The NCAA announced the regional selections for the 2014 gymnastics championship Monday and for the sixth consecutive year the Maryland Terrapins gymnastics squad is among the field of thirty-six. The program began in 1975 and the NCAA introduced it as a championship sport in 1982. (From 1969 to 1982, the AIAW governed the sport.) The gym Terps made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1984 and 2014 marks the twenty-first time Maryland has qualified including all five years under head coach Brett Nelligan. (Note: After initial publication of this story, I was able to talk briefly with Coach Nelligan. I haven't transcribed the whole of our conversation but where I have, the context of my questions and his responses are italicized.)
Maryland's Qualifying: How it's done
Qualifying for an NCAA Regional is simultaneously straightforward and arcane. The straightforward part starts with meet scoring. This is the basis for making the NCAA Tournament. Teams compete in meets throughout the season and accumulate a team score at the end of each meet. To reach that score, each team sends six competitors to each of four events (or apparatuses) and the team score is the total of the five highest individual scores on each event. The highest possible individual score is 10.000 thus the maximum score available to any team in any meet is 200.000 (5 individual scores x 4 apparatuses x 10 perfect score).
Now things start to get confusing (and please don't ask). First, teams are placed in one of six regions regardless of the team's conference affiliation. Although Maryland competed in the EAGL in 2013, they are in the Southeast Region for NCAA scoring purposes while fellow EAGL competitor Pitt is in the Northeast Region. The schools with the thirty-six highest RQS are the teams that are placed in the NCAA Tournament. A team can finish no worse than sixth in its region and still qualify though finishing sixth doesn't guarantee qualification.
Your next task is understanding the RQS. This score is obtained by taking a team's six highest meet scores through their season. Then you drop the highest score and calculate the average of the five remaining scores. One other caveat applies: at least three of the scores must come from away meets. As a result, no more than three of the scores used in calculating the RQS can come from home meets but all could come from away meets.
Once the field of thirty-six has been determined, the NCAA then seeds the top eighteen teams and places them in a region. As with the women's basketball tournament, any qualifying team hosting a regional will be placed in that region. This means that the University of Washington, which is hosting a regional will not travel despite having one of the six lowest qualifying scores.
Maryland's bid: Who and where
For 2014, Maryland's RQS was 195.175. Only Iowa State, the seventh team from the North Central Region with a score of 195.160, had a lower RQS than Maryland. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when I reveal that Maryland is the sixth seed in their NCAA competition region. Their region, by the way, is in University Park, PA and the host school is Penn State. The other competitors in the region are the top-ranked and defending national champion, Florida Gators, twelfth ranked Oregon State, fifteenth ranked Penn State, New Hampshire, and Kentucky.
The Terps finsihed second to New Hampshire in their gym in the EAGL Tournament. I asked Nelligan hoe he felt about competing against them again so soon. "Coming up short against UNH last weekend stung a little. We're looking forward to getting another shot at them, this time on neutral ground."
This is the second consecutive year Maryland finds itself in a bracket with top ranked Florida. Last year, the Terps traveled to Gainesville where the Gators were the host school. The Gators aren't hosting this year and should be sent to the closest geographical region which would be Athens, GA. However, Georgia is one of the top six seeds and since a host school stays home, and two top seeds can't occupy the same region, the NCAA had to engage in some geographical sleight of hand to place the top seeds. This is why the Terps again find themselves paired with the Gators. What does Nelligan think? "Some people might not like drawing the number one overall seed in their bracket but we do. The only true way to test yourself and find out what kind of team you are is to go up against the best."
Maryland's ascent: Overcoming obstacles
At the beginning of the season, one of the goals of the gym Terps was to reach the national championship round. Twelve teams, the top two finishers in each region, receive automatic bids. Last season, the Terps finished fourth equaling their best regional finish in a decade. With two returning All-Americans, Katy Dodds and Stephanie Giameo, Maryland hoped that 2013-14 would represent a breakthrough year for them and they would ascend into one of those top two regional positions. And one of the keys is a high placement in the NCAA regional.
The climb grew steeper and more challenging on January twenty-sixth when Dodds went down with a season ending achilles tendon injury. Reaching the rarefied air of a high placement became even more difficult when Kathy Tang also suffered an ankle injury. Though she missed only one meet, she has only been able to compete in two of the four events since her return. Tang had competed in two of the three all-arounds (all four apparatuses) prior to her injury.
The meet at North Carolina was the low point of Maryland's season both psychologically in absorbing Dodd's loss and in registering a surprisingly low 192.300 score. Since that time, the team has gradually responded and moved their scores upward surpassing 195.000 in three of their last four competitions. Giameo stepped into a leadership role and Nelligan has gotten good contributions from a strong freshman class particularly Emily Baruckmuller, Nikki Chung, and Sarah Faller. Seniors Jessie Black and Elizabeth Manzi have also played big roles in the gym Terps late season resurgence.
Maryland's chances: A big ask
Though the obstacles are different from some other sports, entering any regional as the sixth seed creates aspirational challenges. A gymnastics meet with more than two teams doesn't present a direct face off between any two teams. So it's not as though the Terps would face the Gators head to head with the winner advancing and the loser being eliminated. All the teams compete simultaneously and the teams with the two highest scores move on.
In some ways, this would seem easier than having to win consecutive head to head matches against better better competition. However, gymnastics is a judged sport. There's a lot too see and it happens very fast. The judging also has elements of subjectivity and judges are human. A bit of self-fulfilling prophecy tends to creep in. Enter a meet as a low scoring team and the judges seem to notice flaws in your performance that they might overlook in the case of a higher scoring team. This is the first hurdle a team in Maryland's position must overcome.
In my opinion, the Terps have another challenge and that is the location of their regional. Let's posit that top-seeded Florida will advance. They could lose a full point off their RQS and still be ahead of the RQS that seeded Oregon State second. So with one spot all but guaranteed, only one spot remains. One of the four teams Maryland needs to pass in order to move on is the home team - Penn State. Like any sport, gymnastics has a home floor advantage and Penn State, whose RQS is only .140 less than Oregon State's, has an even better chance than they would otherwise of advancing one spot than the Terps do of passing four squads including the home team.
While I anticipate nothing short of their best effort and their best score of the season, it's a big ask for the Terps to make that leap. With three freshmen solidly ensconced in his rotations, Nelligan faces an element of the unknown putting that inexperience onto what will likely be the biggest stage for many of them. Here's hoping they step up.