Most major sports are accustomed to the Power Five—a group of five athletic conferences that are arguably the biggest names in college athletics—however NCAA gymnastics has been rocking with a Power Four ever since the Big 12 added gymnastics in 2004. Over the last 20 or so years, many conferences have come and gone (rest in peace Western Athletic Conference gymnastics), but until 2021, one big name has been absent from the college gymnastics landscape: the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Flashback to June 17, 2021, when the Power Four turned into the Power Five with the announcement of Clemson adding a gymnastics team for the 2024 season. With the beginning of Clemson’s program came all the hallmarks of a burgeoning team: the search for a coaching staff, the first recruits, a few transfers, and a whole lot of hype. But what made Clemson different was that along with the new program came the onset of ACC gymnastics as a whole. The same day that the new program was announced, the ACC announced its intention to sponsor gymnastics beginning with the 2024 season. Now that we’ve gotten to this point, let’s take a look at how the inaugural ACC championship may play out in just a year’s time.
If we’re going off of past performance, N.C. State will be the team to beat going into the first season of ACC gymnastics. The Wolfpack is the only team that has consistently made regionals out of the future ACC squads, and ahead of conference championships, it may be the only future ACC team to reach the postseason in 2023.
There isn’t a reason to believe the 2024 season will look much different for N.C. State. While nothing is official yet, all three of N.C. State three senior contributors weren’t honored at their senior meet, which could signal some potential COVID years that would help the Wolfpack going into 2024. These three seniors, Alexis Ortega, Emily Shepard, and Chloe Negrete, have the highest NQS across all four events, with the latter two being the Wolfpack’s top two all-arounders as well. While the freshman class coming to Raleigh next season is not the most nationally notable, there are definitely a few lineup routines throughout the bunch.
Madison Benson was also a contributor on the leg events during her first two seasons before an Achilles tear put her out of commission in early 2023. If she’s back, she can help add depth to both the vault and floor lineups. She also competed an Omelianchik in her level 10 days, which if brought back would be Wolfpack’s only 10.0 start value vault.
One thing to keep in mind about N.C. State is that it has a bit of a reputation for showing up as the favorite for the conference championship just to be upset, first by Temple in 2021, then by George Washington in 2022. It’s possible that this trend continues with the new conference, but it’s also possible that the ACC is the new stage that N.C. State needs to finally thrive.
Ever since Dana Durante took hold of the program in 2021, the Tar Heels have been on the periphery of the regionals conversation. 2023 was meant to be a breakout year for North Carolina, and while there were many great individual moments, the team struggled to put up complete performances and thus isn’t faring much better than the prior few seasons in the rankings. However, with a fairly young team, there’s no reason to believe that next year can’t bring the success that was expected for 2023.
While the Tar Heels have resided in the 30s for much of the regular season, the bar lineup has proved itself to be top material, led by top 10 nationally ranked sophomore Lali Dekanoidze. This trend is likely to continue, with 2023 recruit Neve King’s best event being bars as well. Four-star King, along with fellow rated recruits Ashley Knight and Jessica Naranjo, make up the basis of the incoming Tar Heel class. Vault is likely also going to get a boost going into the 2024 season, with an impressive five of the incoming freshmen having trained or competed 10.0 start values, notably Knight’s front handspring pike half, which has scored as high as 9.950 in level 10. These vaults, along with potential 10.0 start values from Dekanoidze, Kaya Forbes, and Gwen Fink, could give the Tar Heels the top lineup in the conference on the event.
North Carolina’s biggest loss going into 2024 will be Elizabeth Culton, who brings top two NQSes on every event she competes: bars, beam, and floor. Assuming Culton doesn’t take her fifth year, the Tar Heels will be looking to fill a big hole on beam—the apparatus that has been plagued the most with inconsistency throughout the 2023 season. Culton asserted herself as a top beam worker nationally in 2021, ending the season ranked in the top 10 on the apparatus, followed by another season in the top 25 in 2022. While many UNC gymnasts have the talent to produce large scores, it will be hard to replace the pedigree Culton holds.
All of the tools are there for North Carolina to take a big leap in the standing both nationally and in the newly formed conference. Seemingly what’s missing is the consistency and experience needed to turn its 196s into 197s. With one more season under their belts, there’s reason to expect big things from many of the Tar Heels’ underclassman stars, and there’s no better stage to have this glow up on than under the new banner of ACC gymnastics.
