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Off the floor: Florida gymnastics rallies to make NCAA Championships

Nya Reed’s fantastic recovery from an early stumble helped the Gators come back and secure passage to nationals.

Florida Gators

Florida Gators senior Megan Skaggs said it best on Monday:

Amidst injuries, mistakes, and a tough fight from Denver and NC State, the Florida Gators were still able to win their Athens Regional final and advance to the NCAA Championships alongside Minnesota.

On Saturday night, the Gators got started on vault with two usable Yurchenko fulls from Jazymn Foberg and Ellie Lazzari for 9.775 and 9.825, respectively. In the third spot, Skaggs stuck her full again for another 9.900, continuing a recent streak of excellence.

Up fourth, Schoenherr kept the moment going with another stick on her 1.5 to score a 9.925. This ended up being the second-highest-scoring vault of the whole evening.

In the fifth spot, the Gators had their first mistake of the night — and a major one. Reed started running towards the vault table for her 1.5, but ended up stopping before touching the springboard. (It seemed to me like she had miscounted her steps.) She moved back up the vault runway and ran for her vault again, this time running on to the mat and springboard, but not performing a vault over the table.

After touching the equipment on her second try, she should have been prevented from vaulting again — but Reed was spared this fate, as it seemed like the judges were not ready for her second attempt, and she was given a third try, which she performed only perfunctorily, doing Yurchenko layout timer and intentionally rolling to land softly her back. For all this, Reed was awarded a 7.950, which meant that the Gators would 100% have to count anchor Baumann’s score.

Reed’s saga — which lasted several minutes — had significantly delayed Baumann, disrupting the usual rhythm of Florida’s vaults. But when she finally got the chance to vault, Baumann did her job, completing her full with a hop back to close out the rotation. She scored a 9.800.

The Gators ended the rotation with a 49.225, putting them in fourth place — behind a three-way tie for first, where Denver, Minnesota, and NC State were all knotted at 49.325.

This may have been where the flashbacks started, but there should not have been any room for serious concern based on that scoring. With four out of five vaults starting from a 9.95 value, the Gators have been disadvantaged on vault all year, and were nearly guaranteed a relatively low scoring start to the meet. But Baumann’s score meant not counting a fall — or, worse, a score matching Reed’s, the true disaster scenario — and the 49.225 Florida totaled was also only 0.05 lower than the Gators’ 49.275 vault performance on Friday night — when they almost posted a total of 198+ anyway.

However, the Gators would need to scratch back from fourth place, beginning on bars.

Payton Richards started the rotation off with her normal routine — consistent, but with form errors — for a 9.800. Lazzari followed with another good routine for a 9.8750. Her improvement on this event this season has been truly impressive. Skaggs, in the third spot, put up another great score for the Gators with a 9.900, showing why she is an All-American on this event.

In the fourth spot, Schoenherr fought her way through her routine after having a very arched handstand. She was able to stick her dismount and come away without losing too many more tenths for a 9.85. Thomas did her job again, with a perfect routine on the bars; marred by a hop back on her dismount, it was still good for a 9.900.

In the anchor spot, freshman Gabbie Gallentine showed why she is a bars specialist, pairing beautiful handstands and extension with a stuck dismount for another 9.95 to lead the Gators on this event. The freshmen have really gotten so much stronger on bars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Gallentine challenge for a podium spot at Nationals.

The Gators put up a 49.475 on bars, which was a very usable score despite not being as extraordinary as the 49.675 that they mustered on Friday evening. And so the Gators headed to their best event, beam, in third place (98.700) and close behind Minnesota (98.825) and Denver (98.800).

Immediately, though, the Gators found more trouble. Richards started the rotation off with a very shaky routine with a balance check on her series and a broken leap series connection; she looked very rattled and scored a 9.525. The Gators knew that they would not want to count that routine to move forward to the NCAA Championships.

And or us fans, flashbacks of Corvallis 2019 — where the Gators had to count a fall on beam and didn’t advance to Nationals — came flooding back.

Good thing, then, that Skaggs was up in the second spot to change the narrative. In 2019, Skaggs was one of the two athletes who fell on beam in the Regional final to keep them out of the championship. In Florida’s abbreviated 2020 season, Skaggs never competed on the beam. But in 2021, Skaggs has returned to the apparatus — and looked like a different athlete on it. This performance was in keeping with that form, as she kept her cool and focused in on the job at hand to execute her routine with control and a stuck dismount. She scored a 9.875 — and I did think that score was slightly low.

