Yesterday, I went over the teams that I felt were in the bottom half of the SEC coming into the 2024 season. The upcoming season looks like it’s going to have an uneven split between the top and bottom half. The bottom four teams will be looking to get to regional finals and hope to catch a couple teams on bad days to snatch a ticket to nationals. The top half of the league is a different story.
These four teams are all nationals contenders. I wouldn’t be that surprised if all four made it to Fort Worth considering the level of talent on offer and the caliber of returners. This is going to an interesting season, the last one before the terminators arrive to wreck everything, and these four will be trading massive blows.
#4 Kentucky (2023 #6 overall, 4th at SECs)
Lost: Raina Albores, Makenna Clarke, Kassidy Howell, Shealyn Luksik, Elyssa Roberts, Lila Smith (junior transfer to Auburn), Ashlyn LaClair (grad transfer to Georgia), Kaitlin DeGuzman (grad transfer to Clemson) (2023 NQS routines: 4)
Added: Creslyn Brose, Cadence Gormley, Kaila Lawrence, Sharon Lee, Cecily Rizo, Delaynee Rodriguez
Getting back (from injury or extra year): Arianna Patterson (6th year), Raena Worley (5th year), Carissa Clay (injured in junior season), Samantha Forman (injured in freshman season), Megan Sapp (injured in freshman season), Claire Stippich (injured in freshman season),
Justification: Kentucky made it to nationals for the first time since 2018 and second time ever last season thanks to an upset of Alabama in Oklahoma. This year, they get most of that team back and add in some key pieces. The thing that has me the most excited is who they kept. Arianna Patterson and Raena Worley are absolutely incredible, with Worley being a stud all-arounder that gets overlooked far too often. That experience and talent is vital to this team being successful. They keep senior Isabella Magnelli, a total beast on beam who had the same NQS as Kayla DiCello, Trinity Thomas and Helen Hu on the event and was .001 off Thomas’ beam average. That is, to put it mildly, really good. They also kept the bulk of the 6th best vault team in the country from 2023, so that’s great.
My questions lie with the underclassmen. Bridget Bourque took longer than expected to make her debut with the Wildcats and her potential is high, but potential isn’t a data point. Three of Kentucky’s four sophomores have no meet experience thanks to injuries. What does that mean for this year, then? As for freshmen, all eyes are on Delaynee Rodriguez. She’s probably going to get some reps on bars, beam and floor after a massive improvement in 2023, but she’ll have to do something before I can say what it means for sure.
One thing I want to note that’ll make the 2024 season awesome is that, thanks to renovations at their usual home of Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats will be hosting their entire home schedule in Rupp Arena. A better venue could bring better crowds and better crowds could bring better scores. The best part is that they host Florida this year and might get the best environment in program history for a chance to see Kentucky try and earn their second win over Florida ever, and that’s entirely possible.
#3 Florida (2023 #2 overall, 2x reigning SEC champs)
Lost: Rachel Baumann, Leah Clapper, Halley Taylor, Trinity Thomas, Kayla DiCello (deferral for Olympics), Savannah Schoenherr (6th year grad transfer to LSU) (2023 NQS Routines: 9 +2 AA)
Added: Alyssa Arana, Kaylee Bluffstone, Skylar Draser, Danie Ferris, Anya Pilgrim
Getting back: Payton Richards (5th year)
Extra note: Junior Riley McCusker suffered a season-ending leg injury in November
Justification: In 2023, Florida put together what might have been the most talented roster in the history of the sport. Despite that, they still finished second as victims of the ongoing Norman Conquest. Florida got unlucky that the Sooners went on a downswing before nationals and decided to go and tie the record for best score in national championship history set by the last Sooners to repeat as champs. Now they’re here, a team that’s lost their two best all-arounders, one temporarily, and has lost more NQS scores than any team in the conference. This is not a team that’s going to compete for a national title like in the past couple of years, but when you add in other teams around the country, I don’t know if they’re even a Four on the Floor team.
This is a very hot take considering what I’ve seen from others. A lot of people seem to think that the status quo will hold, but there’s little proof beyond training videos. Worst of all, Riley McCusker suffered a season-ending leg injury last month, which is a major blow to the bars lineup. Leanne Wong is the only returning all-arounder, and I have questions about how Florida’s going to manage her. They’re responsible for her college career and her elite career, and with the Olympics just around the corner in August, load management is going to have to be a factor.
This is something I’ve thought about a ton because it’s going to be the story of the season. It’s Florida, so I trust that they got really good recruits who can patch some of the holes and get Victoria Nguyen to hit on beam more consistently. However, I don’t trust that they’ll hit as consistently as they did the last couple of seasons. Ask 2021 UCLA and Oklahoma how it felt the first season following the loss of their star all-arounder; the transition was rough. I got a feeling those pains will hit Florida and they’ll struggle in ways they just aren’t used to.
