Florida’s gymnastics team came to Penn State last Saturday with a big National Qualifying Score total and the No. 2 national seed nearly locked in. I and most expected this meet was going to be a chance to rest some athletes in advance of Senior Night and postseason competition and that the Gators would not be pushing too hard.
But the meet doubled as a homecoming party for sophomore Trinity Thomas, who was returning to compete in her home state for the first time in college, and led by Thomas and senior Rachel Gowey, the Gators put on a show full of exciting perfect scores and career-highs in front of Thomas’ huge crowd of fans.
(I should note that I was credentialed for this meet, which I attended in person.)
Florida started on bars. I needed to see stuck landings and perfect handstands to erase the doubt that I have had about Florida’s capacity to consistently score high on this event, especially because bars has been the lowest scoring event for the Gators in the past two meets, even though they have what should be an incredibly strong rotation on the apparatus.
The lineup featured the same athletes as the Gators’ last two meets, with one change: Payton Richards was anchoring instead of leading off. And new leadoff athlete Amelia Hundley started poorly, with a very uncharacteristic form break on her Van Leeuwan that resulted in her being off on the next handstand and having to come off of the bars. Even though this was not a high-pressure meet, starting the meet with a 9.175 was not where the Gators wanted to be.
Luckily, Gowey was up next and turned things around with her strongest routine of the season. She had complete control on the bars and stuck her double layout dismount to score her season-high 9.925 — only the start of an excellent night for Gowey.
Megan Skaggs, in the third position, did her job, scoring a 9.85 for another hit routine. Savannah Schoenherr then had an excellent routine and stuck her dismount for a 9.95. Individually, that should help Schoenherr’s quest to be in the top bars workers in the country. Trinity Thomas was up fifth and scored another 9.95 to the sound of huge cheers from her hometown crowd. Richards anchored the lineup with a 9.825 for a hit routine, ensuring that the Gators would not need to count any scores below 9.80.
The rotation looked like it was going to be starting off on a bad note, but ended strong as the Gators scored a 49.50 on bars. This is their highest score since a massive 49.65 against LSU earlier this season, and it counts as a huge progress point to show that they can contend in the postseason.
On vault, Nya Reed was back in the lineup and Richards was out for the week.
Skaggs led off and did her normal, a very clean full with a small slide back to score a 9.875. Sierra Alexander was in the second position and delivered one of the best moments of the night: Her full Yurchenko with excellent distance, high amplitude, legs together, and a stuck landing left the judges nowhere to deduct and so she received another perfect-for-start-value 9.95. Junior Alyssa Baumann then competed her 1.5 with a bit of an awkward landing to hop forward on one leg for a 9.725.
In Reed’s first vault since January, she looked like she was going to be able to get the landing but ended up flying forward and having to take a roll out of it. Her 9.45 would definitely be the score for the Gators to drop.
Schoenherr and Thomas made quick work of finishing the lineup with countable numbers, scoring 9.875 and 9.9, respectively, for their 1.5s with hops forward.
Even with some hiccups — Baumann’s 9.725 is obviously a score Florida would not want to count in postseason competition — the Gators scored a 49.325 on vault. While this is not where the Gators ideally want to be, this is much better than where they were trending last season and they should definitely be back in the 49.4s next week if athletes, most notably Reed, can sort out the tricky finish of landing.
Despite that substandard vault rotation, Florida was already uncatchable barring disaster through two routines; Penn State did not break 49.0 on either vault or bars, and would only get scores of 9.9 or better on beam. So the Gators headed to the floor with a few debut routines, confident in maintaining their lead: Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and Hundley were out of the lineup, and sophomores Halley Taylor and Savannah Schoenherr were in.
Gowey, though, led off — and did so with another season-best routine! She was very solid on her combo pass and stuck her stag jump as well as finished the routine with a stuck double pike that drew a celebratory whistle from assistant coach Adrian Burde. She scored a 9.925 to establish a new career high on the mat.
Taylor then performed her first full collegiate routine — she has exhibitioned before, but never made the lineups. And she did well, hitting her full in, but was a little low on her combination pass and her double pike to score a 9.75.
Schoenherr was up next with her season debut on the event; she had a hop back on her double tuck, but other than that displayed excellent form and good landings, earning her career-high 9.925. Reed was in the fourth spot, and looking to erase the doubt from last week’s less-than-perfect performance. She hit her double layout with control this week and finished the routine cleanly to also score a 9.925.
