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Florida gymnastics soars to nation-leading score in 2020 season debut

The Gators’ bow after a stunning end to their 2019 season? A nation-leading score.

Erin Long

On Friday night, Florida gymnastics opened its 2020 season to high expectations. Coming off of their distressing end to 2019, the Gators wanted to prove that they are still a top contender for the NCAA titles.

Mission accomplished.

The Gators produced a mostly clean meet even with ample room for improvement, posting a final score of 197.350 and drubbing the the Arkansas Razorbacks (194.400) by nearly three full points.

Florida’s score matched Oklahoma’s total from last weekend for the top opening meet score of 2020. While Florida is technically unranked — because it did not compete last weekend — this score should put Florida comfortably in the national top two, depending on how Oklahoma scores later this weekend, and could install it at No. 1.

The Gators’ performance on Friday was highlighted by a nearly perfect all-around performance from Trinity Thomas, who spent the entire summer competing in the elite world. In her first meet back with the Gators, Thomas scored a massive 39.700, which set the program record for a season opening all-around total. Thomas also won three out of four event titles (bars with a 9.925, beam and floor with 9.975s) and her 9.975 on floor was both a career-best and another program record for a season-opener.

It seems like returning to the elite ranks for her NCAA offseason — a challenging and unusual choice for a collegiate gymnast to make — only made Thomas a stronger athlete, a tantalizing prospect for the performer who is likely to anchor Florida throughout her collegiate career.

But the rest of her teammates didn’t disappoint, either.

The Gators started their night on vault, which was their weakest event in 2019, and things were already looking up after that first rotation. Senior Sierra Alexander led off with her Yurchenko full (9.95 start value), and scored a respectable 9.775. Alexander can score 0.1 better with a stuck vault, and the Gators will be looking for her to do that. Sophomore Nya Reed followed with her 1.5 twisting Yurchenko (10 SV). Reed had some trouble controlling her power last season, but last night she was able to just add a small hop to her landing. She scored a 9.875 to match her career-high. Junior Alyssa Baumann then had a turn to compete her 1.5Y. Unfortunately, she didn’t get enough power and sat the vault for a 9.175. This pushed the second half of the lineup to hit.

The final three competitors did their job, all scoring in the 9.8s: Sophomores Savannah Schoenherr (9.8) and Thomas (9.825) sat lower in that range, while freshman Payton Richards popped a 9.85 in her first routine as a Gator. Richards is going to be the one to watch here: She stuck the vault in warm-ups and is already anchoring the lineup as a freshman, an indication of Jenny Rowland’s confidence in her.

The Gators scored a respectable 49.125 to start the meet ahead of Arkansas 48.625, but are probably capable of improving that mark by a tenth or two if they can control their landings — though, in fairness, this is a familiar refrain from last season.

That likely weakest rotation over, Florida headed to bars for what was expected to be a standout event. Richards led the team off with a clean 9.8, again showing the confidence and poise of a veteran. Seniors Rachel Gowey and Amelia Hundley followed with hit routines for 9.85 and 9.875, respectively. Schoenherr stuck her double front half dismount to score another 9.85 — and, I’ll be honest, I thought she was going to score higher here. Thomas followed up with a clean routine and stuck double layout for a 9.925. Junior Megan Skaggs anchored the lineup with another 9.85 for what was a strong hit.

To my eyes and some others’, the judging seemed to be a little tighter on bars than some were expecting. I cannot complain about the excellent performances the athletes gave, though. It was also somewhat surprising that this was the only appearance for Skaggs on the night, though I assume she’s being used sparingly for a reason. She has struggled with ankle injuries in the past, and the coaches may not want to risk putting her in at the beginning of the season if they’d prefer her to be fresher at season’s end.

And it wasn’t as if Florida needed Skaggs to win on this night. By the halfway point, the Gators’ edge on the Razorbacks was more than a point, at 98.475 to 97.150. Barring calamity, the Gators were headed to beam with an unassailable lead, chasing the 197 team score that only Oklahoma was able to best last weekend rather than trying to defend a win.

Hundley began the rotation with a solid routine and stuck dismount to score a 9.825. Richards followed with her third routine of the night; she hit her triple series and had a small hop on the dismount, settling for a 9.825 to close a strong debut with three scores of 9.8 or better. Sophomore Leah Clapper then got her first turn to compete in 2020, and showed a consistent routine with a triple series for a 9.8.

The second half of Florida’s beam lineup, however, is probably one of the best in collegiate gymnastics, and the trio anchoring it did not disappoint. Baumann was up fourth and hit every single element of her routine, including a challenging switch leap half, for a 9.9. Gowey followed her with a perfect triple series and a stuck dismount — she was rewarded with a match of her career-high of 9.95!

And with two great routines hit in front of her, Thomas — in her first meet as beam anchor — was freed to mount the beam for a newly-constructed routine. She hit her new mixed series (front aerial to beat jump to Korbut) and stuck her new dismount (side aerial to full) for a career-high 9.975. It’s early, but it would seem the decision to change her routine is thus far a good one, as most of her deductions last season came from not being able to stick the dismount.

That beam rotation pushed Florida’s lead to nearly two full points, at 147.950 to 146.15.

Floor has always been one of Florida’s best events, and the first meet is always exciting because it is the unveiling of Jeremy Miranda’s new choreography.

Sophomore Sydney Johnson-Scharpf returned to the lineup to lead off with an upbeat and dramatic routine; her landings were stronger than last season but not stuck, so she scored a 9.775. Hundley followed her with her highly-anticipated classic rock-themed routine. She hit all three of her passes to score a 9.85.

Gowey then got a turn in the lineup with a routine restructured to contain just two tumbling passes (while maintaining a 10 SV), and I hope it will keep her healthy and competitive for the lineup all season, especially since both passes were clean and she scored a 9.8. Reed was up next, performing a dynamic upbeat routine with drumline influences, and she nailed all of her skills and her dance to match her career-high of 9.925. Predictably, Thomas dazzled with her new routine, matching her career high of 9.975 — her biggest flaw was leaping so high that she had trouble landing. Baumann finished out the rotation with her routine, scoring a 9.85.

This meet was a strong start for the Gators, and their towering score should erase any concerns that the team would not immediately rebound from the sour end to 2019. And there is now no doubt that Florida should be on everyone’s list of championship contenders.

Next week, the Gators will head on the road to Missouri and will compete in the SEC Network’s “Friday Night Heights” showcase window at 7 p.m. Eastern.

My must-watch routines from last night’s opener? Richards on vault, Thomas on beam, and Reed and Thomas on floor.

Payton Richards, vault (9.85)

Trinity Thomas, beam (9.975)

Nya Reed, floor (9.925)

Trinity Thomas, floor (9.975)