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Stepping up: Alyssa Baumann leads depleted Florida gymnastics to stunning victory

The Gators senior’s emotional and record-setting all-around debut helped a limited team do something special.

Florida Gators

If you had asked me earlier in the week about No. 1 Florida’s meet against No. 15 Kentucky on Friday, I probably would have told you that it would have been a little boring. I would have predicted a high home score for the Gators to add to their National Qualifying Score and an easy victory over an SEC opponent that isn’t really on the Gators’ level in the Annual Link to Pink meet.

Instead, the inevitable — for a season conducted in a pandemic, anyway — happened. And then the unthinkable did.

Without key performers, including the recently near-perfect Trinity Thomas, and head coach Jenny Rowland, Florida staged a spirited defense of its unbeaten record and home floor, downing Kentucky with a stunning show from reserves and contributors whose roles grew much bigger in a hurry.

And they gave me chances to write things I would never have thought I would type:

  • Alyssa Baumann won the all-around and floor titles; she also shared the bars title.
  • Leah Clapper scored her first career perfect 10.
  • And without half of their typical beam lineup and the coach notorious for bringing the best out of her athletes on beam, the Gators set a national standard.

Finding out late Friday that juniors Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, Nya Reed, Savannah Schoenherr, and Thomas would be out — and Rowland and volunteer assistant Jeremy James Miranda not in attendance — due to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, two hours before the meet was … unexpected.

Without three top multi-apparatus performers — Johnson-Scharpf has been recovering from injuries lately, but Schoenherr, Reed, and Thomas would all have been part of multiple lineups — the Gators’ rotations would obviously be significantly depleted, and I was honestly wondering why they were even holding the meet. (I believe the answer may be that Kentucky had already arrived in Gainesville when the Gators found out they would be down four athletes and two coaches.)

The depleted lineups called on new athletes, like junior Halley Taylor, to fill big roles, and also asked veteran athletes to compete events for the first time this year, like seniors Jazmyn Foberg and Baumann.

The Gators also started on vault — their most depleted event — and brought in Taylor, Baumann, and Foberg to fill the lineup spots of Schoenherr, Reed, and Thomas. With these three athletes, and the usual other lineup contributors Payton Richards, Ellie Lazzari, and Megan Skaggs, the Gators put up a full group of six routines — but one with no vaults with 10.0 start values.

And though all six athletes completed their Yurchenko fulls well, the scoring wasn’t what Florida usually sees on the event. Taylor started off with her first-ever vault in competiton for the Gators, but piked down and struggled with her landing to score a 9.675. Baumann and Foberg did their part to keep the Gators on track with a 9.825 and 9.800; this was particularly exciting for Foberg, because I thought we might not see her compete again with the amount of depth on this team.

But through three routines, Florida was at risk of putting up a number in the high 48s on vault. The back half of the rotation, fortunately, foreclosed that possibility: Richards competed her full well — we are still waiting for the 1.5, but I can understand this was not the right week for it — for a 9.850; Lazzari nailed the landing on her full this week to score a 9.875; and while Skaggs finished out the rotation by trying too hard to stick the landing and ended up swinging her arms around to settle for a 9.775, she did save the Gators from the 48s. The event total of 49.125 was obviously lower than the Gators’ usual vault total, but respectable, given the new faces and no 10.0 starts.

And, helpfully, Kentucky was also not able to take great advantage of that relatively low score, having to count three marks in the 9.7s on bars thanks to a fall and trailing the Gators even after the night’s first rotation.

Still, I was definitely nervous as the Gators headed to bars. Schoenherr and Thomas have been two of the most consistent bars workers in the lineup for the last two years and having them out put the pressure on the rest of the lineup.

Richards led off with her normal routine with a little looseness in the knees on her dismount to score a 9.775. Freshmen Gallentine and Lazzari followed up with a 9.800 and a 9.850, respectively. These were important hits for Gallentine, who has been inconsistent so far this season, and Lazzari, who hadn’t scored over 9.800 yet.

Skaggs kept everything on track with her usual excellent routine. She gave away nothing on the bars and finished with a “college stick” to score a 9.925. Clapper got the call in the fifth position. She was very clean as well and took a small hop forward on her dismount for a 9.875.

Those five hit routines had already stabilized Florida, which was set to grow its lead after Kentucky’s solid-but-unspectacular batch of vaults scored five 9.8-range scores but no 9.9+s. Then came what many gymnastics fans have been waiting for: The NCAA debut of Baumann on bars.

For context, Baumann has not competed bars since before her elbow injury prior to the 2016 Olympic Trials; for a time reference, Florida legend Bridget Sloan, whose collegiate career ended in 2016, noted on the broadcast that she had competed bars more recently than Baumann entering Friday.

Yet Baumann’s routine was excellent. She showed off all of the control and form that many will remember from her elite days, as well as better shape and control on her double layout dismount — one that an athlete lovingly referred to as “The Ice Queen” for her steely comportment nearly stuck before immediately bursting into tears.

She scored a 9.925 for her first NCAA bars performance, which would have been amazing in a vacuum. But many of those watching knew how Baumann earned those tears of triumph, knew they had a view into a seminal moment for herself and the Gators team that has supported her through a collegiate career in which she has made a recovery from that 2016 injury and come forward as a survivor of the infamous abuser who plagued elite American gymnastics for decades.

