7 reasons you absolutely must watch

A sprained ankle that might determine it all. The most impressive display of mask-wearing you’ve ever seen. Two viral superstars. And an underdog story for the ages.

It’s been two years since we’ve crowned an NCAA gymnastics champion. But these eight teams — and a slew of qualified individuals — might make it worth the wait.

In front of a limited crowd of about 3,250 at the new Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, the action gets underway with Florida, Minnesota, California and Michigan in Friday’s first semifinal (1 p.m. ET; ESPN2) and Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah and LSU competing in the night session (6 p.m. ET; ESPN2). The top two teams from each semifinal will advance to Saturday’s team final (3:30 p.m. ET; ABC). Individual event winners and the all-around champ will be crowned Friday night.

From Oklahoma’s quest to defend its title to LSU’s dynamic duo that might just reverse the program’s NCAA fortunes, here’s what you need to know ahead of the season’s final weekend.

Trinity Thomas: Comeback queen?

The No. 1-ranked all-arounder on the No. 1 team in the nation, all eyes will undoubtedly be on Florida’s Trinity Thomas during the afternoon session of Friday’s semifinals. She’s been limited to just bars for the past month due to an ankle injury, but her teammates and fans are hopeful she will be healthy enough to return to all four events this weekend.

If she is, there’s not much to say to every other team other than: Good luck. You’re going to need it.

A longtime national team member, who also hopes to earn a spot on this summer’s Olympic roster for Tokyo, Thomas is the only gymnast in the country this season to be named an All-American on every single event and for the all-around. Ranked No. 1 on bars and No. 2 on floor, she’s received four perfect 10.0 scores this year (two on floor, two on bars).

If you’re still not getting what makes her so (so) good, perhaps the floor routine below will help.

To quote commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke, “The double layout is out of this world. Others are amazing. Hers are truly — exponentially — greater.”

Thomas will look to lead the Gators to their fourth NCAA title, and first since 2015, as well as take home some shiny hardware for herself.

California Love

It’s not unusual to see a team from California at the NCAA championships.

It’s just usually that other state university — you know, the one in Los Angeles — and not the one from Berkeley. But following one of the best seasons in program history, Cal is making its third-ever nationals appearance.

The Golden Bears held off the Bruins during the regional finals earlier this month to secure their spot by notching their second-best team score in program history (197.750). While strong on all four events, it’s what they did on bars at regionals and throughout the season that sets them apart.

Just how good is Cal on the event? Aside from being ranked No. 1 in the nation as a team, the Golden Bears notched four of the seven spots on the all-conference team and tied the collegiate record for best combined score (49.825) on bars. That’s right — they’re NCAA-record-making good.

And, in case you missed this last month, senior Emi Watterson got a perfect score — just the fourth in school history — during the meet and went viral. She also happened to be wearing a mask during the entire routine.

Watch the routine below and get very excited to watch the all-bars live stream on Friday.

Why not LSU?

The phrase, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” gets thrown around a lot, but in LSU’s case, it truly couldn’t be more accurate. A perennial contender, the Tigers have come this close to winning the title over the years. They’ve made the team final seven times and taken home three runner-up trophies — but have never been able to finish the job.

But could 2021 finally be the year for LSU? In his first season as head coach following the retirement of the legendary D-D Breaux, Jay Clark has had his fair share of struggles with team consistency, but in this pandemic-affected, unprecedented season, anything is possible.

The Tigers enter the weekend ranked No. 3 in the nation and are led by sophomore Kiya Johnson and freshman Haleigh Bryant — who have a combined five perfect scores on the season.

Johnson is the top-ranked gymnast in the nation on floor and won the SEC title last month on the event. You’re going to want to make sure you can clear the next 95 seconds of your life here to watch this in full because you do not want to miss her flawless double pike final tumbling pass.

Bryant was named the SEC Freshman of the Year, and took home a share of the conference title on vault. She’s ranked No. 3 in the country on the event, as well as No. 4 on floor.

Even with attendance limited to 25% capacity, the Tigers always bring one of the rowdiest and liveliest fan bases — and it will probably feel like they won regardless of the actual outcome.

Lucky No. 7?

LSU won’t be the only team looking for its first national title this weekend. Cal, Michigan and Minnesota are all hoping to make history for their respective programs. As just six teams have combined to win all 39 championship trophies in the history of the event at the NCAA level, it won’t exactly be an easy feat.

In fact, we haven’t seen a first-time winner since Oklahoma in 2014.