Pittsburgh ended the 2023 season in an unfortunate place, not qualifying to its home regional after spending much of the season ranked just outside of the top 36. In fact, the Panthers only broke the 196 mark twice throughout the season and only once on the road. The secret weapon for Pitt in 2024 may be four-star recruit Gabriella Ortiz. Ortiz has scored 10s on vault and floor and recently scored a huge 39.400 in the all-around. Her Yurchenko one and a half is stickable and will complement Jordyn Ewing’s Tsuk full at the end of the Panthers’ lineup. Ortiz could also bring a full-in on floor and a sky-high piked jaeger on bars to help supercharge both lineups with more difficulty.
Beam has been a main concern for the Panthers, only hitting 49 in three of 11 meets over the season thus far. The issue hasn’t necessarily been counting falls, but rather having to count multiple scores in the 9.400 range. The fight is there, but if Pitt wants to top the conference, it’s going to take more than an average of 48.646 on beam. This being said, Haillie Copperwheat and Reyna Garvey have both hit the 9.950 mark throughout the season, showing potential on the event.
Bars, on the other hand, has shown great amounts of potential, even if it—along with floor—is the Panthers’ lowest-ranked event. Pitt has only experienced one real miss and has gone as high as 49.400 during the season, led by Copperwheat’s, Ewing’s, and Natalia Pawlak’s season highs of 9.950. When everyone’s hitting to their fullest potential, this lineup has the ability to score at the top of the conference, but it’s just as likely that the Panthers have to settle for a high 48. Incoming freshman Julie Røttum Madsø also brings both an inspiring story and potentially high-scoring bars and floor routines to Pittsburgh.
Clemson is the biggest question mark of the 2024 season, combining a litany of Utah State transfers with a number of level 10s with varying levels of success in their club careers. All of the Utah State transfers have also taken a year off from competing in the gap between the Clemson program being announced and the inaugural season. Since Clemson is such a big mystery, let’s look at how each event looks to be shaping up with the currently committed gymnasts.
Vault is the event with perhaps the most depth across any event. Five of the six Utah State transfers competed vault back in Logan, and three of them—Rebecca Wells, Trinity Brown, and Molly Arnold—had a 2022 NQS over 9.800. Freshman Kate Bryant has also trained a Yurchenko one and a half onto a mat in the pit, which could be big for the Tigers if it comes to fruition. There are also a few more Yurchenko fulls from the freshmen, with Quinn Kuhl’s having scored well in the past. Brie Clark didn’t score the best on vault at Utah State, but she is training a Tsuk full that could see lineup time.
Bars is a little more of a question mark than vault, with only three transfers competing the event in the 2022 season. Of these two, only Wells and Eve Jackson consistently scored in the 9.8-plus range. This could be the event where Lilly Lippeatt makes her biggest impact, coming off of shoulder surgery in early 2022. The former elite has been training a clean routine since recovering from surgery, with composition consisting of a Maloney to Pak and a giant full to double tuck. While she hasn’t been to many competitions yet this season, she is yet to score below 9.675. Delaney Fisher also has a nice bars set, including a piked Jaeger and a Pak.
Beam is another event with spaces to fill, with only three of the transfers competing at Utah State. The good news, however, is that all of these beamers were relatively successful. Wells, Clark, and Kielyn McCright all had season highs over 9.900 and NQSes over 9.850. Lippeatt had a difficult set as a junior elite, complete with a layout to two feet series and a transverse straight jump full. While it’s been a while since Lippeatt has competed beam at such a high level, since surgery she has posted videos training a unique front aerial to Korbut series, which could be the basis of a high-scoring routine.
Along with vault, floor is likely to be Clemson’s deepest event, with five of the six transfers competing it during the 2022 season at Utah State. 2022 MRGC Freshman of the Year Brie Clark will immediately bring star power to the floor lineup after ending the 2022 season ranked 16th nationally, in part due to her sky-high double layout. While she may not bring the Biles I with her to South Carolina, she’s likely to build on her breakout freshman season success with ease. Freshmen Lily Kurrack and Maggie Holman should also be bringing E-value passes to the lineup, though Kurrack hasn’t competed since nationals last year.
The important thing to remember going into the first season of ACC gymnastics is that there are a lot of unknowns. While Clemson is obviously the biggest question, with many of the gymnasts not competing in over a year, there are still other questions yet to be answered. Will the new conference be scored more in line with other Power Five conferences or be scored similarly to the EAGL? If the former ends up being the case, we could see all four of these teams make a leap up the national rankings to be in line with the rest of the powerhouse conferences. Regardless of what the rankings say at the end of the season, the inaugural season of ACC gymnastics is likely to be one of the closest, most interesting conferences to follow throughout the year.
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Article by Ian LeWarn
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