’s Going For Them: Peaking At The Right Time. It feels like Michigan is on a great trajectory. Yes, they fell just short at B1Gs, but they were still right there — just under a point from Penn State. They’ve improved by just about three points in each of their last three meets. With health on their side, Michigan is a team that may be flying slightly under the radar — surprising considering their No. 3 ranking.
What’s Going Against Them: A Big Miss. Michigan has counted a score of 11.75 or lower in every single meet of 2019. To stay in the fight for a championship the Wolverines must avoid the big mistake. One fall in a routine can happen, two can’t.
X-Factor Gymnast: Emyre Cole. Cole is having a heck of senior season. While Cameron Bock and Jacob Moore might get most of the press as all-arounders, Cole deserves some of the shine as well. With a gigantic vault and equally as impressive floor, Cole has the potential every single meet to put this UM team over the top.
X-Factor Event: Pommel Horse. Michigan is good, but not great, on pommel horse. With it being the only event they’re ranked outside the top-five nationally (No. 7), the Wolverines just need to stay the course and stay on the event. Sounds easy right?
Illinois Fighting Illini
Conference Championship Finish: 2nd -B1G
2019 High/Average: 415.7/407.45
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Sebastian Quiana (11th - 14.288), PH - Michael Paradise (2nd - 14.95), SR - Alex Diab (2nd - 14.856), VT - Michael Fletcher (13th - 14.475), PB - Quiana (21st - 13.775), HB - Hamish Carter (12th - 13.781)
What’s Going For Them: A narrow loss. Illinois was barely edged out of a title by Penn State at Big Tens, but the team proved yet again how capable they are on the big stage. Still, the Illini are undoubtedly are ready to prove they’re hungry for more than a mere share of the podium — they’ll be aiming for the top.
What’s Going Against Them: Pressure. On top of the task of rebounding from Big Tens is Illinois’ need to improve on last year’s NCAA Championships. The Illini were at one point challenging OU but ended up in third. Expectations are always high for Illinois, so it will be interesting to see how the team responds.
X-Factor Gymnast: Sebastian Quiana. Quiana simply doesn’t get enough credit for how much he contributes to Illinois’ success. He’s of course a staple on floor, but his huge parallel bars and high bar (on which he was snubbed at Big Tens) performances this season have gone a long way for the Illini both in terms of raw score and also energy and momentum. He’ll need to contribute big again at NCAAs for Illinois to make a real challenge for the top prize.
X-Factor Event: Parallel Bars. Parallel bars has been an up-and-down affair for the Illini throughout this season, and their difficulties on the event got worse after Clay Stephens’ injury. Illinois was nonetheless able to put up a decent performance at Big Tens, but it still wasn’t near their midseason peak of 70.05. Illinois needs to be pushing 69 on parallel bars to keep up with the likes of OU and Stanford.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Conference Championship Finish: 1st -B1G
2019 High/Average: 410.35/404.69
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Sam Zakutney (6th - 14.388), PH - Stephen Nedoroscik (1st - 15.088), SR - Noah Roberson (4th - 14.444), VT - Brennan Pantazis (25th - 14.3), PB - Zakutney (6th - 14.281), HB - Zakutney (7th - 14.025)
What’s Going For Them: A Championship In Their Back Pocket. The Penn State Nittany Lions pulled off what can be considered a bit of surprise by winning the B1G Championship two weeks back. With one upset in hand, what’s there to lose by going for a second? You have to imagine that the confidence will be high in that Nittany Lion locker room right before they march into the arena Friday night.
What’s Going Against Them: Vault. Penn State competed just a pair of vaults with a 5.2 start value at B1Gs. Ranked No. 8 in the country on the event, they’ll need to really hone in on the landings of their easier vaults in order to keep up with teams that are featuring three, four or even five 5.2+ vaults.
X-Factor Gymnast: Sam Zakutney. Penn State’s premier all-arounder, Zakutney, was lights-out two weeks ago. While he will compete all six events, FX, VT, PB and HB are where he’s absolutely crucial to his team’s success. Those four routines — along with Stephen Nedoroscik’s PH — might be the five most important routines for Randy Jepson’s team.
X-Factor Event: Rings. Rings sealed the deal two weeks ago for PSU. Ranked an impressive No. 3 in the country, it is this team’s bread and butter considering strong sets coming from Noah Roberson, Isaac Hammet, Brayden Borromeo, Parker Clayton and Greg Tamargo.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Conference Championship Finish: 5th -B1G
2019 High/Average: 410.95/405.405
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Shane Wiskus (17th - 14.15), PH - Justin Karstadt (8th - 14.075), SR - Karstadt (27th - 13.763), VT - Wiskus (12th - 14.488), PB - Wiskus (2nd - 14.488), HB - Wiskus (16th - 13.65)
What’s Going For Them: Shane Wiskus. The standout sophomore is coming into NCAAs as the No. 2-ranked all-arounder in the country. After an off day at the Big Ten Championships, Wiskus will look to be back in form this weekend.