But Michigan hopes the 25th time is the charm (yup, that’s how many times the squad has reached the semifinal round) and is riding a serious hot streak. The Wolverines swept all the event titles, including the all-around, during the regional finals and even set a program-record on bars (49.725). Junior Natalie Wojcik has notched two perfect scores this season on vault and beam and, as the 2019 NCAA beam champion, she definitely has what it takes to get that natty.

Michigan’s Big Ten foe Minnesota has its own superstar in senior Lexy Ramler, who was the all-around runner-up at nationals in 2019. She scored a 9.90 or better on every event at the regional finals and also has nabbed two 10.0 scores in 2021 on vault and beam.

Utah, by contrast, is in search of its record-tying 10th NCAA team title but first since 1995. And if there’s ever a time to snap that title drought, it might just be 2021. Coming off a Pac-12 victory and advancing to the NCAA championships for the 39th-straight year — yes, that’s every year for those of you keeping track — the Red Rocks are led by a beam queen of their own in Maile O’Keefe. The sophomore earned a 10.0 on the event this season and won the conference crown — as well as the all-around title and on bars and floor.

Roll Tide

While Florida and LSU received their fair share of headlines and expectations this season, it was Alabama who stunned just about everyone by winning the conference title in March.

The Crimson Tide is led by sophomore Luisa Blanco, who clinched the SEC team victory and the all-around title with a 9.95 on beam to end the meet. Later named the SEC Gymnast of the Year, Blanco is ranked No. 4 in the nation in the all-around and No. 6 on beam.

If you don’t recognize her name, you might want to take the rest of the day to get familiar. Blanco has proven she is at her best in the clutch and could be a serious contender for multiple titles in Fort Worth.

We’ll just drop her SEC-winning beam routine here. Come for the heroics, stay for the artistry. And the elegance. And the toe points. And the flexibility. And the confidence. We think you get the idea.

Warning: This might get even the most ardent Alabama hater to yell, “ROLL TIDE.” You’ve been warned.

Looking for revenge

OK, you didn’t actually think we would write this whole thing without talking about the defending champions, did you?

The Oklahoma Sooners are seeking their fourth title since 2016 and are tied with Florida as the top-ranked team in the nation. The team had its undefeated season and eight-year Big 12 title streak snapped by Denver last month but came out looking for revenge at regional finals, with a 198.175 — the highest score by any team at any site.

The team is led by senior and co-Big 12 Gymnast of the Year Anastasia Webb who has one of the most impressive resumes in college gymnastics. Ranked in the top five in the all-around and on beam, and the top-ranked vaulter in the nation, she has nabbed 30 event titles and earned four perfect 10.0 scores this year (one on bars, one on beam and two on vault).

And while Webb is more than impressive on her own, do you know what’s better than having one top-ranked vaulter on your roster?

Two top-ranked vaulters. Webb is tied with teammate Evy Schoepfer for the top spot. And, both Schoepfer and Olivia Trautman also earned perfect scores on the event this year.

So yeah, did we mention Oklahoma is really good?

And the Sooners are certainly not short of any extra motivation — with a victory on Saturday, they would become just the fifth team in NCAA gymnastics history to hit the five-title milestone.

The solo acts

One of the most unusual aspects of the competition is the addition of individual qualifiers. For the uninitiated: The top-scoring gymnasts at regionals from teams who did not qualify are eligible to compete and are then assigned to rotate with one of the eight teams for the competition. For example, UCLA failed to advance to the team competition for the first time since 2006, but Chae Campbell, a freshman, qualified for the all-around and will be competing alongside the LSU team on Friday.

What makes this so fun? Well, let’s just start with this tweet from LSU’s Bryant:

And you better believe the Tigers will be dancing with Campbell and cheering her on throughout, as will several of the teams for their new honorary members. (Of course the individuals’ scores are only used to win individual awards — so if Campbell crushes it, her scores don’t help LSU in any way other than morale.)

Denver’s Lynnzee Brown, Arkansas’ Kennedy Hambrick and Arizona State’s Hannah Scharf will also be competing for individual events and the all-around crown. (And if you don’t know Brown’s inspiring story, you might want to read up before competition gets underway.)

Campbell’s UCLA teammates Margzetta Frazier and Nia Dennis will be competing on bars and vault, respectively, but as neither qualified for floor, that means we won’t see either of their viral routines this weekend. We could go on and on about what a travesty it is that Dennis, a senior, didn’t have the chance to perform either of her internet-breaking routines from 2020 or 2021 at NCAAs, or that neither ever earned a 10.0 score, but let’s just watch the QUEEN together one last time for old times’ sake and do the air spelling of her name from the comfort of our couch.

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