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Alone at the top: Florida rallies to defeat Alabama for sole SEC gymnastics crown

Florida went into hostile territory and came out with a rare victory — even without Trinity Thomas.

Florida Gators

I really hope that Florida’s gymnastics team is not getting into the habit of releasing shocking changes to lineups shortly before meets. After the COVID protocol announcement a few weeks ago and last night’s announcement that Trinity Thomas would be held out of the meet at Alabama after a fall on bars in warm up, I am not sure I can handle any more drama in the lead up to meets.

Last night, amidst the drama about Thomas’s potential injury, the No. 1 Gators gymnastics team had the opportunity to clinch sole possession of the SEC regular season title and finish their second consecutive season undefeated in the SEC. And though the No. 6 Alabama Crimson Tide certainly gave the Gators a tough fight, and Florida had to work out of a hole after a tough bars rotation, the Gators fought back strong on the remaining three events to seal the victory, the title, and the undefeated record.

Payton Richards got the call to lead off the Gators on bars. She did mostly her normal on the bars — good rhythm but lots of leg separation — but she struggled on her dismount landing low and needing to take a large step. She was forced to settle for a 9.70, which was not a score the Gators wanted to count. In the second position, Gabbie Gallentine had a very clean routine on the bars, showing tight form in her transition connection — Maloney to Pak Salto — but was loose once again on her landing, and scored a 9.725. Two scores in the 9.70s were not how the Gators wanted to start this meet, though with Gallentine’s routine over and done with, the final four performers were all regulars.

And fortunately for Florida, they more or less delivered. Reigning SEC Freshman of the Week Ellie Lazzari showed clean work on the bars in the third position and took a small hop on her dismount for a 9.825. I personally thought that score was a little tight, but the camera angles were very poor for clearly seeing execution.

Megan Skaggs showed strong work in the fourth spot — she has clearly been working this season to keep her legs glued together on her Pak Salto — and she was rewarded with a 9.90 for her performance. In the fifth position, Alyssa Baumann showed beautiful handstands, toe point, and execution on the bars. Unfortunately — this was the “less” delivered by a regular — she missed the release point on her dismount and had to put her handstands down. Her 9.200 score forced the Gators to count both of the 9.700 scores from earlier in the rotation.

In the anchor spot, Savannah Schoenherr stopped the bleeding. She executed her handstands and release with control and stuck her dismount to score a 9.925.

This bars rotation (49.075) was definitely not what the Gators wanted to start the meet. To add more tension, the Crimson Tide had recorded a strong 49.300 on vault. The Gators needed to pick things up if they wanted to make sure they would have sole possession of the regular season trophy.

Jazmyn Foberg did her part to set the Gators on a stronger track. In her third vault of the season she showed a strong block, clean form in the air, and a stuck landing to lead the Gators off with a 9.850.

Lazzari and Skaggs followed up with two more stuck Yurchenko fulls to score a pair of 9.90s. Schoenherr added another vault hit to the team score with a 9.850 for her 1.5Y; she had a nice block but wasn’t able to control the landing.

In the fifth spot, Nya Reed hit her 1.5Y with huge distance and a small hop forward. That was definitely one of her better controlled vaults this season. She received a 9.90. In the anchor spot, Richards hit a well-controlled Yurchenko full — honestly, I was surprised they didn’t go for the 1.5Y after five hits, given the risk and reward — for a 9.825.

With that rotation, the Gators showed why they are the No. 1 team on vault. Their 49.400 event score started to close the gap with Alabama, who scored a strong 49.325 on bars. Three stuck fulls and three 9.90 scores was much more what the Gators wanted to be putting up in this meet.

The Gators headed to floor to try to make up their 0.15 deficit.

Skaggs started the Gators off strong with her innovative routine. You may have noticed that she only has two passes and does a turn. The coaches constructed this routine to keep her healthy and allow her to perform in this lineup all season. I personally enjoy that it gives her extra time to dance and perform. She scored a 9.850.

Lazzari followed her with a 9.900 for another great routine. This freshman is getting stronger and stronger every week. With Thomas out for the night, Sydney Johnson-Scharpf got the call to return to the lineup. She hasn’t competed on floor since the Arkansas meet in January, before sitting out for both a hip injury and then COVID protocols. She hit her opening double Arabian with control and fought for her combination pass. After finishing with a clean double tuck, she scored a 9.850. Richards also returned to the lineup this week, earning a 9.825 for a hit performance.

In the fifth spot, Reed showed off a perfect double layout, nice control on her layout to Rudi, and control on her double pike to score another 9.95. She has been on fire on this event all season, and gave one of her best performances when needed last night.

In the anchor spot, Baumann had to put her bars fall behind her and focus on helping the Gators defeat Alabama. She was perfect on the double tuck — complete with pointed toes! — and continued her perfection throughout the rest of the routine. Commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke couldn’t help but gasp at her leap combination. She scored a nearly perfect 9.975 to rapidly turn her night around.