What’s Going Against Them: Injuries. Shaun Herzog has been in and out of the lineup this year and his teammate Vitali Kan is nursing a hand injury. It is unknown how much these guys will be able to do this Friday, but it is tough to perform with your senior leaders at less than 100%.
X-Factor Gymnast: David Pochinka. The freshman has flown mostly under the radar this year in the middle of a strong freshman NCAA class. He is capable of big numbers on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar. Watch out for him, especially on parallel bars where he is deep in the No. 3-ranked lineup.
X-Factor Event: Rings. This event has plagued them all year and their performance at Big Tens did not stop the bleeding. They went 65.95, a number that is going to have to be higher if they want to punch their ticket to finals.
Conference Championship Finish: 4th -B1G
2019 High/Average: 408.7/403.225
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Anton Stephenson (8th - 14.375), PH - Evan Kriley (15th - 13.756), SR - Joshua Everitt (44th - 13.45), VT - Stephenson (1st - 14.875), PB - Evan Hymanson (10th - 14.056), HB - Griffin Kehler (20th - 13.575)
What’s Going For Them: Anton Stephenson. Stephenson’s trademarke poise has been a huge boon for the Huskers again this season, particularly on floor and vault — he can easily lift the Huskers two points on those events alone. The Huskers will need Stephenson’s full contribution to ensure they make it into day two and challenge for the podium on Saturday.
What’s Going Against Them: An injured Jake Bonnay. The Huskers are surely missing Bonnay’s contributions on floor and vault, two events where they could have made up ground at Big Tens had they been able to deploy one of their top guys. The absence of Bonnay means it’s even more crucial that Nebraska avoids mistakes on floor and vault.
X-Factor Gymnast: Khalil Jackson. Jackson’s impressive sets on horse and high bar, arguably the two riskiest events, have been indispensable to Nebraska's success. Neither one of the events is a particular strength for the Huskers, and that makes consistent performances from guys like Jackson ever more important.
X-Factor Event: Vault. With the help of Stephenson’s superb performances, Nebraska has managed to find success on vault this season — they’re ranked fourth in the country on the event. Their 70.45 at Big Tens was an outlier, though, so they’ll need to focus at NCAAs on getting back to using the event to make up points that they lose on other events, like rings.
Conference Championship Finish: 7th -B1G
2019 High/Average: 408.25/401.406
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Andrew Herrador (29th - 13.938), PH - Bennet Huang (21st - 13.538), SR - Jake Brodarzon (8th - 14.263), VT - Stewart Brown (23rd - 14.319), PB - Nicholas Merryman (26th - 13.75), HB - Herrador (11th - 13.85)
What’s Going For Them: No Pressure. Heading into B1G Championships in their own home with so much momentum might’ve been too much, too soon for Iowa. While they’ve made tremendous strides, program-wise (a share of the regular season B1G title does wonders), they just didn’t look quite ready two weeks ago. The good news? The Hawkeyes have a clean slate for NCAAs and won’t have the added pressure of a home crowd. A team with nothing to lose is always the most dangerous.
What’s Going Against Them: Pommel Horse. If I had a nickel every time… it was a bad start on PH that really did the Hawkeyes in two weeks ago. Iowa doesn’t need to knock it out of the water here, but they absolutely cannot afford one 11, let alone two. Stay on, get to the next event, and Iowa just might live to fight another day.
X-Factor Gymnast: Evan Davis. The freshman’s B1G Championship performance is no indication how just how talented he is. Davis has been one of the three most important gymnasts for Iowa in 2019 and you saw just how much their performance suffered when he had an off day. I’m predicting big things this weekend — and a much-improved all-around number — from the rookie.
X-Factor Event: Parallel Bars. This is Iowa’s leg up on the rest of the field. Ranked No. 6 in the country, the Hawkeyes’ parallel bars scores have been on a steady climb throughout all of 2019. That trend can’t stop now.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Conference Championship Finish: 6th -B1G
2019 High/Average: 413.15/402.588
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Joey Bonnano (53rd - 13.525), PH - Alec Yoder (3rd - 14.869), SR - Alex Wilson (21st - 13.875), VT - Sean Neighbarger (6th - 14.625), PB - Yoder (5th - 14.413), HB - Jesse Tyndall (54th - 13.0)
What’s Going For Them: Alec Yoder. The leader of this young team, Yoder was outstanding at Big Ten Championships. He claimed the pommel horse title and almost stole parallel bars as well. He will no doubt be on top of his game as we see him compete on the collegiate level for a final time this weekend.
What’s Going Against Them: Depth. This team has lost a lot of talent over the past two years and replacing all of those big names is not easy. The Buckeyes have struggled to find solid scores at the beginning of their lineups on events like parallel bars and high bar.
