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Beam queens: Poised Florida gymnastics scores rare road triumph at LSU

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The Gators faced about as tough a climb as exists in collegiate gymnastics — and made it to the top.

Erin Long

Florida’s gymnastics team entered Friday with a No. 3 ranking and a chance to do something very rare in collegiate gymnastics. And thanks to some poise on the most treacherous apparatus in the sport, the Gators did just that.

Florida used a fantastic final rotation on balance beam to help stun No. 5 LSU on Friday in Baton Rouge, handing the Tigers their first home loss in six years in what is rapidly becoming one of the biggest rivalries in NCAA gymnastics.

In a nail-biting finish, the Gators came out on top, scoring a 197.500 to LSU’s 197.425 in front of a huge crowd (attendance 12,905) at the Paul Maravich Assembly Center. The Gators’ performance resulted in the first Tigers home loss since a defeat at the hands of Alabama in 2013 — and a total score two-tenths higher in a hostile road environment than Florida’s total last week while hosting Missouri.

As the away team, the Gators started their meet on bars while LSU — the home team, getting the preferred Olympic rotation of vault, bars, beam, and floor in order — began on vault. Reigning SEC Gymnast of the Week Alicia Boren and Rachel Gowey started the Gators off, and both scored 9.8 for hit routines. Amelia Hundley followed up with great swing and a huge stuck dismount, which scored a 9.9, her season high. Freshman Savannah Schoenherr was up next, scoring a 9.825 for her routine with perfect technique and toe point. SEC Co-Freshman of the Week Trinity Thomas scored a 9.925 for her stunning routine, giving her the highest Gator bars score for the second week in a row. Anchoring the rotation was Sophomore Megan Skaggs who showed off her perfect handstands and almost stuck her double layout for another 9.9.

And after the first rotation, Florida had a slight lead over notoriously vault-proficient LSU, 49.350 to 49.250.

The Gators then headed to vault, where they struggled on some landings last week and were definitely looking to hit clean vaults this week to stay in the game. Sierra Alexander led off with a huge stuck Yurchenko full (9.95 start value) that scored a big 9.85. Next, Maegan Chant made her season debut competing a less commonly seen vault, the Tzukahara Full (10 SV), for which she scored a 9.85. Nya Reed, Thomas, and Boren competed their Yurchenko 1.5 vaults (10 SV) with small landing deductions for 9.85, 9.875, and 9.8, respectively. Schoenherr rounded out the rotation with a 9.75 for her Yurchenko 1.5.

In total, the Gators made a good effort to raise the lower than expected vault scores from last weekend — but they also still failed to break 9.9 on any of their vaults. To be competitive against powerhouses UCLA and Oklahoma, the Gators will need to keep working on those landings and playing with this lineup.

And on Friday night, that lack of stellar scores plus LSU’s very strong bars rotation (49.525) allowed the Tigers to pull ahead of Florida, 98.775 to 98.575, after two rotations.

In order to take back the lead from LSU, the Gators needed to have an excellent rotation on floor — and they did not disappoint. Leadoff performer Hundley showed off her excellent musicality, personality, and consistent tumbling to score a 9.825 (the score was originally reported as a 9.725 with an overtime deduction, but the deduction was removed after the meet). Freshman Sydney Johnson-Scharpf followed with her dynamic routine complete with excellent facial expressions, and controlled her tumbling much better this week and finished with a big double tuck to score a 9.8. Reed and Boren then notched a pair of 9.9s with routines marked by high-flying tumbling that even excited the rival LSU crowd.

Then, after already scoring 9.925 on bars and 9.875 on vault, freshman Thomas was ready to amaze with another excellent routine. Her big tumbling including a double layout and front double full were performed with perfect technique, and she received a huge cheer from the crowd for the extreme flexibility in her dance and a huge 9.95 from the judges.

Anchoring the Gators floor rotation was sophomore Alyssa Baumann, making her highly-anticipated 2019 debut after sitting out Florida’s season opener as a precaution after a scary fall on bars in training. Baumann started her routine with a double tuck that she stuck with ease, showing the potential for her harder (double layout) pass that we should see later in the season. She finished a solid hit routine with a big double pike and scored a 9.875.

After this third rotation, the scores remained tight with LSU holding on to the smallest lead possible in collegiate gymnastics, its 148.075 score up just 0.025 points on Florida’s 148.05.

Everything would come down to the final rotation, with LSU on floor and Florida on the balance beam.

The stakes were high as Skaggs mounted the beam to start the Gators’ final rotation. She competed a very clean routine with great positions, especially on her dance elements and an almost stuck dismount, to come away with a 9.85 in the leadoff spot. Hundley was up next and showed why she was awarded the Gators Gymnastics’ Most Consistent award in 2018, she hit her routine with a big smile after her full turn and a stuck 1.5 twist to finish, she scored a 9.825 — a score that suggests she was hit with a concentration pause deduction in an otherwise excellent routine.

Boren then scored a 9.9 for an almost perfect routine, with the highlight being her gainer layout step out which landed perfectly centered on the beam. Beam queen Gowey competed next and scored a 9.925; her triple series was flawless and she stuck her gainer full dismount again.

At this point, it was clear that the Gators were definitely were fighting for this win on the cruelest apparatus in women’s gymnastics.

Thomas was up next and hit a stunning routine, adding another 9.9 to the Gators’ beam score, and to finish with a huge 39.65 in the all-around. But once again, the lineup was anchored by Baumann, the reigning SEC beam champion — and once again, she did not disappoint.

With a perfect series, gorgeous leaps, and a stuck dismount, Baumann ended the rotation and the meet with a 9.9 for her first beam routine of the season, showing exactly why that routine that is likely to get her a 10 at some point this year.

And that score helped the Gators finish the rotation with a big score of 49.475 — enough, after sweating out an LSU floor rotation that featured a 9.95 from all-around champion Sarah Finnegan (who edged Thomas with a 39.7), to take the win.

Competing on what is considered the hardest rotation in the sport, and on the road, Florida made up an entire tenth of a point in the fourth rotation on LSU — despite the Tigers performing floor routines at home, which is often a recipe for massive scores.

In this week’s final results, the Gators won shares of two event titles, with Gowey winning her second beam title of the year and Thomas sharing the floor title with Finnegan. Finnegan’s impressive meet included not just the all-around titles, but victories on bars and vault.

Of note, though? The Gators hit all 24 routines again this week, a stellar showing of mettle even in one of the most intimidating environments in their sport.

This big win should give the Gators a confidence boost as they return home next weekend to compete against No. 15 Kentucky in another SEC matchup. The meet will start at an unusually early time — 5:45 p.m. Eastern — in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Friday, January 25.

Below, some standout routines from the meet: Hundley on bars, Alexander on vault, and Gowey and Baumann on beam.