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Higher heights: Florida gymnastics bolsters No. 1 ranking on Senior Night

The Gators continue to be great at everything — but especially so on the most daunting apparatus in gymnastics.

Erin Long

The No. 1 Florida gymnastics team has spent its 2021 season barreling toward a possible national title, catapulting to higher heights while drawing inspiration from any of many sources. On Senior Night last Friday, the Gators shined again — with their highest team score of the season suggesting a ceiling that has not yet been reached.

Trinity Thomas scored two perfect 10s, the Gators set another new team record for beam score, and the program clinched at least a share of the SEC regular season title for the third straight season, easily downing Auburn, 198.275 to 197.025.

After an emotional and confusing meet last week, with top performers Thomas, Savannah Schoenherr, and Nya Reed out of the lineups for COVID protocols, the Gators showed they are still healthy and on track to compete for a title against the Tigers.

All four Gator athletes — Thomas, Schoenherr, Reed, and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf — were back on the competition floor on Friday, with head coach Jenny Rowland and volunteer assistant coach Jeremy Miranda also back in the fold; presumably, any COVID issues are in the past, at least for that contingent of Florida’s program.

And without those off-the-floor worries, nothing was stopping the Gators on it.

Senior Jazmyn Foberg got a chance to compete again in the leadoff spot on vault and delivered a strong Yurchenko full — much better-controlled than last week — for a 9.850. Senior Megan Skaggs followed with a picture perfect full, complete with stuck landing, to notch a new career high of 9.925.

In the third spot, Schoenherr matched her career-high, 9.95, with a 1.5 with a great block and a tiny slide on the landing. Reed and Thomas followed her with their own 1.5s, but both were unable to control their landings, settling for 9.80 and 9.825, respectively. In the anchor spot, Payton Richards finally got the chance to compete her 1.5 for the first time this season. She showed excellent distance and control to add a 9.900 to the Gators’ vault total.

The Gators finished the rotation with a 49.450 on vault, a strong performance even without Reed and Thomas performing their best. For me, this is an important progress point going into postseason.

On bars, the freshmen got things started. Ellie Lazzari showed off excellent handstands and toe point but hopped on her landing and had to settle for a 9.825. When Lazzari gets that dismount sorted out, she is going to be a force on bars, as she gives the judges nothing to deduct from in her precise handstands and leg positions. Gabbie Gallentine followed her classmate with another routine that was great on the bars themselves, but had a deep and loose landing on her double layout and had to settle for a 9.775. Skaggs got things back on track with an excellent routine in the third position. She had a tiny hop back on her dismount and picked up a 9.925 for the team total.

In the fourth spot, Alyssa Baumann got the call again. After her excellent and emotional bars performance last week, it is good to see that she has proven herself and was awarded another spot in the bars lineup. She had another great routine, hitting all of her handstands and showing good amplitude on her Jaeger, to score a 9.900. Schoenherr followed her with a clean routine — she may have been a little close on her release — for a 9.850.

In the anchor spot, Thomas showed why she is the top bars worker in the country. She demonstrated excellent rhythm and control to be awarded another perfect 10.

I had been getting a little worried about the Gators on bars, since they haven’t been able to settle on a sixsome that can consistently score high. But I think this week showed that they are figuring things out on their way to the postseason: Baumann and Lazzari are emerging as a strong pair, and if the Gators can all start sticking their dismounts, this will be a great bars group.

The Gators picked up a 49.500 on bars to keep them on track to a 198 team score as they headed to their best event: Balance beam.

Since Rowland, renowned for her coaching on beam as far back as her Auburn days, has been Florida’s head coach, the Gators have been a beam team. But I think sometimes it’s hard to describe how truly incredible this year’s team is on this event. Friday’s rotation produced another chance to capture that greatness.

As I said last week, Richards is the perfect leadoff beamer. She performed a carbon copy of her weekly routine again, excellent control on her triple series, good extension and lift on her leaps, and another good dismount, this week with a little hop, to score a 9.850. Skaggs then taught a clinic on leaps and extension while fan-favorite commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke gushed about her routine, ending up with a 9.900.

