The 2021 NCAA gymnastics season is finally here.
One long national nightmare is over, anyway.
This Friday, the Florida Gators team is in Auburn, set to open a season that, thanks to COVID-19, is abbreviated, with teams only competing within the SEC to reduce travel. One thing will be familiar, at least in a sense: For the first time during Jenny Rowland’s tenure as head coach, the Gators start the season ranked No. 1, just edging out the Oklahoma Sooners, where they perched to finish last year’s COVID-shortened season.
The rest is going to be strange. Each of the SEC’s squads will compete in eight dual meets over 10 weeks, with two bye weeks — with not all of the SEC fielding gymnastics programs, this means some teams will double up, and Florida will compete against Auburn twice, once away and once at home. This is in contrast to a normal regular season, which would see the Gators compete in around 12 meets and likely take part in a dual or multi-team meet with one or more excellent squads from outside the SEC.
Last season, the Gators graduated four seniors, Amelia Hundley, Rachel Gowey, Sierra Alexander, and Maegan Chant. Hundley and Gowey regularly competed three events (UB, BB, FX), while Alexander was a staple of the vault lineup (her perfect vault was featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 last season). And losing these three seniors definitely leaves some holes for the Gators to fill this season on all four events — but expectations are high for this team because the seniors were not the primary scorers a season ago, and because Rowland has a wealth of talent still on hand, with four new freshmen joining a formidable bunch of returning athletes.
The Gators’ four freshmen are Ellie Lazzari, Gabbie Gallentine, Chloi Clark, and Alex Magee. Lazzari and Gallentine are early graduates from high school who started a college a year early, balancing a class that could have been among the best in collegiate gymnastics history prior to the postponing of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which has delayed Florida commits Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker from arriving in Gainesville for at least a year. Clark and Magee are both walk-ons.
As you’d expect, the former two scholarship performers are liable to be the ones who crack the lineup. Lazzari is a former junior elite and is a 2019 Junior Olympic (JO) National Champion in the all-around as well as on beam and floor; she could be an all-around competitor for the Gators as well. Gallentine is also a former junior elite and her strongest event is bars. She scored a 9.9 at an early 2020 invitational meet, and could vie for a spot on that rotation. Clark is a good depth option across all four events and Magee’s strongest event is bars.
But for any of the freshmen to contribute, they’re going to need to break into lineups that will see strong performers return on each event.
On vault, Trinity Thomas, Payton Richards, and Savannah Schoenherr will return as last year’s top-ranked Gator vaulters. All three have 1.5 twisting Yurchenko vaults (10.0 SV) and return with National Qualifying Scores (NQS) over 9.85. Nya Reed’s 1.5Y will join this top group as well for the 2021 season; she was out for a good portion of the 2020 season but started the year off with 3 scores over 9.875. I expect that we will see freshman Lazzari in this lineup as well: We have seen her training at 1.5Y on the GatorsGym instagram, but she also competed a clean and very stickable Yurchenko full (9.95 SV) in JO. Senior Megan Skaggs’ Y-full will likely round out this lineup; her clean and tight form has always translated to great scores here. Florida still has depth options on vault beyond that sixsome, however: Alyssa Baumann (1.5Y), Jazmyn Foberg (full), Sydney Johnson-Scharpf (1.5Y/full), and Clark (full).
Bars may be the spot where Florida dips from a year ago, as the Gators return without the consistent routines of Hundley and Gowey, but I think Lazzari and Gallentine will step up to fill their shoes. The second half of the 2020 lineup will return this year, with Skaggs, Thomas, and Schoenherrr all expected to put up large scores this season, and Thomas vying for 10s on a weekly basis. I also expect that Richards will once again return as the leadoff to this lineup; while she never had especially large scores last year, she was a consistent leadoff that never missed for the Gators. We have also seen senior Baumann training bars in the preseason, so she could be hoping to add this event to her senior program. Depth options for bars include Leah Clapper, Foberg, and Clark.
Beam, on the other hand, could continue being an outstanding strength for the Gators, who were the No. 1 beam team in the country in 2020 and should continue having one of the top lineups this season. Losing Gowey’s consistent 9.95 in this lineup is expected to be a blow, but I believe the Gators have plenty to fill in for her scores. Thomas and Baumann, two of the top beamers in the country, will return to this lineup as performers expected to put up 9.95 scores every week. Clapper, who could very well specialize on beam this spring, had some trouble at the beginning of last season, but scored 9.975, 9.95 and 9.925 in her last three meets; we should definitely see her here again, regardless of whether she’s also tackling other apparatuses. Lazzari and Richards should round out a solid group of five. The last spot could be taken by either Johnson-Scharpf, who only competed five times last season, but scored 9.9 or greater twice, or Skaggs, who did not compete on beam at all in 2020, but was the 2019 SEC co-champion on the event. A depth option for beam, behind a 2019 conference champion who might be the seventh performer out, would be Schoenherr.
As has often been the case during its history, floor may be Florida’s deepest lineup. But this year’s version of that depth may be another thing entirely: I count eleven athletes that I think could likely make the lineup, and beyond the top three returners of Thomas, Baumann, and Reed, who should anchor the final three slots of Florida’s rotation, the front half of the lineup is very up to chance and how the athletes look on any given week of training. It’s most likely that we’ll see a rotating cast of characters in the first three spots, including Johnson-Scharpf, Richards, Schoenherr, Skaggs, and Lazzari, who can all be expected to score 9.875+ on floor. And in a season in which the possibility of athletes being out for quarantine or testing positive for COVID, having another few depth options for floor — Clapper, Halley Taylor, and Clark, in my book — won’t hurt a bit.
Tonight’s debut will be the first we have seen the Gators compete since their season was cut short in March on their way to what could definitely have been a national title. The Gators are coming into this season with some unfinished business to handle.
Chalking last season up to a broken dream is certainly going to be on these Gators’ minds every time they chalk up on these Friday nights.
When: Friday, January 8, 2021 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, AL
TV: SEC Network+
Live Stream: ESPN+
Live Stats: StatBroadcast