On this night, Baumann soared as high as she’s ever gone. Given that only Skaggs and Thomas have exceeded Baumann’s score on bars this year, I think this routine also likely presages a full-time role for her in that rotation — which only means more opportunities to go higher.

Highlighted by the performances of Baumann and Skaggs, the Gators notched a solid 49.375 on bars — a fine score even without the performances of Schoenherr and Thomas.

From there, Gators moved to beam. With only Thomas out of this lineup, if the usual five athletes hit, beam should not have been a concern. However, with Johnson-Scharpf, Schoenherr, and Reed out, the Gators were without the obvious candidates to cameo on beam, and so needed to insert Taylor — an athlete who had never even exhibitioned on beam as a collegian — in that sixth role.

As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. These Gators rose to the challenge and then some.

Richards got things started with a clean routine to stick for a 9.875. I definitely don’t think that we talk enough about how well Richards leads off this lineup; her quick routine and consistency is the perfect start to this excellent group of beamers.

Skaggs and Lazzari followed her with a pair of 9.925s, showing near perfection in their routines with beautiful extending leaps and stuck landings. These two are some of the most beautiful beamers to watch in the country.

In the fourth spot, Baumann continued her strong all-around night with what I really think was a perfect performance. She showed extension on her series and her leaps, lift on her front aerial, and an excellently secure stuck landing on her roundoff 1.5. She scored a 9.95, getting there via an unusual 9.90/10 split from the judges.

I would not have been upset if that had been a 10.

Suddenly, the pressure on Clapper in the fifth spot was not just to stay on the beam, but to keep this incredible beam rotation going — and, wow, did she do her job! She performed her triple series with perfect control, was clean on her leaps and stuck her dismount with her legs together, submitting one of her greatest beam performances ever.

The judges thought so, too, because they awarded her a 10.

With an event score of 49.675 through five routines — one that is the nation’s best on beam this year, and that matches the best mark ever on beam for the Gators — the pressure was completely off of Taylor in the anchor spot, and she was able to relax through her competitive debut on beam. She did a fine job, starting with a front toss to sissonne — a fun combination — and ending with a back handspring to gainer full off the side of the beam. It scored a 9.825 that Florida dropped, capping a sensational series of routines from the nation’s top-ranked beam squad produced even without their beam expert coach.

Kentucky had mustered a 49.325 on floor, keeping the Wildcats theoretically in position to make a run at Florida if the Gators had to count a fall on floor. But by that point, the chances of Florida faltering on the night seemed vanishingly small.

Without Thomas and Reed on floor, Taylor and Clapper got the call to fill out the lineup, the former going last and the latter going first. Clapper started things off with a mostly clean routine, but stepped out on her double pike and had to settle for a 9.700. Skaggs followed her with a great routine to match her season high of 9.875. Richards then picked up another 9.875 for her routine, featuring the only double layout of this week’s lineup. In the fourth spot, Lazzari showed she is ready for some upgrades — I spied tons of extra power on her double pike — and a clean combination pass for a 9.825.

But this night belonged to Baumann, who finished her all-around night with another nearly perfect routine — I will be watching her double tuck on repeat. She stuck her double tuck cold to start off and then showed good control on her 1.5 to front full and double pike. She was awarded a 9.95, matching her season high.

Taylor finished the meet up with a career-high 9.800 for her routine. She controlled her double tuck much better this week and showed nice improvement on her combination pass and leaps, and, thanks to Clapper stepping out, Florida got to count one of her three strong pinch-hit performances in its final scoring.

The Gators’ 49.325 on floor capped a 197.500 — a very good score for a full-strength team, but an absolutely titanic one for a roster bereft of four contributing athletes, one of whom is arguably the best in the sport at the moment.

This meet was a test for the Gators’ depth, and they delivered. With four athletes out — and four of those eligible to compete doing so as all-arounders — Florida still put up a score that improved the Gators’ NQS score, allowing them to drop a 197.250 notched earlier in the season.

And those four all-arounders? All four scored higher than 39.350: Richards (39.375), Lazzari (39.475), Skaggs (39.500), and Baumann (39.650). Baumann’s 39.650 is the highest ever for a Gator all-around debut; even if she owns the advantages of age and experience by virtue of debuting in AA as a senior, the greats whose debuts she eclipsed are a who’s who of women’s college gymnastics in the last decade.

In the individual rankings, Lazzari took the vault title with her 9.875 and Richards shared second with Kentucky’s Cally Nixon (9.850). On bars, Baumann and Skaggs shared the title (9.925), with Kentucky’s Raena Worley in third (9.90). On beam, Clapper’s perfect 10 obviously won the title, with Baumann and Worley sharing second (9.95). Baumann picked up her second event win of the night on floor with her 9.95, Worley was in second (9.925), and Skaggs, Richards, and Kentucky’s Anna Haigis all shared third with 9.875s.

Baumann (39.650) edged out Worley (39.600) to win the all-around. Skaggs was in third (39.500).

The Gators are home again next weekend for their second meet of the season against No. 19 Auburn. Hopefully, they will have the quarantined athletes back — I will post on twitter @samisadancer as soon as I hear.

But if last Friday night is evidence of anything, that might not even matter.

When: Friday, February 26, 2021 at 8:15 p.m.

Where: O’Connell Center

TV: SEC Network

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