© John Cheng

By Paul Logothetis

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, Oct. 4, 2017 – Despite a group of newcomers to the World scene, the U.S. performance today was solid enough to keep a fifth straight World Championships triumph in sight.

A small pep talk from Aly Raisman helped some, too.

The inexperience of a fresh-faced women’s team without four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles at the helm showed itself on Wednesday when the program’s pedigree ultimately triumphed, with Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd both qualifying for the all-around final.

The Americans didn’t quite display their usual polish with some slips, falls and missed cues, but Smith used an excellent floor exercise to leap to second in the overall standings. Hurd, meanwhile, sat in sixth.

Jade Carey and Ashton Locklear also reached individual finals as this American team made a promising start on the international stage after having dominated it for so long.

Smith said a group pep talk with Olympic gold medalist Raisman before qualifying prepared the group for the world stage.

“She said have fun, show off, and do what you do in training, trust your training,” said Smith, whose qualifying-best floor exercise helped overcome a fall on the balance beam and a nervy showing on the uneven bars.

The 16-year-old Texas native – one of the favorites to stretch the U.S. Worlds win streak to five straight golds – scored 55.932 from four events to trail Japan’s Mai Murakami by a hair (55.933).

Hurd, meanwhile, displayed some jitters on the floor but held her poise to reach Friday’s final with a score of 54.832.

Carey showed the nerve of a veteran as she reached the finals of her two events – vault and floor – while Ashton Locklear advanced into the uneven bars final.

National team coordinator Valeri Liukin had said the American girls were “starting from scratch” with Biles, Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez among those missing in Montreal. Wednesday marked the first time since 2007 a women’s team did not contain a single Olympic competitor.

The U.S. women received one of the largest ovations at the Olympic Stadium, where one of the greatest hurdles to all-around gold was already out of the way before the women even stepped out into the Olympic Stadium.

Larisa Iordache exited the competition earlier Wednesday to a left leg injury sustained in warmup. The Romanian – who won bronze at the last Worlds in Glasgow – was expected to provide one of the stiffest challenges to U.S. all-around title aspirations.

Carey’s enthusiasm was apparent as the 17-year-old charged through her international debut. She launched her opening Amanar sky-high, needing to take a big step forward before judges rewarded her with a 15.066.

Carey’s second vault – a Kasamatsu full twist had a hop on the landing – showed more restraint but excellent air for 14.633 and a spot in Saturday’s final with an average of 14.849. She trailed only defending champion and Olympic silver medalist Maria Paseka of Russia’s leading average of 14.933.

Hurd and Smith matched scores of 14.466 with their single vaults, Hurd landing her Yurchenko double full with a small adjustment before Smith’s own featured a slight hop back on the landing.

Uneven bars presented some disappointment as minor errors cost Smith (14.133) and Hurd (14.333).

“Nerves were clearly there but nerves keep you going,” said Hurd, who was pleased with how she handled the spotlight. “I was surprised at how calm I was. I wasn’t too shaky as I usually am. I just felt really excited.”

Locklear, meanwhile, stuck her full out dismount following a trademark opening sequence, transitioning back and forth from high to low. She was left to sweat out qualifying before her score of 14.566 left her seventh and into Saturday’s final. (Locklear qualifies in sixth position due to the two per country rule.) Elena Eremina of Russia led with 15.100.

Hurd was the lone American to reach Sunday’s beam final with a second-best score of 13.500 behind leader Tabea Alt of Germany. Locklear and Smith both slipped during their routines.

“I just shook myself off and told myself I could do it,” Smith said of regaining her composure before her final event on the floor. “I just went out there and I did it. I said go strong and give it all.”

She dominated with a routine that included an Arabian double to stag and a double pike with small hop for a leading score of 14.433. Murakami (14.200) was the only thing that split her from Carey in the standings as her American teammate bounded high for a huge double-double and full-twisting layout on her way to third in 14.100. The final of floor exercise is on Sunday.