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Full marks: Nearly flawless Florida gymnastics, led by Trinity Thomas, roars past LSU

Florida’s sophomore superstar notched her first 10.0 — and the Gators followed her lead on a phenomenal night.

Erin Long

Florida’s gymnastics team took its first real test of the season at home on Friday, taking to the mat (and vault, and bars, and ... you get it) against No. 8 LSU Tigers in what has become the new-school SEC rivalry to match the ancient Georgia-Alabama clash. The No. 2 Gators came into the meet favorites after a slow season start from LSU, but ready for a showdown.

And they did not disappoint, turning in one of their greatest performances under Jenny Rowland — including a season-high team score, career-high individual scores, Payton Richards’s sparkling all-around debut, and Trinity Thomas’s first career 10.0 — in a victory that stamps Florida as one of the nation’s few true national title contenders.

Let’s start on the vault, where Florida started strong.

Vault has been a huge question for the Gators over the last two years, as the departures of Alex McMurtry and Kennedy Baker from their 2018 left behind a team of athletes who never quite got six consistent routines together last season. While they have, to their credit, regularly run out four or five Yurchenko 1.5 vaults with a start value of 10.0 (as opposed to easier Yurchenko fulls, that are valued at 9.95), the Gators could not find their landings. To confidently beat LSU, Florida needed to keep things close on vault.

Senior Sierra Alexander led off with a big Yurchenko full with a step back to score a 9.825; she’s capable of sticking that vault and we should hope to see that as the season progresses. Junior Alyssa Baumann, back in the lineup after a fall at the first meet and not competing vault at Missouri, hit her 1.5 with a hop forward to score a 9.85. That’s an important progress point for her. Sophomore Savannah Schoenherr had a little trouble on the landing of her 1.5, with a big hop forward for a 9.725. Schoenherr was one of the Gators’ strongest vaulters last season, but it did take her a few weeks to get there, so we should expect to see her hitting those stuck vaults soon.

But after that first half of the lineup performed only well instead of spectacularly, the Gators’ closers found their footing — setting up a stellar showing on the night.

Sophomores Nya Reed and Trinity Thomas turned in a pair of clean 1.5s to both score 9.9, a season-high for both athletes and a career-high for Reed. Reed’s stick was pure, while Thomas gave back with a slight hop. And then freshman Payton Richards anchored the lineup — which is a big job for a freshman — with a huge 1.5 with great control and a small hop forward to add her own 9.925 to the Gators score.

And Florida needed every tenth it could muster. I don’t always note the opposing team’s routines, but at the end of this rotation, LSU senior Ruby Harrold scored a 9.975 on bars for a beautiful routine that capped a fantastic set of scores for the Tigers on bars, and gave them a slight lead after one rotation, 49.425 to 49.4. That 49.4 was a season best and a big number for the Gators on vault, and we should hope that is where they will stay for the rest of the season — but on this night, it was only good enough to stay close to an LSU crew that also started hot.

Fortunately, the Gators headed to bars intent on putting on a show and did so.

Richards led off with a clean routine with a few deductions for a 9.825 — a good score, but one that the Gators didn’t want to count if they wanted to pull away from the Tigers. So seniors Rachel Gowey and Amelia Hundley following up with a 9.875 and 9.9, respectively, for two hit routines of their own? That was good work. (The bulk of Gowey’s deductions likely came from a slide back on her dismount, and Hundley’s likely came from a short handstand before her dismount.)

Then there was the second half of Florida’s lineup, which consists of three routines with the potential to go 10 if performed in excellent form. Schoenherr, up fourth, came with a nearly perfect routine with another stuck double front half dismount to score a career-high 9.975. Junior Megan Skaggs followed her with a 9.9.

And in the anchor spot was Thomas, with both pressure on and an opportunity available. Given the generosity of the judging on bars all evening, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that if she hit her perfect routine she could get her first career 10.0 here.

And she did!

Thomas hit all of her handstands and between the bar release moves beautifully, and stuck her double layout dismount with her chest up and her legs together to finally get that illustrious and elusive 10.0. It was the first SEC 10 of the season and the first Gator 10 since Kennedy Baker earned one on floor in 2018.

Thomas’s routine was flawless, and it deserved the honor it had by night’s end, when it earned the top spot on the SportsCenter Top 10 for Friday.

The huge 49.65 the Gators scored on bars pushed them ahead of LSU after the second rotation. But the Tigers — No. 2 nationally on vault coming in — posted a massive 49.575 on that apparatus, ensuring that even Florida’s huge bars score would only open a 99.05 to 99 lead.

Through two rotations, it seemed likely that these two teams would be fighting to keep things close for the entire meet while also soaring toward rare team scores of 198 or better.

So the Gators went to the beam knowing they would need to keep scoring big to continue extending their lead over the Tigers.

