As the Ball State University gymnastics team prepares to compete in today's Mid-American Conference championships starting at 2 p.m., here are 10 factors that will make or break the Cardinals', as well as the other teams, chances:
1. Can the Cardinals take an early lead?
For the MAC championships, each team was seeded based on the regular-season standings. Ball State has the seventh-place spot and will begin on the floor exercise.
While having the seventh spot is supposed to be a disadvantage, the Cardinals could potentially use it to their advantage.
The floor is Ball State's best event on the season, and it has the highest scores this year of any team on its event in the first rotation. The Cardinals could conceivably have the lead after the first rotation.
"We've had some of our strongest floor performances the last two weeks," coach Nadalie Walsh said. "I think the girls are confident on that event. … I'm hoping that they'll hit their routines, they'll set the bar high and no team after that will be able to match or surpass that."
Starting on the floor could give the Cardinals momentum that would propel them through the rest of the meet.
For more on the rotation order of today's meet, go to mac-sports.com and click on the "Gymnastics" tab.
2. The contenders
Although Kent State University won the regular-season MAC title, No. 24 Central Michigan University has had the better scores this season and comes into today as the favorite to take the victory.
The two teams have combined to win 21 of the 29 MAC Championships. The Golden Flashes have won three straight regular-season titles and the last two championship meet titles.
The Golden Flashes and the Chippewas have set themselves apart from the competition: They are two points ahead of the No. 3 team in the conference, which is Ball State. (Rankings in gymnastics are done by the Regional Qualifying Score, not conference record.)
More than likely, either Central Michigan or Kent State will leave Bowling Green, Ohio, with another conference title.
3. Looking to repeat
Bibiana Rodriguez came to the MAC Championships last year ranked No. 20 in the conference on the uneven bars. She was able to surprise the rest of the field to win a share of the individual title on the bars.
She won't be sneaking up on anyone this year. She is currently ranked No. 4 in the conference.
Rodriguez said she isn't having problems dealing with the heightened expectations.
"It's be nice [to win], and that's what I'm going for because I know I can do it, but there's no extra pressure," she said.
The senior is certainly a competitor. She was unhappy with her bars score of 9.775 against Eastern Michigan on Sunday, saying she was "better than that." That competitive fire will likely return today.
"I'm striving for that first place again," she said.
4. More than a title
This is the last chance for MAC schools to improve their scores to qualify for NCAA Regionals in two weeks.
While most teams in the conference are mathematically eliminated, Kent State is battling Michigan State University for the sixth and final team spot in the Central Region.
The Golden Flashes need at least a 194.8 to have a chance to pass the Spartans.
The Kent State gymnasts may have two competitions on their minds today.
5. Doing it all
Although only a sophomore, Emmons has been a leader for the Cardinals this year. She will be the only Ball State gymnast to compete in all four events today and will have strong opportunities to win conference titles in the all-around, vault and floor.
Her best chance will be on the floor, where she is No. 2 in the conference behind Central Michigan's Kristin Teubner.
Similar to Kent State, Emmons will likely have regionals somewhere in her thoughts today. She is currently the leading candidate to qualify for regionals on the floor. In the all-around, she will need a score of 39 or better to have a chance to qualify in that event.
"That's my goal is to get that," Emmons said. "And to be able to go to regionals in all-around."
Emmons career high in the all-around is a 39.3, which she scored Feb. 5 against Illinois State University.
6. Last chance
Ashley Jacob had her best vault of the season Feb. 21 with a 9.725 in Ball State's win over Illinois State and Texas Woman's University.
Since then, Jacob has struggled, missing her vault for three straight weeks.
Walsh said she is counting on the senior in her last meet as a Cardinal.
"She made one great vault a few weeks ago, since then it's been a little off," Walsh said. "I would be so happy to see her make her vault … since she's so capable. And that will give us a few extra tenths [to the score]."
7. Home advantage
The meet is hosted by Bowling Green State University, which gives them an advantage, if recent history is any indication.
Since 2001, the host school has won the championship six times in nine chances.
On the other hand, being at home wasn't as friendly to Ball State when it hosted the 2009 championships. The Cardinals finished in a tie for fifth.
8. Hitting their marks
Walsh has stressed hitting 20 of the 24 events in order to not have to count a fall. The Cardinals hit that threshold Sunday against Eastern Michigan.
Junior Katelyn Busacker and Emmons are upping the ante for today. They both said Ball State should strive for 24 hit routines.
The other benchmark Walsh has is to have all of Ball State's score be at least a 9.6. The Cardinals counted 16 scores Sunday of at least a 9.6.
Ball State will need to reach Walsh's goals if they want to finish in the top three today.
9. The waiting game
The MAC Championships have a different format than most meets.
Each team alternates between competing and byes, or breaks – although there is no break between the balance beam and floor.
Emmons said the breaks are an adjustment to she had to adjust to last year.
"I had never been in a meet that had a bye," she said. "So that waiting, waiting and waiting period until the next event is one of the things I learned [to deal with]."
The gymnasts that can remain focused while other teams are competing will have a decided advantage.
10. Staying on the beam
The beam has been the site of a few downfalls for Ball State this year.
The Cardinals saw their lowest scores in a single event on the beam, including a 45.85 in the season opener against Western Michigan University and a 46.2 against Bowling Green on Feb. 14.
Recently, the Cardinals have had more success on the event. They scored a season-high 48.6 against Central Michigan two weeks ago and haven't counted a fall on the apparatus in the last two weeks.
The beam will be Ball State's last event in the seventh and final rotation today.
"We need to make sure that we stay very calm and focused on what we're doing," Busacker said. "On beam, if you lose focus at all, there will be a little wobble here, a little wobble there. That's what ruins your score – the little wobbles. I think we just need to stay confident."
If the Cardinals come into the final rotation in contention for a top-three finish, focus and confidence on beam will be essential for the Cardinals to succeed.