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5 fascinating storylines to watch at the 2019 NCAA gymnastics championships

Maggie Nichols, the defending all-around champion, has been injured this season, but still dominates on any event she does. And the Oklahoma team will look to win the national title it just missed in 2018. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

The 2019 NCAA gymnastics championships begin Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, and this year will be can't-miss, complete with a tight race for the team title, a contentious individual all-around competition and the possibility of upsets throughout.

This year, a new format has been introduced: On Friday, two semifinals of four teams each will take place, with the top two in each semifinal advancing to Saturday's finals competition. (In years past, 12 teams competed on the first day, with six advancing to the finals.) The individual all-around champion and event titles will also be determined from the highest scores of the day Friday.

Here are five burning questions that will be answered at this weekend's competition:


Can Oklahoma reclaim its national title?

Oklahoma was on a roll going into last year's national championships. The 2016 and 2017 champs topped the standings all season and were poised to repeat before UCLA senior Peng Peng Lee's clutch 10.0 on beam gave her team the edge in the final routine. The Bruins won the title by just .037, the smallest margin in nationals history.

This year, Oklahoma is in a similar position: The team has been ranked first all season, with scores rising throughout. On the final day of regionals earlier this month, the team recorded a 198.475, the highest road score in NCAA history.

The Sooners will easily advance to Saturday's finals. The big question will be whether they can maintain perfection in finals to keep No. 2 UCLA at bay. The Bruins will be highly motivated to win again in head coach Val Kondos Field's final championships before retirement. Or will another team come from behind to upset them both? Last year, the teams that finished first through fourth were only .2375 apart -- about the deduction for a medium-sized wobble on beam.

Look for senior Brenna Dowell, competing in her first season on all events for the Sooners, to bring in big scores, along with star junior Maggie Nichols, the reigning all-around champion. Nichols has been injured and hasn't competed in the all-around since January, but even if she's not at full strength, she's still a force to contend with on any events she does.


Can Kyla Ross continue her streak of 10.0s?

UCLA junior Kyla Ross -- aptly nicknamed Kyla Boss -- has been on quite the streak lately: She's scored 13 perfect 10.0s this season alone, and at least one 10.0 in each of the past 10 meets.

Her performances have put her in good company. This year, the Olympic gold medalist beat fellow Bruin Jamie Dantzscher's 2002 record of seven 10.0s in a row and became one of 11 gymnasts to achieve the coveted "gym slam" -- a 10.0 on each of the four events throughout her career.

The Bruins will be counting on Ross' perfection to help defend their team title, and she's also in contention for numerous individual accolades: She comes into the championships ranked first in the all-around, on vault and on bars, and ranked third on beam.


Can underdog Sarah Finnegan claim the all-around title?

LSU senior Sarah Finnegan is a fan favorite, and it's clear why -- known for her grace and her near-perfect execution, the 22-year-old is a thrill to watch and a tough competitor to boot. A 2012 Olympic team alternate, Finnegan has scored a 10.0 on every event but vault (where she's earned a "perfect" 9.95, the top score she can earn for a Yurchenko full vault). At regionals, she competed having just recovered from a flu that left her unable to practice, and still won the all-around with a 39.60

Ranked second nationally in the all-around, she'll be going after the title in Friday's semifinals, but will have to fend off Ross, Nichols and Utah's Mykayla Skinner. Of course, her primary concern will be leading her team to a top-two finish Friday to make it to team finals. No. 3-ranked LSU has never won the national title, but if the team advances, is in the best position of any other squad to upset UCLA and Oklahoma.


Can Denver fend off Georgia to make the team final?

Denver's been on the up-and-up all season, making it one of the most exciting team stories going into nationals. The squad's best-ever finish at a national championship is ninth, and last year, the team didn't make the top 12 to advance to nationals. This year, though, Denver made program history by finishing the regular season in fifth.

A trip to the final four would be an incredible feat, but it won't be easy for the Pioneers to get there. Denver shares a semifinal with top-ranked Oklahoma, which is expected to advance easily. Denver's real challenge for the top two, then, will come from Georgia. A team with a strong pedigree of championships, Georgia has struggled for the past few years, but the GymDogs impressed this season with an incredible regionals performance. Their 198.050 there is higher than any of the Pioneers' scores this season, but the GymDogs were also competing on home turf in Athens.

Keep an eye out for junior Maddie Karr and sophomore Lynnzee Brown. With high averages on all four events, either of these stars could help Denver retain their edge over Georgia to make the program's first national championships.


Will Florida's individual challengers bring redemption for the Gators?

Florida won the national title three years in a row from 2013-15, placed third at last year's championships and held onto a top-five ranking throughout the 2019 season. But two falls on beam during the regional final were all it took to push the team out of contention, letting Oregon State sneak in for nationals qualifying -- the biggest upset yet in the postseason.

It's not over for Florida, though: Four Gators advanced to nationals as individuals, including senior Alicia Boren, who has a viral-worthy floor routine and a shot at the all-around title. Breakout star freshman Trinity Thomas will compete on bars, where she's ranked fourth, and floor, where she ranks second behind UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi. Sophomore Alyssa Baumann will compete on beam and freshman Savannah Schoenherr will compete for the vault title. While it won't take away the sting of the team's failure to qualify, individual accolades are certainly possible, and would be a big source of pride for the disappointed Gators team.