With the big scores from Lazzari, Reed, and Baumann, and confident and consistent performances from Skaggs, Johnson-Scharpf, and Richards, the Gators were able to put up a 49.525 on floor — a massive score even in the absence of Thomas, who has registered 10s on floor in her last two outings.

Alabama was consistent on beam, but aside from Luisa Blanco — who had a stellar night — they were unable to put up the big numbers, which allowed the Gators to edge ahead of them before the last rotation, 148.000 to 147.950.

The meet and possession of the SEC regular season title would come down to the last rotation, pitting the Gators on their best event, the beam, against the Crimson Tide on the floor ... on Senior Night ... at home.

(Editor’s note: This is where Sam graciously didn’t note that Alabama heading to floor has long been a red alert for a rotation that is about to be massively overscored. The Gators have fallen victim to more than a few such tidal waves on floor in program history, which is part of why they entered Friday night with just two wins in 18 dual meets taking place in Tuscaloosa. The lead may have been narrow, but the odds were still long entering last night’s final stage.)

Richards led off on beam with a confident routine; she held on to her triple series and was able to get the stick on her dismount to start the rotation with a strong 9.875. Skaggs followed her with a beautiful routine. She hit her wolf turn, showed hyperextension and amplitude on her leaps and series, and stuck her dismount. She finished her strong all-around performance with a 9.925. Lazzari kept the strong performances going with strong leaps and clean execution. She took a small hop on her dismount and had to settle for a 9.90 — and I know, I know, no one “settles” for a 9.90, but Lazzari is one of the strongest beam workers in the country.

But on floor, Alabama was not putting up their best work. Two 9.750s from Sania Mitchell and Emily Gaskins and a 9.675 had left the door wide open for the Gators to take the meet. They just needed to stay on the beam.

In the fourth spot, Baumann kept her momentum from floor going. She showed sharp work and confidence on her series and her leaps. She landed her front aerial and switch side with complete control. She was slightly underrotated on her roundoff to 1.5 dismount, but only had to take one small step on the landing.

Then she was assessed a 9.850, which was probably the most confusing score of the meet for me ... but, well, judge for yourself.

(Speaking of judging for yourself: What do you think about these leotards?)

In the sixth spot, Leah Clapper showed control and cleanliness as ever. She scored another 9.850 to seal the win for the Gators; even with Alabama’s Alonza Klopfer and Luisa Blanco putting up 9.900s in their final two floor performances, the Crimson Tide would be unable to win the meet.

With the victory, the Gators are the sole holders of the SEC regular season title and finished their second season in a row undefeated in SEC dual meet competition.

There was, however, one more routine left to go for the Gators, as Schoenherr got the call to fill in for Thomas on beam. And in her first collegiate beam lineup appearance, Schoenherr showed the incredible depth of this Gators team. She was strong and clean on her front aerial to beat jump and hit her back handspring layout step out series. She showed good extension on her split jump to split jump 3/4, which is very challenging to make look aesthetically pleasing. She capped off her beam debut with a round off to 1.5 twist with a small hop for a 9.875.

It was the perfect exclamation point for this beam rotation, and this team’s incredible bunch of beam workers: Even someone taking to the apparatus for the first time competitively can produce a routine that is strong, confident, and clean — and because it’s Florida, it comes as no real surprise.

In the final tally, the Gators won the meet with a 197.425 that outdid Alabama’s fairly impressive 197.225.

While the Gators were able to defend their title and undefeated record, there will be some disappointment about not getting a usable score for their NQS, even though that has most to do with Thomas’s absence.

The Gators have been ranked No. 1 throughout the entire season and are looking to keep that ranking into postseason. Currently, the four scores counted in the Gators’ NQS are 198.275 (home), 198.150 (away), 197.850 (home), and 197.500 (away). To keep the No. 1 position out of grasp of No. 2 Oklahoma, the Gators were looking to improve on that 197.500 away score, something they only barely missed doing without Thomas contributing four routines.

They will, however, have one more chance in two weeks at the SEC Championship.

And apart from an inability to build in an NQS buffer, Florida’s vault, floor, and beam rotations looked postseason-ready in a tough spot on Friday. If the Gators can work on their bars consistency, they are undoubtedly the ones to beat for the SEC and NCAA titles.

Individually, Alabama’s Luisa Blanco picked up the vault (9.925), bars (9.950) and all-around (39.700) titles. She also shared the beam win with Skaggs (9.925). Baumann shared the floor win with Lexi Graber (9.975).

Skaggs put up another strong all-around performance (39.575), which allowed her to drop her low away score from the LSU meet and improve her NQS to 39.569, slotting her in the top 10 nationally. Lazzari put up her strongest all-around performance (39.525) in her third all-around outing of the season.

After the meet, Jenny Rowland gave an update on Thomas’ injury, saying that she “peeled off bars during warmups, and out of precaution it was in her best interest to rest her tonight.” Rowland wants Thomas healthy and prepared for postseason; obviously, that’s more important for Thomas and the Gators than even getting just a third win in Tuscaloosa ever in program history.

She’ll have time to rest, too. Next week, the Gators will have a bye week to rest and prepare for the SEC Championships on March 20th.