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Florida gymnastics continues cruise through turbulent 2021 season with win at Arkansas

The Gators are already midway through a season — and remain unchallenged as the nation’s top team.

Erin Long

It is strange to think that the Florida Gators of the beam and floor are hitting their stride for the middle of the season when it is only January, but with a shorter 2021 season due to COVID, it’s essentially true.

And despite January still having a week to go, the Gators are in midseason form.

No. 1 Florida headed to No. 8 Arkansas last Friday for a top-10 matchup against a rising program in the SEC and came away with the win, 197.425-197.25. Although the final score was a bit tighter than may have been anticipated — the Razorbacks held close with the Gators in score for the whole meet — in the end, the Gators came away with the W in perhaps their toughest test to date.

I want to preface the rest of this writeup by saying the scores at this meet may have seemed inconsistent in cases, with some scores seeming low and others seeming high, particularly on beam. Unfortunately, in a sport that is judged by the eyes of two human judges this can happen, and it’s best to focus on the performances of the athletes and keep moving.

The Gators started their meet off on bars, which has been a lower-scoring event for them so far this season. On this night, though, they were finally able to put together a full rotation of good routines with Payton Richards and Gabbie Gallentine starting things off with a 9.85 and 9.80, respectively. Gallentine hasn’t gotten too much attention because she only competes the one event, but keep your eyes on her here: She has one of the best double layout dismounts and very clean transition skills which are a recipe for big scores. Megan Skaggs started off her first night in the all-around since 2019 with a 9.875 to finish out the first half of the lineup with scores already trending higher than the last two weeks.

Savannah Schoenherr had another really great bars routine, but wasn’t able to get that stick that she was so good at last season. I have to wonder if some of the lack of sticks this season has to do with the team doing fewer hard landings in practice with the shorter preseason. In the fifth spot, Trinity Thomas did what she does best: Produce near perfection. Thomas scored a 9.975 for an excellent display of handstands, toe point, and control. Leah Clapper finished up the bars rotation with her best routine thus far, scoring a 9.85 for her efforts.

Interestingly, freshman Ellie Lazzari went up in the exhibition spot with a slightly watered-down routine, performing a double tuck instead of the full twisting double tuck dismount she did in the first meet, and thus performing a routing without a 10.0 start value. She had great form on the bars, so I expect they are working something out with her dismount and we should see her back in the lineup before the season is over; Jenny Rowland mentioned, after this meet, that they were aiming for Lazzari performing on all four events against LSU.

The Gators notched a solid 49.400 on bars to show improvement on the event over the past two weeks.

This week on vault, the trio of Yurchenko fulls that leads off Florida’s lineup started things off well with a set of 9.8+ scores for Richards (9.825), Lazzari (9.850), and Skaggs (9.850). These three athletes have nearly perfect vaults in the air, but really need to get their landings in check to raise their scores, as a 0.1 landing hop deduction on a 9.95 SV vault will of course never score over 9.850.

Nya Reed and Thomas have been Florida’s high scorers on vault so far this year, with Schoenherr having some more landing trouble, but that was not the case this week. Schoenherr vaulted her best collegiate vault to score a career-high 9.95. Her 1.5 twisting Yurchenko was clean in the air and she nearly got the stick, with just a small slide probably denying her at least one 10.0 from a judge.

Reed and Thomas followed Schoenherr with hit 1.5Ys as well, but both struggled to keep their landings controlled and had to settle for a 9.850 and 9.875, respectively.

The Gators’ 49.375 on vault was a solid total, but definitely reflects remaining room for improvement as not a single one of the vaults was truly stuck.

On floor, Skaggs started the Gators off with her first routine since 2019. She has a well crafted routine that gets in her difficulty with more leaps than tumbling and was awarded a 9.825 for a clean routine. I would recommend checking this one out because it shows how different NCAA floor routines can be.

Richards followed her with a good routine, with a few errors, to score a 9.750 that, candidly, did not make much sense to me. Sydney Johnson-Scharpf nailed her double Arabian in the third lineup position to be rewarded with a 9.850. Her commitment to her “puppet coming to life” choreography and performance makes her one of the most fun athletes to watch on floor in NCAA gymnastics.