X-Factor Gymnast: Sean Neighbarger. Neighbarger was called on for four events last weekend at Big Tens. He is a dominant competitor on vault but has been a little shaky this season on others. Ohio State would benefit from the big performance he is capable of.
X-Factor Event: Floor. The 64.00 they put up on floor last weekend may not be as bad as it sounds considering the tight judging, but it was still over a point lower than the next worst team. The Buckeyes will need to be much better in Champaign.
Conference Championship Finish: 1st - ECAC
2019 High/Average: 408.5/397.875
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Lucas Beltran (22nd - 14.063), PH - David Touissaint (5th - 14.15), SR - Josh Williams (26th - 13.763), VT - Beltran (7th - 14.6), PB - Max Gerber (36th - 13.5), HB - Cash Buske (17th - 13.625)
What’s Going For Them: A Great High Bar Team. You want to pick up some momentum in a postseason meet? Go ahead and hit high bar. Nothing will get a team going like a 5/5 rotation, and Navy is capable of doing that and scoring well in the process. [Cash] Buske, ][Ben] Provost, [Ryan] Orce and [Ryan] McVay have been nails all year long and if the Mids were to launch a Cinderalla-type run on Friday, it’ll start and end with high bar.
What’s Going Against Them: A Capped Ceiling. For Navy to have a shot at qualifying to Day Two as a team, they’ll probably need to gun for a score roughly in the 406-408 range, at the least. Only problem is, they’ve scored above 401.15 just once this entire season. For a team with nothing to lose, who knows, maybe they get it done a second time on the biggest stage.
X-Factor Gymnast: David Toussaint. One of the most underrated pommel horse workers in the country, Toussaint just needs to do what he’s been doing all season. Put up a top PH score (has scored 13.1+ on his last nine routines) and stay on his feet on FX and VT.
X-Factor Event: High Bar. Same as ECACs. I alluded to it just a bit ago, but high bar could really be the event that propels Navy forward. Among teams in their session, only top-three opponents Stanford and Michigan rank higher on the event.
California Golden Bears
Conference Championship Finish: 3rd -MPSF
2019 High/Average: 405.5/397.615
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Darren Wong (9th - 14.35), PH - Matthew Randolph (34th - 13.213), SR - Shane Sadighi (42nd - 13.463), VT - Wong (31st - 14.25), PB - Aaron Mah (33rd - 13.65), HB - Mah (15th - 13.663)
What’s Going For Them: Floor. Cal’s strength on floor has helped outweigh struggles on events like horse and high bar this season as guys like Aaron Mah and Darren Wong have led the charge. The Bears are capable of scoring a 70 on floor, and that score would go a long way toward their goal of cracking into team finals.
What’s Going Against Them: Pommel horse. A perennially difficult event, pommel horse has tripped up the Bears all year. After hitting a high of 68.45 in February, Cal hasn’t managed to get back above 66, and their 60.1 at MPSF was a season-low. The Bears will need to find success on horse at NCAAs to avoid dropping out of the contest.
X-Factor Gymnast: Darren Wong. Wong has been a consistent performer for Cal throughout the season, and his uncharacteristic struggles at MPSF on horse and high bar demonstrated how much the team needs him. A big day from Wong with solid routines on horse and high bar would significantly raise Cal’s prospects.
X-Factor Event: Rings. Cal and Army will be the only teams at NCAAs who have yet to crack 68 on rings. They did hit 67.95 in early March with the help of Mah and Jonathan Wang’s high 13s, so a new peak is entirely possible.
Army Black Knights
Conference Championship Finish: 2nd -ECAC
2019 High/Average: 400.55/393.323
Top Scorers (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Mathew Davis (13th - 14.238), PH - Matthew Martin (29th - 13.375), SR - Cole Casanova (34th - 13.6), VT - Erik Del Cid (24th - 14.3), PB - Davis (46th - 13.313), HB - Rex Scott (29th - 13.35)
What’s Going For Them: Mentality. After a tremendous season, Army has qualified into NCAAs as a team for the first time since 2015. Anything this team does at the big event is icing on the cake. The Black Knights should be at ease as they showcase their talent this weekend in Champaign, Illinois.
What’s Going Against Them: Experience. Competing at NCAA Championships for the first time is a daunting task. For this young team, it will be the first time for many on the big stage.
X-Factor Gymnast: Elliott Herman. Cole Casanova and Mathew Davis will shoulder a bulk of the work load this weekend. What about the glue guys who create the depth to qualify to NCAA Championships? – Herman is one of them. Herman has been solid on floor and rings all year and turned out his best performance at ECACs in his last outing.
X-Factor Event: Parallel bars. It was their worst event at ECAC Championships where they posted a 61.85. They have scored as high as 65.10 this year.