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Uncrowned queens: How Florida gymnastics could have won it all in 2020

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Florida gymnastics was climbing the mountaintop in 2020. Cruelly, we can only imagine what could have been.

Erin Long

The best stories, in sports or otherwise, have an arc. A hero, or a group of them, faces adversity and triumphantly races towards a win. That’s just Joseph Campbell.

A month ago, I was ready to write that story for the 2020 Florida Gators gymnastics team.

So you know what? I’m still going to write that story. This is part season recap, part exploration of what could have been. There are lots of numbers, and lots of thoughts.

Please stay with me.

The story arc begins a year ago, when the end of the 2019 Florida gymnastics season was disappointing. A team that was in the mix for the national title was topped by No. 16 Oregon State after a disastrous beam rotation and didn’t make it out of the Corvallis Regional — making that team Florida’s first to miss the NCAA Championships since 2000.

And at the NCAA Championships, where Oklahoma decidedly won the title over LSU, UCLA and Denver struggled a bit in the Four on the Floor final, and Gators fans couldn’t help but see the Gators — as a team, not the individuals competing — in that mix.

In the offseason, everyone was wondering how the Gators would look in 2020. Would the disappointing end to 2019 light a fire under them or would the disappointment impact their training? The Gators only graduated one lineup contributor, but she was a critical one: NCAA floor champion and star all-arounder Alicia Boren. The Gators also only brought in one freshman, Payton Richards, leaving most of the team that went through the heartbreak in Corvallis to become the team tasked with avenging that result.

When preseason videos started to appear in the fall, it was clear their reaction was the former: The athletes looked in better shape than the previous season, and the team looked to be training many athletes per event.

Anyone who watches NCAA gymnastics knows not to put too much trust into preseason training clips, of course. Often in the fall, athletes train skills that are inconsistent and will never see competition and most gymnasts train on more events than they will compete. The first Florida meet in January was a huge test for this team.

They did not disappoint.

The Gators started their season winning against Arkansas and matching the highest score set so far in 2020 with a 197.35, and they never slowed down. With the exception of one tough away meet at Missouri — held with an ice storm raging outside, few fans in the stands, and several athletes sick — the Gators never scored below that 197.35. The Gators scored over 198 three times, one of which was on the road at Penn State (Big Ten schools are known for having a harsher scoring environment).

This team had everything it needed to win.

This team finished the season undefeated in the SEC for the first time in program history.

This team won the SEC regular season title without question.

This team posted the highest RQS/NQS in program history — and did so in a shortened season!

When trying to highlight a few athletes that rose to the challenge this season, I found it hard to narrow down the list because it truly was a team effort. The lineups were well-constructed by the coaches to unlock the team’s maximum potential, and with the impressive depth on the team, each athlete fought hard for their lineup positions. And while would be easy to say that having the incredible athlete that is Trinity Thomas on the team allowed this program to reach these heights, there was more to it than that.

Here are a few of the athletes that I think deserve special mention:

Payton Richards joined an established team as the lone freshman. She found her place on the team seamlessly and immediately made an impact across all four events. She anchored or led off all four lineups at some point in the season — tough not just physically, but mentally. And in a full first season of collegiate competition, she didn’t fall — not once.

Savannah Schoenherr was a huge asset to the team last season with her clean Yurchenko 1.5 vault (that she got post season All-American honors for) and her interesting bars routine, but she really leveled up this year. With three scores over 9.95 and a body of work that earned second team All-American honors, Schoenherr showed she was more than a valuable vault piece by rounding into one of the top bars workers in the country.

Leah Clapper fought for her spot in the best beam lineup in the country. After a few rocky weeks and a trip to the sideline early on, she rejoined the lineup and scored 9.875 or higher in four straight meets with a career-high score of 9.975.