#2 Alabama (2023 #10 overall, 2nd at SECs)
Lost: Sania Mitchell, Shallon Olsen, Lauren Little (2023 NQS Routines: 2)
Added: Natalia Pawlak (sophomore transfer from Pitt), Chloe LaCoursiere, Gabby Ladanyi, Jamison Sears
Getting back: Luisa Blanco (5th year), Ella Burgess (5th year), Makarri Doggette (5th year), Mati Waligora (5th year), Corinne Bunagan (injury in sophomore season)
Justification: Never underestimate a team scorned by a season that ended too early. Alabama is a team to be feared in 2024 because they were adjusting to a new coaching staff before they found some late momentum. They hit a stumble against Kentucky in the regional finals and missed nationals for the third time in program history. This is a team that is not going to stand for that and is tired of losing, and they have the talent to make it happen.
Alabama lost a mere two routines from their 2023 team, both of which came from 5th year Shallon Olsen. They kept Ella Burgess, they kept Makarri Doggette, they kept Mati Waligora and they kept Luisa Blanco, an incredible competitor who is coming off a fantastic elite comeback representing Colombia. Blanco’s one of the top five all-arounders in the SEC and won the title in 2021. She finished with the third-highest beam in NQS in the country in 2023 with a 9.970, but she qualified to nationals on bars, the only event on which she isn’t the team’s leading returner. That honor goes to Makarri Doggette, by the way, because this is a stacked lineup of fifth years.
Beyond that, there’s junior all-arounder Lilly Hudson, another member of the Raena Worley club of all-arounders that deserve more attention, sophomore Gabby Gladieux, a star freshman that needs to continue to improve, and freshman Jamison Sears, the top recruit in this year’s class.
You combine all of that talent with a fire and desire to win and you get a team that should be in the running for Four on the Floor. Vault is the only event with big questions about if it can stay as good as it was because of the loss of Olsen. Other than that, expect big things from the Tide.
#1 LSU (2023 #4 overall, 3rd at SECs)
Lost: Lexie Nibbs, Maddie Rau, Kamryn Ryan (2023 NQS routines: 0)
Added: Jillian Hoffman (grad transfer from Utah), Savannah Schoenherr (6th year grad transfer from Florida), Kylie Coen, Amary Drayton, Konnor McClain, Leah Miller
Getting back: Annie Beard (shoulder injury before freshman season), Kiya Johnson (Achilles tear during senior season), Kai Rivers (5th year, Achilles tear during senior season), Alyona Shchennikova (5th year), Cammy Hall (Achilles tear before 5th year)
Justification: No, this is not a joke, this is one of the best teams in the country and probably the best one outside of Norman. 2023 was a journey to say the least. All of the injuries, all of the hardship and all of the setbacks gave way to the program’s first national championship appearance since 2019. They beat Florida twice, they beat Alabama on the road, they survived a tiebreaker and they finished way higher than they should’ve considering the state of that roster. Everyone came back and LSU added to their riches.
LSU gets Kiya Johnson back. That’s really good and is going to up the scoring potential of every event. They get Kai Rivers back from a late-season Achilles tear, and that could help on beam. The other two people are question marks since they haven’t competed in an LSU leotard. Sixth-year senior Cammy Hall was a vault specialist at Utah, but she might struggle to get a spot because LSU can run two top-10 vault lineups. Sophomore Annie Beard is different. She was a known scratch in the preseason because of shoulder surgery, but now she’s back. She is a natural beamer who would’ve been a huge help to the beam lineup, one that struggled early in the season.
Then there are the freshmen. Kylie Coen is a 5-star recruit and Konnor McClain is a 5-star recruit. McClain decided to nix the deferral she was planning so she could train for the Olympics and instead decided to come to LSU. She’s still planning on fighting for that Olympic dream, so there’s a chance she doesn’t do as much as she would’ve otherwise.
LSU should be in a win-now mindset, especially for SECs in New Orleans. The biggest questions I have are about if beam can improve to get to a higher level, something that Kiya’s return should provide, and if they’ll make the move to a full set of six 10.0 vaults. If you want to win the national championship, you need to run six, that’s how it works now. Elena Arenas is the only 9.95 vault I can see staying in the lineups because it’s as consistent as can be for a lead-off vault.
The season starts soon, and these teams will be extremely intriguing to watch. Best of all, they face each other on the last day of the SEC season. LSU hosts Bama and Kentucky hosts Florida. SECs is going to be a tough battle, too, and it’ll be a true nailbiter finish.