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Florida gymnastics has title dreams dashed by balance beam at NCAA Regionals

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The trickiest apparatus in gymnastics threw Florida for a loop last weekend.

Erin Long

As detailed last week in this space, women’s gymnastics has adopted a new format for its postseason this year, one that all stakeholders hoped would bring more excitement and upsets to a typically staid affair.

It did just that over the weekend in Corvallis — but the upset that transpired, one that leaves the Florida Gators on the outside looking in at Nationals, is one that no one had expected.

Thanks to two falls on the balance beam — and despite a furious rally in their three other rotations — the Gators were upset by Denver and Oregon State in the finals of the Corvallis Regional last Saturday, and will not be traveling as a team to Fort Worth for the NCAA National Championships.

This is the first time since 2011 that Florida has not won its regional meet — and, more importantly, is the first time since 2000 that Florida will not compete as a team at the NCAA Championships.

And Saturday’s shocker came after a regional semifinal in which things went pretty well for Florida. The Gators started on vault — where, no surprise, the rotation score was a little low — and saw Sierra Alexander stick another Yurchenko full for 9.875 and Savannah Schoenherr stick her Yurchenko 1.5 for a 9.9 (which would be the highest score at the entire regional on Friday). With a few errors and lower scores, the Gators finished the rotation with a 49.075 — nothing to be concerned about with their best events still to come. The Gators then headed to bars and had a really clean rotation, completely resetting the tone. Amelia Hundley and Megan Skaggs both scored 9.9 and Trinity Thomas scored a 9.925, all for excellent routines. With the rest of the Gators scoring 9.85s, the rotation total was a 49.425.

And on the balance beam, the Gators had a stunning rotation, featuring 9.9s from Alyssa Baumann and Megan Skaggs. Alicia Boren competed probably her best routine for a 9.95; with that routine, she took the top of the regional event standings. The Gators scored a 49.5 on beam, matching a huge score set by home-standing Oregon State earlier in the rotation, and headed to the floor with a 0.175 lead over the Beavers and a 0.925 lead over third place Stanford.

There, the Gators did what they always do on floor and came out of the gate running: Amelia Hundley and Skaggs started the rotation off with a pair of 9.875s, and Nya Reed and Boren followed with a pair of 9.9s. Thomas topped of the rotation with a 9.95, and knowing that they had already qualified for Saturday, the coaches opted to rest Baumann in the sixth spot. The Gators finished in first with a 197.50, while Oregon State also qualified for Saturday’s regional final with a 197.125.

The event titles for the Corvallis Regional were given out after the semi-finals and Gators captured a share of four of them: Vault (Schoenherr, 9.9), uneven bars (Thomas, shared with Denver’s Maddie Karr and Oregon State’s Sabrina Gill, 9.925), balance beam (Boren, shared with Denver’s Alexis Vasquez, 9.95), and floor (Thomas, shared with Denver’s Lynnzee Brown, 9.95) all saw Florida athletes top the podium. Denver’s Karr and Brown tied for the all-around title with a 39.525, while Boren was third with 39.475.

On Saturday, however, things went downhill quickly.

The Gators started on beam, one of their stronger apparatuses, and everyone was expecting them to start to pull away from the pack. The tone of the competition shifted almost immediately, though: After a good routine (9.775) from Hundley, Skaggs came off on her series. Boren — who, mind you, had shared the top of the podium for a great beam routine one day prior — then followed with another fall on her series, meaning that Florida would now have to count a fall in an elimination meet.

All was not lost, as Florida’s scores entering the weekend suggested the Gators did have a decent scoring margin on Oregon State and that it was possible to come back, but near-perfection would be required. Rachel Gowey tried to set the rotation straight with a beautiful routine (9.85), but while Thomas and Baumann hit their routines, small errors added up and they had to settle for lower scores (9.825 for Thomas, 9.750 for Baumann) than they are capable of producing. Florida finished the rotation in fourth place with a 48.475, over a point lower than their beam score from the previous night.

And it was both the falls and the lower-than-expected scores on beam that really hurt Florida. While one fall would have been far from fatal, the Gators sustaining two meant having to count one 9.275 and multiple 9.7s. Over the 24 routines performed on beam on Saturday, Florida produced four of the six lowest scores — and had to count three of them.

