The Florida Gators fought gamely all night in the Super Six on Saturday night, faltering only enough to make their comebacks from falls on their first and last rotations dramatic.
It wasn’t nearly enough for a fourth national title.
Florida posted a 197.700, a score that would have threatened to win a national title in years past, but the Gators never saw eye-to-eye with Oklahoma, which made a stunning return to the unimpeachable form it had struggled to find in recent meets and obliterated the competition with a NCAA Championships-record 198.375. And LSU, which struggled for most of the night, roared to life on the balance beam in its final rotation, posting a fantastic — in perhaps more senses than one — 49.7250 rotation score to propel itself to a 197.725 score, and past Florida into second.
The Gators finished well clear of young UCLA (197.265) and Utah (196.5875), and were as solid as Alabama (196.000) was messy on the night. And junior Alex McMurtry, fresh off her national championship performance on Friday, punctuated Florida’s Super Six with an exclamation point for the second time in three years, following a title-clinching 9.95 in Florida’s 36th routine of the night on the uneven bars in 2015 with a perfect 10.0 on the apparatus in the Gators’ final routine on Saturday.
McMurtry’s 10.0 was the third by a Gator in NCAA Championships competition, following 10.0s on vault by Susan Hines in semifinal and Super Six competition in 1998, and her 39.800 all-around score was a quietly brilliant performance — the best ever by a Gator in Super Six competition, and tied for third all-time in Super Six competiton — overshadowed by Oklahoma freshman Maggie Nichols posting a 39.8625.
But Oklahoma’s virtuoso performance showed how great the distance between the Sooners’ peak and every other program’s truly was this year. The Sooners came within 0.0025 of notching phenomenal 49.500 scores on all four rotations, set an NCAA Championships record on the balance beam that LSU would break two hours later, and posted the season’s highest score in all competitions — all with a national championship on the line.
And LSU’s insane finish — which helped the Tigers top Florida for the fourth time in competition in 2017, but also prompted grousing from fans who have viewed some of the Tigers’ gaudier scores this year with skepticism — demonstrated the value of having seniors with bodies of work that have earned the benefit of the doubt in a judged sport where subjective opinions will always decide champions.
Truth be told, Florida could have been sharper, if only marginally. McMurtry’s scores led Florida on all four rotations, and only Alicia Boren’s 9.95 on floor matched McMurtry on any of them. McMurtry’s 10 and her and Boren’s 9.95s on floor were the Gators’ only scores of 9.95 or better on the evening; Oklahoma and LSU each had three of those on the balance beam alone.
And Florida’s beam score of 49.300, despite being third-best in program history for Super Six competition, and solid enough to keep the Gators within striking distance if Oklahoma and LSU faltered, ultimately represented a failed opportunity to take advantage of the night’s most generous set of judges. The first two 10.0s on beam in Super Six history were awarded on Saturday night, to Oklahoma’s Nichols and UCLA’s Christine Peng Peng Lee, and nine routines were scored a 9.95 or better — but Florida earned none of those, despite coach Jenny Rowland’s background as a balance beam coach from her time as an assistant at Auburn.
A few slightly cleaner routines here and there, and Florida could have taken second and finally toppled LSU even with the Tigers’ bravura show on beam. But a title wasn’t in the offing on this night, which belonged to Oklahoma, and finishing third instead of second is no great disappointment.
The good news? Next year’s Super Six might feature Florida in the roles occupied by either the Sooners or Tigers.
Florida should return all 36 routines from its Super Six, as it did not bring a competing senior to St. Louis, with retired senior Claire Boyce serving only as a pseudo-assistant coach. McMurtry and Kennedy Baker, the Gators’ best two all-arounders, will be seniors, in 2018, and presumably afforded some of the leeway most great seniors are typically granted in collegiate gymnastics; McMurtry stands to be perhaps the star of collegiate gymnastics in 2018, the senior stalwart tasked with holding off the wave of talented freshmen and sophomores gunning for her crown.
And Florida will add a strong recruiting class to that mix, headlined by U.S. National Team mainstay Alyssa Baumann, who might have vied for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team were it not for an injury that forced her to miss the team’s trials — and subsequently delay her enrollment at Florida by a year.
But 2018 may be Florida’s widest window for returning to the top of the Super Six podium in the near future, as other schools have caught up to the Gators’ recruiting — arguably unmatched under previous coach Rhonda Faehn — while Faehn-era Florida commits like Laurie Hernandez and Ashton Locklear have opted to forgo collegiate eligibility instead of competing for the Gators.
It’s hard to blame Rowland for those gymnasts picking professional careers. Risking injury by competing in collegiate gymnastics, instead of risking it while competing in the far more prestigious Olympic track or choosing the easier road of exhibition gymnastics, is a fairly illogical choice, especially for someone like the pint-sized and effervescent Hernandez, as bankable a professional star as any gymnast not named Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles to have emerged this decade.
It’s also hard to blame Rowland for not being Faehn, or for this team being hawked down by the best beam score in Super Six history, or for Florida coming up short of two more experienced and arguably more talented rosters.
But Rowland took over Florida’s program at a time when Faehn had finally gotten the Gators to the mountaintop after many years of near-misses, and the towering successes of the Faehn era created Florida’s gymnastics fan base, which can be as arrogant and nouveau riche as fans of Florida’s other spectacularly successful teams, many of which have gone from mediocrity to contention to championships in staggering succession. And Rowland has had the nation’s all-around champion in each of the last two years — years in which her team finished no better than third at the Super Six.
An expectation that Florida would have the firepower to compete with Oklahoma and LSU in this year’s Super Six competition would have been unfair, and, to the Florida fan base’s credit, that did not seem to be the belief on Saturday night. But Oklahoma and LSU are both losing a slew of crucial senior contributors — the Tigers lose Sydney Ewing and Ashleigh “Bugs” Gnat, while Oklahoma loses Chayse Capps, its only all-arounder other than Nichols on Saturday, and five other seniors — and the three Super Six teams to finish behind Florida on Saturday did so in part because they lacked the Gators’ steadiness.
Further, no team that finished outside of this year’s Super Six is likely to rise to the level of the programs that competed in it, especially given that five of them were among the six teams with NCAA Division I national titles. The sixth was LSU, which is widely expected to be the seventh school to claim a crown; any other program beating the Tigers to the spot would be a substantial surprise.
(The former champ not vying for a title on Saturday was Georgia, which has fallen from the level of national championship contender since Suzanne Yoculan’s retirement in 2009, and fallen further from the top of the sport since Jay Clark’s firing — once sought by Gym Dogs fans — in 2012. Dawg Sports described Georgia’s last place finish in Friday’s semifinals as an “unmitigated disaster.”)
And so Florida will enter the 2018 season with both the legitimate national championship aspirations, which it can always have, and an expectation that it will win it all, something that will not always be attached to the Gators.
It’s a shame we’ll have to wait nine months for that season to begin.