Florida’s gymnastics team will be competing for a national championship — their first since 2015 — at the NCAA Championships on Saturday.
They’ll also take to the various apparatuses in Fort Worth knowing exactly how fortunate they are to be getting to perform on the last day of this season.
In their first NCAA semifinal as a team since 2018, the Gators finished with a 197.4375 —behind Michigan (197.8625), and well below their ceiling, but ahead of California (197.3625), and Minnesota (197.1875) and thus enough to power the Gators to the final.
For the Gators, the highlight rotation was definitely floor, where five Gators scored over 9.900: Megan Skaggs (9.90), Ellie Lazzari (9.9125), Trinity Thomas (9.925), Alyssa Baumann (9.925), and Nya Reed (9.925).
But if the Gators want to win a championship tomorrow, they will need to do a better job of controlling their landings on vault and focusing on the details on bars and beam. An unusually rough day led to that 197.4375 — and while it was enough to make it out of Friday’s afternoon semifinal, the evening session made abundantly clear that it will not be strong enough to win a national championship.
In the evening session, Oklahoma led the field with a 198.0875, after an excellent day of competition. Utah (197.600) held off Alabama (197.575) and LSU (197.5625) to take the second spot in a battle that came down to the very last routine of the meet — and all three of those teams posted better scores than Florida on the day.
But all is not lost for the Gators, whose bad day was still full of correctable mistake and whose best day would still probably going to end with them atop the podium.
Here is my recipe for success on Saturday.
The Gators will start the meet on beam, and they need to put up a BIG score to hold off the other teams in the meet. I hope that Payton Richards can hit — the last time she hit a clean beam routine was when the Gators started on beam in the regional semifinal, three meet days ago — and set a strong tone for the rest of the rotation. If she can scores around 9.85, this will set up the rest of the strong lineup to go for scores of 9.90+ instead of having to stay on the beam to make up for a fall.
Florida will want a strong 49.5+ score coming out of beam, as that would put pressure on other teams to equal that tally.
On floor, the Gators will want to replicate their success yesterday — but with cleaner landings from Reed and Thomas. The top five Florida performers on this event will be expected to go 9.90+ — and, to their credit, did that yesterday. Richards was the exception to that — but, in my opinion, Florida should leave Richards in this lineup both a) because you don’t expect to count her score and b) I think with her more challenging tumbling, she has a higher peak score than Leah Clapper, making gambling on her turning in an excellent performance and threatening a 9.9 worth the risk of a second straight lackluster score.
The Gators want a 49.5+ score here as well to keep pace.
Even with big scores early on, however, vault may be make or break for the Gators. We have seen the entire lineup have strong landings throughout the season, but they have been rare for a team that has been significantly more bouncy in postseason. We will want Lazzari and Skaggs to stick their Yurchenko fulls and Reed, Thomas, and Savannah Schoenherr to control their landings better on their 1.5s. If the Gators can come out of vault with a 49.25+ going into bars, they will likely still have a shot at the title; attaching that to 49.5 scores from beam and floor may well give Florida the lead.
But bars has been a struggle for the Gators this season, where they have been unable to consistently get five 9.85+ hit routines, and yesterday was no exception. Richards needs to do her usual and lead them off with a hit routine — again, a hit from her prevents Florida from going into scramble mode — but the last five athletes will need to do their jobs and build the scores.
If three out of the other five routines can go 9.90+ — a task for Thomas, Schoenherr, and Baumann, maybe — and the other two are in the 9.8s, I think that the Gators can do that. And it’s probably Florida’s customary lineup that should be leaned on here: It’s the last meet of the season, with nothing on the line but the team title, and I say that Jenny Rowland should leave Gabbie Gallentine in — even after her blowup in a final routine yesterday — for high score potential.
Contending for a title is going to depend on the other teams’ performances as well, but as the Gators say, they can only “control their controllables” — and their best possible performances with fair-to-inflated judging should generate a score near 198.0. And while that mark is something that any of the four teams competing on this Saturday could hit, it’s also fair to say that none of them is going to luck into a day that good — scoring that well will require good to great execution.
The last time the Gators started on beam — the first night of the Athens Regional — they went lights out, and nearly scored a 198 with Thomas only on bars. With Thomas set to compete in all four events, and no reason to leave any gas in the tank for tomorrow, let’s hope these Gators can reach those heights again.