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Showdown of the stars: No. 1 Florida gymnastics, No. 2 LSU meet in Baton Rouge

The Gators and Tigers have been headed for this clash all season.

Florida Gators

There aren’t a lot of No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups happening in collegiate athletics in this weird and wild academic year disrupted by COVID-19.

But this Friday night brings one such showdown, with the No. 1 Florida Gators gymnastics team facing its toughest test of the season in Baton Rouge, where they will face off against the No. 2 LSU Tigers.

The Gators are coming off of a scheduled bye week, while the Tigers are coming off of a big win and very respectable score (197.55) against Auburn last week. This meet will be a must-watch face-off of some of the top gymnasts in the country.

The individual rankings tell a lot of the story. Friday’s meet will feature some of the top all-arounders in the country, featuring Gators Trinity Thomas (ranked No. 8, has scored 39.750 two times this season), Megan Skaggs (ranked No. 3, averaging a 39.550), and possibly freshman Ellie Lazzari (whom Jenny Rowland hinted that the Gators were hoping to use as an all-arounder by this meet), as well as LSU’s Haleigh Bryant (ranked No. 4, averaging 39.542) and Alyona Schennikova (scored 39.525 last weekend).

The Gators’ goal this weekend will not only be to score a win against their rivals, but to obtain another high away meet score to build their National Qualifying Score (NQS). In past seasons, the NQS has been a bit difficult to explain, but this year — because of COVID — the NQS is simply the average of a team’s top four scores, two of which must be away. The Gators already have two strong away scores (197.5 and 197.425), but in what should be a high-scoring environment — any meet with two top teams is usually a primed pump for big numbers — they will be looking to get a high 197+ to boost their average.

We will be hoping that the Gators get a clean start with lots of sticks to set themselves ahead from the first rotation — which is bars, where away teams begin. I believe the Gators have a stronger team, but LSU will be able to capitalize if the Gators can’t stick their dismounts. To win this meet, the Gators will need to avoid giving away tenths on those landing deductions.

Scores aside, this is going to be a fun meet to watch with some great gymnastics on both teams.

On vault, Trinity Thomas and her technically excellent Yurchenko 1.5 are currently ranked No. 3 in the country. Savannah Schoenherr and her 1.5 are ranked No. 13. LSU’s Bryant brings a handspring front pike half vault that has scored 9.9 this season and is truly excellent to watch. If she is in the lineup — she has been struggling with Achilles issues — LSU’s Kiya Johnson does a massive double twisting Yurchenko. Between the two teams, there are several other athletes who have scored 9.9 so far this season: Skaggs, Lazzari, Reed, and LSU’s Elena Arenas and Schennikova.

On bars, Thomas is ranked No. 1 in the country with an average of 9.931. LSU’s top bars worker is a past club teammate of Schoenherr, Sami Durante, who is ranked No. 8 and just scored a 9.95 last week. Skaggs (9.95), Schoenherr (9.925), and Gabbie Gallentine (9.925) are all coming off of impressive performances in the Missouri meet, while LSU’s Olivia Dunne (9.925), Schennikova (9.925), and Johnson (9.90) have showed very solid performances so far this year. The bars title will come down to who has the most perfect handstands and can stick their dismounts.

On beam, the Gators are as strong as ever under Rowland, ranked No. 1 in the country with a lineup of athletes with impressive season highs: Skaggs (9.95), Thomas (9.95), Lazzari (9.95), Alyssa Baumann (9.925), and Leah Clapper (9.925). Sydney Johnson-Scharpf (9.90) will be out this weekend with a hip flexor injury. The Gators will end the meet here, which should be a strong rotation and can hopefully seal the win. LSU’s Reagan Campbell will be the one to watch on beam for the Tigers, with a season-high score of 9.95 and some truly impressive work to her name.

On floor, the meet is sure to be a spectacle. LSU is ranked No. 1 in the country and Florida is tied for No. 3. Johnson (high 10.0), Bryant (high 9.975), Reed (high 9.975), and Thomas (high 9.95) will surely be battling it out for the title here. These are four of the best floor workers in the country and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a 10 for one of this group. Baumann should also be back in this lineup after being out the last two meets.

Both teams are currently undefeated, so this will be a big meet all around — it should decide the SEC’s regular season title, and might leave its victor as the nation’s national title favorite. But it’s also worth savoring as a showcase for the sport: COVID scheduling has reduced the number of top matchups in college gymnastics this year — most teams are not competing outside of their conference — so this will be one of the year’s most exciting meets.

The meet will be on SEC Network’s Friday Night Heights and will be commentated by dynamic duo Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson Clarke. It starts at 7:30 Eastern.

As usual, I’ll be live on Twitter at @samisadancer if you want to follow along with live commentary that in no way expresses puzzlement at judges.

When: Friday, February 12, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, LA

Watch: ESPN+

Live Scores: StatBroadcast