Hundley was the leadoff once again — and she, as usual, excelled here because she sets a consistent tone for the lineup. She scored a 9.875 for a nice clean routine with a stuck landing. Next, we had the collegiate beam debut for sophomore Sydney Johnson-Scharpf — which was perhaps the surprise of the night. We have seen Johnson-Scharpf in the floor lineup throughout this season and last, but never on the beam. But she showed why the coaches put her in throughout: She nailed her punch front (which is an E skill so it gets extra bonus), hit her leap series and stuck her unique dismount (handstand to layout stepout to layout full) to score a 9.925 for her debut beam performance.

I expect we will continue to see her in the lineup, as she looked calm and confident on the beam. Richards, in the third position, added another high score to her profile, turning in a clean routine with a little slide on the dismount and getting a 9.9 for her efforts.

Again, though, Florida’s second half of its rotation upped the ante.

Baumann, last season’s anchor on beam and maybe the team’s most consistent performer there, has been competing in the fourth spot this season, and did so again on Friday. But you could have been forgiven for thinking she was closing, as she had a nearly perfect routine, showing control on all of her dance skills (come on, have you seen her leaps!?) and her acrobatic skills to match her career-high with a 9.975. Gowey followed up with another 9.975 — a new career-high — for her own nearly perfect routine with her stuck gainer full dismount. Commentator Kathy Johnson-Clarke, who can be somewhat of a stickler, remarked that Gowey’s leap “belongs on a poster.”

And in the anchor position again, Thomas was set up for a great score — and could well have been set up for a 10 after everything on the beam was perfect. But she had a tiny slide back on the dismount, and will have to wait to hit perfection on the beam as well. Her 9.9, though, brought the Gators’ total to 49.675 on the beam — the third highest beam score in program history!

Sadly, while the Gators were dazzling on the beam, the Tigers could not keep up on the floor. A slow start had LSU’s chances of matching Florida looking slim, and then an unfortunate injury to Sarah Edwards forced her mid-routine retirement, leading LSU to have to count a 9.725 and two scores in the 9.8s.

Through three rotations, the Gators had pulled away for good, 148.725 to 148.250. And if they could get through it without disaster, the floor rotation would be a victory lap for the Gators.

But putting the pedal to the metal worked, too.

Richards led off to debut on the event and to close out her all-around debut. Her two-pass routine has a double layout and a front tuck through to double tuck, both incredibly hard passes. She scored a 9.85 for her effort, capping a phenomenal night for the only Gator freshman. Gowey was in second again and scored a 9.875 for her elegant routine. Baumann was in third this week and put up a 9.925 for a routine with excellent technique — personally, I think it’s a good move by Florida’s coaches to get her earlier in the lineup, since it seems like she can score well anywhere. Reed followed up with a 9.95, which establishes her new career-high; even she seemed a bit surprised to have finished her athletic routine by sticking her final pass.

And then Thomas competed one of the best floor routines I have ever seen, great control on all three of her passes and no sign of wobble in sight. She settled for a 9.975, which ... I guess they didn’t want to give her two 10s on the night? It was hard to pick out where a deduction should have been given.

Finally, Hundley was in the anchor spot with her fun tour of classic rock, and took a 9.925 for a great effort to control all of her passes.

As the Gators wrapped up on floor, LSU’s star freshman Kiya Johnson earned a 10.0 on the beam, capping an excellent 49.525 for the Tigers’ turn on it. But even that score couldn’t stop Florida from extending its lead, and the Gators handily won the meet, 198.375 to 197.775.

To put things in perspective on a night with scores that went skyward (and sent some eyebrows in the same direction): The Gators’ 198.375 was the highest score in the country this year, but while LSU will be unhappy with the SEC loss, their 197.775 — which included three sub-9.9 floor scores — is the second-best score away from home in the country this year, and will be a great road score for their National Qualifying Score (NQS) later this season.

Thomas won the all-around with a score of 39.775, edging Johnson’s 39.725. LSU senior Kennedi Edney was in third with a 39.675, and Richards scored a 39.5 for her all-around debut.

In the event standings, the Tigers took home the win on vault, with Harrold and Edney sharing the top position with a score of 9.95; Richards took home third with her 9.925. On bars, Thomas took first with her 10.0, while Schoenherr shared second with Harrold. On the beam, Johnson’s 10 gave her the win and Gowey and Baumann shared second with their pair of 9.975s. And on floor, Thomas and Johnson shared the title with 9.975s, with Reed placing third with her career-high 9.95.

The Gators will want to take this form on the road to Kentucky next week, so they can get another SEC win and a good road score for their NQS. That meet will be on SEC Network+ at 7 p.m. Eastern.

But the way that Florida competed tonight — both in matching LSU’s intensity and keeping themselves focused after an injury and the consequent falloff from the Tigers — is the latest and greatest indicator that this team has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with any other outfit in the country, even mighty Oklahoma, in search of a national title.

My must-watch routines: Richards on vault, Schoenherr and Thomas (duh) on bars, Johnson-Scharpf and Baumann on beam, and Reed on floor.