In the fourth position, we usually expect to see Alyssa Baumann, but there was a late substitution after the warm-up for Halley Taylor. (At the time, we were concerned something had happened to Baumann in the warm-up, but she competed on beam so it seems like whatever kept her out of the lineup wasn’t too much of an issue.) Taylor had a strong start to her routine with good control on her double tuck and much more control and tighter form on her combo pass than last season. Unfortunately, she struggled on her third pass, and had to settle for a 9.7, but I was impressed with her improvement in the first part of the routine.

That lower score made execution in the final two positions crucial for Florida — and given the athletes tasked with it, the high level of it was little surprise.

Reed followed Taylor with the excellent high-flying tumbling and well-controlled landings that we are coming to expect from her to add another 9.9+ score to her season (9.925). She has always had the big tumbling, but this year she has really gotten her landings under control.

In the anchor spot, Thomas started off well with her own well-controlled double layout, but struggled again on her double pike to score a 9.875 — the sort of score that really only counts as a mild disappointment because she’s Trinity Thomas.

Having to count two scores below 9.85 and only counting one score over 9.90 hurt the Gators’ total on floor, and a 49.225 team score is uncharacteristic for this team, but that score coming with Baumann not performing and Reed and Thomas needing to perform cleanly shows that the team has a lot of depth and can switch routines in and out without too much issue.

The meet was tighter than the Gators would have liked going into the final rotations with the Gators leading the Razorbacks by just a slim margin, 148.0 to 147.875. But while some squads might wilt on the road with only beam to go, these are Rowland’s Gators, who seemingly burnish their rep on gymnastics’ cruelest apparatus on a weekly basis.

Richards led off with a clean and crisp routine on the beam but struggled to control her landing to score a 9.80. Johnson-Scharpf followed with a more tentative beam for her and due to a couple of balance checks scored a 9.875. Lazzari hit her routine well on the beam with great control on her triple series — which she struggled on last week — but had a hop on her dismount causing her to score a 9.875.

Then the heavy hitters arrived.

In the fourth position, Skaggs got her first turn in the beam lineup since that fateful Corvallis Regional in 2019. She showed off why she was the SEC co-champion in the event in 2019 with excellent form, her only error a small balance check on her front aerial, so the judges awarded her a 9.95 to match her career high and finish out a very successful first all-around outing for the year for her.

And as one big score seemingly frequently does, this set up Baumann and Thomas for big scores of their own. Baumann was picture-perfect on the beam with her signature crispness on all of her skills, but couldn’t hold on to the dismount stick to receive a 9.925 and guarantee that Florida wouldn’t need to count a fall.

Good thing, too: After struggling last week, Thomas once again had trouble on the beam, losing control on her series and needing to reach down and touch the beam. The error forced her to settle for a 9.600, knocking her from top-of-podium all-around contention once again. Dropping that score, Florida still mustered a 49.425 — the Gators’ best rotation score of the night, and one big enough to actually increase their final margin of victory despite Arkansas finishing up on floor at home.

For Skaggs, a senior, it was a special night: She won her first all-around contest of her career with at 39.500. (Although she struggled on beam, Thomas came in second with a 39.325.) Schoenherr won the vault title (9.95), followed by Thomas and Arkansas’ Amanda Elswick (9.875). Thomas won the bars title with her 9.975. Skaggs’ 9.95 on beam was enough to take that title; Baumann shared second with Arkansas’ Maggie O’Hara (9.925). Reed shared the win on floor with Arkansas’ Bailey Lovett (9.925).

For their efforts, Skaggs and Schoenherr were named the SEC’s Gymnast and Specialist of the Week.

After the full weekend of competition, the Gators remain at No. 1 nationally, but there has been a huge shake-up in the standings due to rough meets from many of the top teams. The Gators now lead No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Oklahoma, and No. 4 Utah. Individually, the Gators are doing well in the ranking as well. Thomas is ranked No. 4 on vault and No. 2 on bars. Skaggs is ranked No. 1 on beam and No. 6 in the all-around (although she only has 1 score). Reed is ranked No. 3 on floor.

Next week, the Gators will be home again vs. No. 24 Missouri, and will FINALLY be broadcast on SEC Network as part of the network’s “Friday Night Heights” promotion.

When: Friday, January 29, 2021 at 7:00 p.m.

Where: O’Connell Center

How to watch: SEC Network or live stream

Follow along: Live stats, live coverage on Twitter