Alyssa Baumann came off a rough season last year. She put all of that behind her to hit perfectly — nine for nine — on beam and floor routines in 2020, never scoring below a 9.85 on either event, and twice turning in 9.975s on both. Baumann also competed on vault more regularly this season, with her upgraded Yurchenko 1.5 scoring 9.8+ in four of six appearances. She’s not an all-arounder, but Baumann was about as valuable as one can be without working all four events — and though she never won the SEC Specialist of the Week honor (seriously!??!), I think that her finishes from this season show that she was the strongest specialist in the conference.

Rachel Gowey had been a contributor on multiple events throughout the last three seasons, but she really came into her own this year. Her new two-pass floor routine allowed her to stay healthy and in three event lineups all season. She finished her career with the one of her best meets ever, scoring a 9.925 on bars and floor and her first perfect 10 on the beam.

But, yeah, it wouldn’t be a 2020 Florida season recap without discussing Trinity Thomas. Arguably, one of the best — I’d go with the best, but I’m biased — athletes in NCAA gymnastics this season, Thomas competed all-around in every meet of 2020, and put up scores of 39.65 or better in seven of nine meets of the season.

In the rest of the nation, that all-around score was only achieved even once 12 other athletes this season, let alone multiple times.

Thomas scored perfect 10s on three events, and was the only athlete to do so in 2020 — not even Oklahoma’s celebrated Maggie Nichols or UCLA’s Kyla Ross, a former Olympian, did that.

Thomas ended the season ranked first on floor, tied for second on beam, and second in the all-around. She was healthy, and hitting, and would’ve been a favorite — maybe the favorite — to pick up multiple individual national championships this weekend.

And all-around could’ve been hers, too.

I said earlier in the season that I am not in the prediction game, but since we don’t have anything else, I guess I have to drop that act for the moment. Let’s forecast what could have been this weekend at the NCAA Championships.

The NCAA all-around title was expected to be a battle between Thomas, Ross, and Nichols, with possible spoilers of Maddie Karr (Denver), Kiya Johnson (LSU), and Lexy Ramler (Minnesota). Nichols had the edge on Thomas in NQS (39.775 to 39.75), and I think it would have been a fight until the end, but Nichols’s somewhat shakier health led to fewer performances from her this year. And so it’s not hard to project that she could have been fractionally off enough to allow Thomas to win — or that Thomas could have been too strong at 100 percent for a 95 percent Nichols to match.

In terms of individual events? I don’t think that any Gators would have been in the mix to win the vault title, although Thomas, Richards, or Sierra Alexander could’ve been spoilers in the right environment; last year the winning score was a 9.95, which all three have scored this season. Logically, though, a Gator could easily have won at least one if not more of the other individual event titles. The best shots would have been Thomas or Schoenherr on bars, Thomas, Gowey, or Baumann on beam (maybe even Clapper in the anchor spot), and Thomas or Baumann on floor. My prediction, based on consistency this season and scores achieved to date, would be Thomas picking up a national title on floor.

As for the team title? With this season’s scores, it looked like the team title would be Oklahoma’s to lose. Their massive 198.080 NQS and titanic high of 198.45 might look insurmountable to some, but if you look at the results you can convince yourself that the Gators would have won it all.

Which, of course, I did.

The NQS score takes into account the top six scores of the season (three posted away from home) and then drops your top score. This doesn’t take into account any trending scores for the season (and really doesn’t help combat collegiate gymnastics’ home-overscoring problem that much); the former issue is perfectly exemplified by the fact that Denver finished the season ranked seventh nationally, even though their last few meets had significantly lower scores after losing two athletes (Lynnzee Brown and Mia Sundstrom) to injury in February.

So instead of looking at the season as a whole, I looked at the end of the season. If you take each team’s last three home meets and last three away meets and apply the NQS metric to these, Florida comes out of top — barely, with a 197.940 to Oklahoma’s 197.915, but still.

Maybe more importantly, though, if you look at just the last three away meets — ones which I would argue are most similar to the environment at the NCAA Championships, in that teams are not competing in front of “their” judges, on their equipment, or before their home crowd — Florida also comes out on top, and by a larger margin (197.925 to 197.69).