The crowd then began to roar as Thomas took the floor. She did her usual perfect landing on the double layout and had excellent control on her combo pass to sissone. She hit her leaps with no issues. Everyone was waiting to see if she would hit the double pike — the move that has frequently featured a little slide that has kept her from the perfect 10 on this event — and, in front of a huge crowd screaming her name, she hit the double pike perfectly, finishing the routine with a huge smile. It would be up to the judges to see if that would finally do it – and it did. The team and her hometown crowd exulted as Thomas scored her first perfect 10 on the floor, giving her 10s in three of the four events this year.
For many, following the excitement of Thomas’ 10 would be nerve-wracking, but not for Baumann: She performed another great routine for a 9.925 to bring the Gators’ floor score to a season-high of 49.700. That this score came on the road — albeit in front of some partisan Thomas supporters — and not in front of a friendly O’Dome crowd makes it all the more impressive.
Coming off of the excitement from floor, the Gators headed over the beam to finish things up. With the high scores on bars and floor, they had the potential to hit 198 and add another great road score to their NQS.
Richards led off with her normal controlled routine; her triple series was spot on and she stuck her side aerial. She scored a 9.9. Hundley was up next: Her routine was clean on the beam and she held on to her landing even though she was a bit back on her heels. Hundley has been shaky and in and out of the lineup for the past few weeks, so this 9.8 was a good progress point for her.
Baumann — whom you may remember began her night with a faulty vault — did her normal ice queen routine on beam. She had excellent command on the beam, superior extension and position on all her skills, and a perfectly stuck landing, earning another 9.95.
Next up was Gowey, who was preparing to finish out what had already been a stellar night for her. She hit her leaps with great extension, nailed her triple series, kept it tight on her front aerial to sissone, and stuck her dismount with her chest more up that she usually does. We all waited for her score — and then we heard it, the characteristic roar of a perfect 10. Gowey had finally gotten her perfect 10 on the beam — and with the added difficulty of it coming on the road. It was a long time coming, and it’s a big achievement.
Thomas mounted the beam, looking to put up a huge score of her own. Every position on the beam was exact, and she was looking like she would also be putting up a massive score. But she missed her foot on her side aerial to layout full dismount, and though she was able to get it around, she ultimately had to lunge forward and would only score a 9.675. This was an uncharacteristic move for one of the top gymnasts in the country, but Thomas wasn’t hurt and this was not a meet that called for her to hit.
Still, Thomas misfiring left the pressure on for Leah Clapper to finish things out on the beam: Either she would hit, and be able to get the Gators than 198 on the road, or she would falter and cost Florida that sort of score. Fortunately, she was cool, calm, and collected: Clapper had no issues on her triple series or her dance elements, and she stuck her dismount again. Her 9.925 brought the Gators to a 198.100 road score.
This 198.100 gave the Gators an NQS of 197.940 — their highest ever, and a number that should keep the Gators in the No. 2 solidly for postseason. And that number could still climb, as Florida’s one more meet to go before the postseason is a Senior Night showcase at home that could see some very high scores.
Individually, Alexander won her very first career vault title (9.95); Thomas followed her in second (9.9), and Skaggs and Schoenherr sharing third (9.875). Schoenherr and Thomas shared first on bars (9.95) and Gowey was third (9.925). On beam, Gowey’s 10 won the event title, and Baumann shared second with Penn State’s Tess McCracken (9.95). Thomas’ 10 won the floor title, while four Gators (Baumann, Reed, Gowey, and Schoenherr) shared second with 9.925s.
Thomas won the all-around — even with her mistake on beam — with a 39.525.
And although this was a road meet — and with scoring done by judges from the Northeast, who tend to be tighter with their numbers — several Gators set new career-highs:
- Thomas: Floor (10.0)
- Gowey: Floor (9.925), Beam (10.0)
- Schoenherr: Floor (9.925)
- Taylor: Floor (9.75)
Next week, the Gators will be back home in the O’Dome for Senior Night and their last regular-season meet of 2020. The meet, which comes against Texas Woman’s University, will start at 6:45 p.m. Eastern and will be streamed via SEC Network Plus.
My must-see routines for this week: Savannah Schoenherr on bars, Sierra Alexander on vault, Trinity Thomas on floor, and Rachel Gowey on beam.