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Florida gymnastics starts 2019 with highest-ever season-opening score

The Gators missed Alyssa Baumann — but not nearly as much as they might have without their fantastic freshmen.

Gymnastics: 2017 P&G Gymnastics Championships Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators gymnastics program opened its 2019 season on Friday night without sophomore Alyssa Baumann, a key competitor on a team that finished third at the 2018 NCAA Championships.

And the Gators did indeed miss Baumann — but not that much.

The Gators rallied from early struggles to shine on opening night, securing a 197.300-196.450 win over the No. 11 Missouri Tigers by posting their best season opening score ever. (Florida’s previous high in a season opener was a 197.125 in a victory over Illinois-Chicago in 2008.)

It’s also the second-highest season opening score of this 2019 season, and the best score not posted by the juggernaut that dons crimson and cream at Oklahoma. (The Sooners scored a titanic 198.050 in their season opener last weekend.) The Gators came into the meet unranked because they did not compete last weekend, but this score will ensure a ranking in the top five going into the third week of competition.

Prior to Baumann’s injury, the big story of the meet was expected to be the Gators’ huge and highly-regarded freshman class. And the first rotation threatened to make it about whether that class would have a shaky start.

As the home team, the Gators started their competition on the vault. That start was slow, as they tallied only a 48.925 on the event. Rachel Gowey and Sierra Alexander started the rotation off scoring 9.725 and 9.775, respectively, for their Yurchenko Full vaults (start values of 9.95). Nya Reed, Trinity Thomas, Alicia Boren, and Savannah Schoenherr then followed with a series of Yurchenko 1.5 Twist vaults (Start Value 10.0) that saw mixed results, with the high point being Boren’s vault that scored a 9.875 with an almost stuck landing and the low point being Schoenherr having to go to a knee because of a slight over-rotation and getting a 9.450 that would be dropped. The Gators ended the rotation trailing Missouri by two-tenths of a point, 49.125 to 48.925.

Yet vault, despite Friday’s low score, probably isn’t a long-term problem for the Gators. The slew of higher start value vaults will start generating bigger scores later in the season as the athletes clean up their landings, and there was plenty of promise on display on Friday. In particular, Reed and Thomas both showed excellent amplitude and form on their vaults; it was issues controlling the extra power on their landings that resulted in lower scores.

And after the rough vault rotation, the Gators executed well for the rest of the night.

Their second event was the uneven bars, which would become a highlight of the night. The Gators scored a 49.500 on the event, which would briefly be the highest bars score of the young 2019 season until Oklahoma (who else?) scored a 49.525 later in the evening.

This rotation started off strongly with a series of 9.8+ routines from Boren, Gowey, Amelia Hundley, and Schoenherr, easily changing the tone set by the vault rotation. Thomas would then follow up these routines with a practically perfect routine with great swing and huge bar change release moves, scoring a 9.95 in her first bars routine with the Gators. Megan Skaggs rounded out the rotation with a career-high 9.925 for a gorgeous routine with perfect handstand positions and a floating stuck double layout dismount.

And that score helped Florida take a lead it would not relinquish.

Anyone who watched Gators gymnastics last season knew that the lack of Baumann would be felt the mostly strongly on the beam, where she is the reigning SEC champion and routinely put up 9.9s. But in her absence, Florida’s beam rotation still started off strongly, with Skaggs and Hundley scoring 9.875 and 9.850, respectively, for two solid hit routines. Boren followed with an excellent routine scoring 9.900, with the only noticeable deduction coming from a small hop on her gainer full dismount. With how solid she looked last night, keep an eye on her for a 10 later in the season.

The highlight of the rotation would come on the next routine: Gowey scored another 9.9 after nailing her triple series, showing perfect 180+ split position, and debuting a new front tuck. She, too, will definitely be chasing a 10 this season. Thomas followed Gowey with a 9.85 for another hit routine complete with great performance quality (and a shimmy!) And with Baumann’s injury, freshman Leah Clapper got the call to step into the lineup; she finished the rotation by scoring a 9.875 for a solid routine complete with a difficult triple series, showing that she is a candidate for the final lineup as well as a great option for a backup athlete. After this rotation, even without Baumann’s probable 9.9+ score, the Gators led Missouri by half a point.

The final rotation, floor, was perhaps the most anticipated events for Florida. No rotation will see more new faces this year than this one: Florida can no longer count on Alex McMurtry and Kennedy Baker for routine high scores (and, in Baker’s case, multiple 10s before her injury), and no longer has reliable performer Rachel Slocum or pinch-hitter Grace McLaughin, either.

So the spotlight was on the freshmen to deliver on the floor. And they shined.

Hundley, a junior, started the rotation off with a fun circus-themed routine, which scored a 9.85. Freshman Sydney Johnson-Scharpf then competed in her Gator debut and dazzled the O’Dome with her dancing; while she scored just a 9.75 for a routine where she struggled with a few landings, it was not hard to see high-score potential in her big tumbling and commitment to her dance. Reed came out of the gate running in her first Florida floor routine, starting off with a huge double layout and competing with the confidence of a seasoned competitor, earning a 9.925 for her debut. And Thomas, performing fifth, showed off skills highlighting her extreme flexibility and power, including a front layout to front double twist not often seen in collegiate gymnastics, and ultimately nabbed a 9.9 that would give her silver medalist honors in the all-around (39.425) on the night.

But Boren’s routine — highly awaited after her series of electric performances in the last three seasons — opened with a pass to the MGM movie opening, and as she transitioned through several pieces of music, she showed off her performance quality and sass as well as unbelievable tumbling including an exceptionally high stuck double tuck. It scored a big 9.925 — she will be looking for a 10 this season — and gave Boren the all-around title at 39.525.

Rounding out an already strong rotation was Gowey, who stepped in after Baumann’s injury; she performed a routine with a different balletic quality than the rest of the team and earned a 9.875 for the clean routine.

Boren’s all-around win was her 12th for the Gators, and she also shared the vault title with Missouri’s Hannah McCrary (9.875), the balance beam title with Gowey (9.9), and the floor title with Reed (9.925), while Thomas won the uneven bars with her 9.95.

And while she was missed in the lineup, Baumann was in attendance at the meet and appeared to be in good spirits. She gave many of the freshmen pep talks before their routines and was dancing with the rest of her team throughout the meet. Her return timeline is still questionable, but it was good to see her out there with her team after her fall and trip to the hospital. (She was joined in cheering on teammates by sophomore Jazmyn Foberg, who contributed in most meets last season. Foberg had elbow surgery during the fall semester and is also out of lineups with an unclear return timeline.)

Following this meet, the Gators look primed to make another run for a NCAA title by April. With cleaner landings on vault — and a healthy Baumann — the Gators should be able to compete with any team in the country, including favorites UCLA and Oklahoma.

And next week brings an early test: The Gators will travel to Baton Rouge to compete against No. 4 LSU, which will be hungry for a win after an upset by No. 17 Auburn.

If you missed the meet, required watching is below, in the form of Thomas’s bars (9.950), Skaggs’s bars (9.925), Gowey’s beam (9.900), and the floor routines from Reed (9.925), Thomas, (9.900), and Boren (9.925).