After a disappointing third-place finish at the SEC Championships, the Florida Gators gymnastics team wants to put that — and other memories of postseason struggles — behind them as they enter the first round of NCAA Regionals on Friday night in Athens, Georgia.
They’ll likely have multiple shots to do so this weekend. The Regionals format, new as of 2019, features three rounds of competition at four different regional sites. Action began on Thursday night, with a “play-in” meet with the lowest ranked teams from each of the four locations, and Friday will feature two semi-finals at each location. The top two teams from each of the semi-finals move on to the Saturday evening final, and the top two teams from that regional final will move on to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth later in April.
The No. 1 Gators are competing at the Athens Regional — hosted, of course, by Georgia — and hold the top seed nationally. They will start their competition tonight against No. 16 Illinois (No. 4 Seed), No. 25 Central Michigan (No. 7 Seed), and No. 26 NC State (No. 8 Seed). Florida is very comfortably projected to lead the field in this semi-final, although Central Michigan and NC State could cause some trouble for Illinois’ goal of making it to the final on Saturday.
The bigger questions will be how full and poised Florida’s rotations are, with the health and readiness of Trinity Thomas, still tending to ankles injured in February, and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, who was missing entirely at the SEC Championships, still to be determined. Another storyline will be whether Payton Richards’ three-fall SEC Championships was a fluke or a larger problem.
The Gators will start on beam, which has consistently been the best event for the Gators this year; even with Richards’ fall, Florida still generated a high score at SECs. I expect that we will see the same core group here again, with Richards remaining the lead off and Savannah Schoenherr being in the anchor spot if Thomas is still out. (Depending on her health, we could see Thomas back on beam; as one of the nation’s best performers on the apparatus, her routine would be a big boost for the Gators.)
On floor, where the Gators will rotate second, lineup will a question. I doubt that we will see Thomas back here, and I also wonder if the coaches will want to bench Richards after her fall. We also don’t know Johnson-Scharpf’s status, as she didn’t even travel to SECs. Megan Skaggs, Ellie Lazzari, Nya Reed, and Alyssa Baumann should be locks for this lineup, with Clapper, Richards, Johnson-Scharpf, and Taylor being the possibilities to fill the other holes. (And personally, as Friday is not expected to be a challenge for the Gators, I think that Jenny Rowland can choose any two of those athletes to go up and the Gators will be fine.)
On vault, the Gators will want to more or less copy and paste the first five vaults from SEC championships — maybe with a few cleaner landings — and will also want Richards to stay on her feet to add to their total. With Jazmyn Foberg, Lazzari, Skaggs, Schoenherr, and Nya Reed, the Gators can easily put up a 49.2+ score on vault even without Richards on the top of her game or Thomas sprinting into her Yurchenko 1.5.
Bars was the downfall of the Gators at SECs, and they will probably be reworking their six competing athletes for this weekend. Skaggs, Schoenherr, Thomas, and probably Lazzari will be locks for the lineup, as they have been consistent so far this season, with the exception of Schoenherr at SECs — though I firmly believe that was a fluke.
The question falls in the other two spots. Do you go with Richards, who did well on bars at SECs but fell on the other events and tends to score lower because of built in deductions? Do you go with Baumann, who has had two excellent routines and two falls? Do you go with Gallentine, who has a high peak score but has been unable to hit her dismount every week? Or do you go with Clapper, who has been incredibly consistent in all of her outings but will be unlikely to score over 9.85? My thought is that you bench Baumann for now after her two falls and go with Richards for consistency and Gallentine for peak score on Friday. Then, if Gallentine doesn’t hit, you go with Clapper on Saturday.
Obviously, we will see what the coaches decide — and, hopefully, by the last rotation, the Gators will be far enough ahead of the field that they don’t need to sweat out their bars lineup. Hopefully.
In other news, while the team didn’t win the SEC Championship, Lazzari and Baumann shared the beam title with Alabama’s Luisa Blanco and Lexi Graber. This marked Baumann’s third SEC beam title in the three years she has competed at SEC Championships. She is the first athlete in the 40-year SEC championship history to win three beam titles, having never been surpassed in the event.
Clapper was named the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her work in the classroom and Rowland was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second year in a row. Baumann, Clapper, Lazzari, and Skaggs were named to the All-SEC Team based on their performances at the championships, and Lazzari was also named to the All-Freshman Team.
Seven Gators earned WCGA Regular-Season All-American honors: Baumann (2nd-BB, 2nd-FX), Clapper (1st-BB), Lazzari (1st-BB), Reed (2nd-FX), Schoenherr (2nd-VT), Skaggs (2nd-AA, 2nd-UB), and Thomas (1st-AA, 1st-VT,1st-UB,2nd-BB, 1st-FX). Thomas is the only gymnast in the nation with a clean sweep of five All-American honors — one on each event and a final one in the all-around.
You can watch Florida compete tonight via ESPN3 at 7 p.m. Eastern, and follow along with the live stats provided by Georgia. Join me at my new Twitter account — @DrSam_PhD — for live tweets during the meet, and come back here tomorrow for a recap of the semi-finals and a preview of the regional finals.