We often talk about peaking at the right time in sports. I think the Gators were preparing to do just that. This team may not have had the chance to take their crown, but they will go down in Gator history as the best group without one.

And even with the season finishing before it should have and SEC awards still yet to be announced, the Gators hauled in a plethora of hardware for their individual accomplishments. Four Gators picked up a total of nine regular-season All-American honors: First-team honorees were Trinity Thomas (all-around, bars, beam, and floor), Rachel Gowey (beam), and Alyssa Baumann (floor), while second-team honorees were Thomas (vault), Savannah Schoenherr (bars), and Baumann (beam).

Thomas is only the second Gator in history to win five regular-season All-American honors in a single season (the first being Gator great Bridget Sloan) and she was one of only three athletes to win five honors this season (the other two being Ross and Nichols). Thomas was also named a finalist for the Honda Award, essentially the analog to the Heisman Trophy in collegiate gymnastics, which was ultimately won by Ross.

The Gators swept the WCGA Region 5 honors, winning Gymnast of the Year (Trinity Thomas), Administrator of the Year (Kim Green), Assistant Coaches of the Year (Adrian Burde and Owen Field), and Coach of the Year (Jenny Rowland).

And while none of them will get to perform this weekend or walk stages this month, thanks to the chaos wrought by the coronavirus, the Gators also graduated a highly-decorated four-member senior class.

Maegan Chant, a former international elite for Canada, was a Canadian National Team member for four years (2013-16), competed at the 2016 Canadian Olympic National Selection Camp, won a silver medal with the Canadian team at the 2015 Pan American Games, and competed for Canada at the World Championships in 2013 and 2014. In college, Chant was hindered by injuries, but was a WCGA Scholastic All-American and member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and was always seen cheering on her teammates.

Sierra Alexander was a vault star in Level 10, finishing in the top three on vault at the Florida Level 10 State Championships for three consecutive years (2014-16). Alexander was also a vault star at Florida who scored a perfect-for-start-value 9.95 twice, appearing on the SportsCenter Top 10 for her stick at her final meet. She was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll and a WCGA Scholastic All-American.

Rachel Gowey had a decorated career before arriving in Gainesville, as was a member of the U.S. National Team three times (2013-15, 2016-17), won two gold medals at the 2015 Pan American Games (bars and team), and competed at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. Gowey competed in every meet of her freshman, sophomore, and senior seasons (she was sidelined with injury in the middle of her junior season) and ended her career with a perfect 10 on the beam. She added to her elite honors with numerous NCAA awards: Four-time All-American, 2019 SEC beam champion, 2018 and 2019 All-SEC, two-time SEC Specialist of the Week, SEC Academic Honor Roll member, and NACGC Scholastic Academic All-American.

Amelia Hundley has been a bit of a phenomenon in the gymnastics world over her career, as she had one of the longest elite careers in recent memory. Hundley was a U.S. National Team member for six straight years (2011-17), a member of the 2014 and 2015 Pan American Games teams (she won a silver on floor and bronze on bars in 2015), and competed at the 2016 US Olympic Trials. At Florida, Hundley competed in every single meet of her career — a staggering 49 meets — and was several times honored with team awards such as Most Consistent and Heart & Soul. Hundley is a four-time All-American, a member of the 2017 and 2018 All-SEC teams, a WCGA Scholastic All-American, and a member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and SEC Community Service Team.

And she’s not done with the Gators, either: She will be returning to Florida for the 2021 season to serve as a student coach!

You can join me in celebrating this team, these seniors, and what they were at their championship-worthy best tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPNU by watching the Florida vs. LSU meet. I’ll be on Twitter — @samisadancer — tweeting commentary of the meet and favorite routines from the season, which should be a nice, much-needed break from self-isolation.

And as for those favorite routines, here are seven worth rewatching.