Skaggs’s career evolution — from seldom being able to put together a complete all-around performance to consistent two eventer who couldn’t break into the other lineups to the most consistent all-around performer on the Gators’ roster — has been exciting to watch. She is truly peaking in her senior season.

Lazzari and Baumann kept the rally going by adding two more 9.900s to the Gators’ total. Both are capable of scoring 9.95+, but had small errors that kept them from those numbers on Saturday.

Clapper was the high scorer of the night with great control on her series and a clean full turn for a 9.95. She has also really grown this season, becoming an athlete that the Gators can count on for a huge hit on beam every time.

In the anchor spot, the pressure was on Schoenherr to replace Richards’s score, and she did her job, staying on the beam, and scored a 9.825.

While the Gators are used to scores higher than the 49.450 they garnered on beam, this was still enough to push them to the front of the field (148.100), ahead of Denver (148.075), which couldn’t break into the 9.9s on vault, Minnesota (147.975), which struggled on floor, and NC State (147.375), which had faded from contention through three rotations.

But the Gators’ night of adversity wasn’t over. In the warmup period for floor, disaster struck: Both Taylor and Johnson-Scharpf went down with injuries, knocking Johnson-Scharpf from the lineup and keeping Taylor, who was expected to be the alternate, from taking her place. The Gators needed to show their mental game and put all of this behind them to finish out the meet.

Clapper led off the Gators with the best floor routine of her career. She controlled her passes well and did not go out of bounds, which she has had an issue with, scoring a career-high 9.900 on floor. Skaggs followed her with another excellent performance, one that allowed her to match her career-high 9.925 that was set in her very first floor routing back in 2018.

Lazzari continued this dazzling floor rotation with a career-high 9.925 of her own.

In the fourth position, Richards got the call to step in, and added to a night she will fully want to forget. She controlled her double layout well, but had a huge hop out of bounds on her double tuck and had to settle for a 9.65, another score that the Gators would not want to count.

And so a new pressure to hit after that error fell on Reed, who had had the major error on vault. Yet the junior showed no sign of nerves or any leftover issues from vault with a huge, well-controlled double layout, excellent control on her combination pass, and control on her double pike. This was one of her best routines in the excellent season that she has been having, and it scored a 9.95 — which included a 10.0 from one judge.

While the Gators didn’t know it yet, Reed’s 9.95 was enough to put them through to nationals. But for good measure, Baumann finished off the meet with a good routine — she was a little short on her double tuck — to score a 9.85.

The Gators ended the meet with a 197.700, ahead of Minnesota (197.425), Denver (197.275), and NC State (196.150).

It was a moment of celebration — and relief — for the team and fans, whose last experience with Regionals was that 2019 trip to Corvallis.

Regional individual awards were given out based on Friday’s semifinals. Skaggs took home third in a very tough all-around field (39.650), behind Minnesota’s Lexy Ramler (39.775) and Denver’s Lynnzee Brown (39.725). Thomas was first on bars (10.0) with Gallentine and Skaggs sharing second with Ramler (9.95). Baumann took home first on beam (9.975), Lazzari and Clapper shared second with Ramler (9.95). Reed shared first on floor with Brown and Minnesota’s Ona Loper (9.95).

All around, it was a very successful regionals for the Gators who showed that they can still be a top team even with Thomas out on three events. If they want to compete for the national title, however, they will likely have to hope that Thomas can come back on a few more events in Fort Worth — without her, Florida goes from possible favorite to underdog.

As if to reinforce the fragility of elite collegiate gymnastics, after the meet, we learned that Johnson-Scharpf tore her Achilles, and will be out for the rest of the season. We do not yet have an update on Taylor’s injury.

The Gators will finish their season at the NCAA Championships April 16-17 in Fort Worth, Texas, and this will be the first time that Florida’s epic 2019 class — Clapper, Johnson-Scharpf, Reed, Schoenherr, Taylor, and Thomas — will ever compete as a team at NCAA nationals. On of the entire Gators roster, only the seniors — Baumann, Foberg, and Skaggs — have ever competed as a team at NCAA nationals, though Schoenherr and Thomas each competed as individuals in 2019.

The Gators will start their NCAA Championships experience in the afternoon semi-final at 1 p.m. Eastern on Friday, April 16, where they will start on bars. If they are in the top two teams, they will move on to the team final — the so-called Four on the Floor — on Saturday, April 17 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Individual national titles on all four apparatuses and the all-around will be given out based on Friday’s results.