For Florida to advance from that stage, the Gators needed to hope for a mistake from OSU or Denver, and have to be perfect through the rest of their own meet.

They certainly made a stab at the latter.

The Gators next headed to the floor, where they had a good but not great rotation, with the only noticeable error being a very low landing from Baumann on her double pike. They tallied a 49.425, which would help their score, but they really needed to be over 49.5 to make up for the mistakes made on beam — and given that that score was still the night’s best on floor by more than a tenth of a point, the strictness of the judging hurt Florida there. Notably, though, Thomas went completely lights out on floor to score a huge 9.975 — further cementing, before judges who may never see her again, that she’s got 10 potential on the event.

The next rotation would be vault, where the Gators had struggled all season. Digging deep, though, the Gators pulled out one of their best rotations on the apparatus all year: Skaggs and Alexander brought stuck Yurchenko fulls for a pair of 9.875s and Schoenherr stuck her 1.5 again for a 9.9. Reed, Boren, and Thomas all hit their 1.5s, but didn’t stick their landings; for Boren and Thomas, that just mean settling for scores in the 9.8s. The 49.375 the Gators scored here was the highest on the apparatus of the whole regional weekend, and their second-highest score on vault all year, and enough to close the gap on Oregon State to just under half a point at 0.45 with one rotation to go.

But with that final rotation putting the Beavers on the floor in front of their home crowd and Florida on bars, the Gators needed both their own best effort and a mistake from the home team — and the second part of that just didn’t happen.

To its credit, Florida never gave up. Each Gator went up and hit her bars routine. Hundley, Schoenherr, and Thomas all stuck their dismounts and scored 9.9s; Florida’s 49.425 on the bars was only fractionally worse than Denver’s 49.450, the best bars score on the night. And when Oregon State started slow on the floor with a 9.625 and a 9.75, it almost looked like the Gators would be able to pass them.

Alas, in the end, two clutch 9.9s from Oregon State’s Kaitlyn Yanish and Isis Lowery pushed the Beavers ahead of Florida in the final standings, 196.9 to 196.7. And with Denver winning the meet with a 197.375, it would be Oregon State following the Pioneers to Nationals as the Corvallis Regional’s runner-up.

To be clear, this is not how anyone expected the Florida season to end as a team. We knew that this new postseason format was going to be brutal, with two meets in one weekend for regionals, fewer regionals meaning higher-ranked teams crammed into the same regional, and fewer teams making it to nationals. Teams were going to have to hit every time to get to the final stage of team competition. And Florida did have arguably the easiest regional draw by team composition, even if flying to the other corner of the country was no prize.

But at the same time, this result has little to do with the talent of this team — which, if it had made Nationals, could very well have contended for a title — or the incredible coaching staff at Florida. It had everything to do with a fluke nervy performance on one of the most important nights of the year.

And, importantly, the season is not all over for Florida’s gymnasts. Four Gators qualified to nationals as individuals based on their scores in the semi-final on Friday night, and all four of these Gators can contend for a national title. Boren will compete as an all-arounder, Trinity Thomas will go on bars and floor, Savannah Schoenherr will vault, and Alyssa Baumann will hop on the beam. Unfortunately, while Florida’s quartet is the most individual competitors of any team heading to Fort Worth as a collection of individuals, the Gators not competing as a team means that Thomas will not be able to compete in the all-around, and SEC champions Megan Skaggs and Rachel Gowey will not have a chance to contend for the beam title.

Personally, I am shocked, and I know I speak for the whole of the Florida gymnastics fan base in wishing this season had ended differently. This team is incredibly talented and certainly would have had a shot at the title if the made it to the championships. (Maybe most gutting? If the Gators had copied and pasted the vaults they had on Saturday night, they would have been as serious a threat to Oklahoma as any team has been all season.)

But that dream got dashed on a four-inch beam in Corvallis. And now we are left to channel our energy into cheering on our amazing individual competitors, who all have a chance to bring trophies back to Gainesville from Fort Worth — if, sadly, not the biggest one.