A 9.85 and a 9.9 over two routines is a good start nearly any program would take on beam. For Florida, it’s just the prelude.

Lazzari was calm, cool, and collected and showed not an ounce of freshman nerves on her nearly perfect routine. She was awarded a career-high 9.975 for one of the strongest beam routines I have ever seen from a freshman.

Baumann’s sharp and dynamic routine was picture perfect on the beam — a floaty series and perfection on all of her leaps — and she stuck her 1.5 dismount with only a bit of arm movement, earning a 9.925.

Thomas continued her all-around night with another great beam routine . I was specifically impressed with the rhythm in her in mixed series where she moved effortlessly from one skill to the next, and thought she earned her 9.925. And in the anchor spot, Leah Clapper hit her routine again, keeping her chest up on her stuck dismount to match Lazzari’s 9.975 score.

That yielded a total of 49.700, the highest Gators beam total ever. And what’s wild is that Skaggs, Thomas, and Baumann have all scored higher individually, and that Florida never has as a team despite netting several 10s in recent years.

There’s still theoretically room to improve on stunning work there, in other words.

Clapper got things started on floor with her cleanest routine so far; she hit both of her double salto passes with much more control and scored a career-high 9.825. Skaggs followed her by showing off her beautiful dance and leaps for her last floor routine in the O’Dome, scoring a 9.850. Freshman Lazzari finished her great night with three well-controlled passes and great form on her leaps to pick up a career-high 9.900 on floor.

Reed danced and flipped her way to another high score on floor (9.925), showing that the week off didn’t set her back at all. In the fifth spot, Thomas was, well, perfection. Her double layout with performed with control, she floated through her combination pass, and she was able to keep her feet glued on her double pike.

She scored her second perfect 10 of the night, becoming only the second Gator to score two perfect 10s in one night. (Alex McMurtry was first.)

Baumann finished the meet with an emotional last performance in the O’Dome. She showed off her beautiful form on her double tuck and leaps on her way to a 9.95.

In the individual rankings, Thomas won the all-around (39.750) ahead of Skaggs’ 39.600. Schoenherr won vault (9.95), Skaggs was second (9.925), and Richards shared third with Auburn’s Drew Watson (9.90). Thomas’s 10.0 won bars, with Skaggs (9.925) in second and Baumann sharing third with Auburn’s Aria Brusch and Derrian Gobourne (9.900). On beam, Lazzari and Clapper (9.975) shared the win over Thomas, Baumann, and Auburn’s Gabby McLaughlin (9.925) in third. And Thomas, of course, won the floor title (10.0), Baumann shared second with Gobourne (9.95).

And as the national rankings switch to National Qualifying Score (NQS) this upcoming week — calculated this year as the average of a team’s or athlete’s top four scores, two of which must be away — the Gators sit on top of the rankings in all-around and on all four events, which is an impressive but not unprecedented feat.

Individually, Thomas is also a cut above her competition in the rankings, sitting on top of the all-around (NQS 39.788), bars (NQS 9.975), and floor rankings (NQS 9.975), and coming in at a relatively pedestrian third on vault rankings (NQS 9.944) and fourth on beam (NQS 9.944). Also making national top 10s on Florida’s roster are Schoenherr on vault (tied for eighth with a NQS of 9.919), Skaggs on bars (tied for ninth at a NQS of 9.906), Lazzari on beam (third with a NQS of 9.950), Baumann on beam (10th, NQS 9.931), and Reed on floor (tied for fourth, NQS 9.938).

With those rankings established, their standards known, and at least one title secured, the Gators’ trip to at Alabama to finish out the regular season next Friday qualifies as a showdown in which they have little to lose. Against a talented Crimson Tide squad that has historically defended its home floor well against the Gators, Florida may have to keep its game at its highest level to prevail.

When: Friday, March 5, 2021 at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Coleman Coliseum

TV: SEC Network Alternate