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A scintillating start: Florida gymnastics flies high with record score in season opener

Sloane Blakely’s all-around victory capped the Gators’ flying start.

Hannah White / Florida Gators

They weren’t at full strength. They weren’t competing against the sorts of teams they will see as the season progresses. And they were only starting a season that comes with expectations as big as they can be.

But last Friday night, the Florida Gators gymnastics team put on as fine a debut as they ever have.

The Gators started their 2022 season out with a bang, posting their highest-ever season-opening score in the O’Dome — an impressive 197.675 — and cruising to a win over Rutgers, Northern Illinois, and Texas Woman’s.

Sloane Blakely picked up the first all-around win for a freshman in their collegiate debut since Kytra Hunter in 2012 and super-seniors — graduate students, really — Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann hit or increased their collegiate bests on floor with a 9.95 and 9.975, respectively.

It was an exciting night in the O’Dome, one on which Florida’s veterans would retake the floor as its No. 1-ranked freshman class got to debut its talents to the NCAA scene. Before the meet, though, that enthusiasm got slightly muted, as Florida revealed that the wildly popular Morgan Hurd would not be able to run out with the team as her NCAA certification is not yet complete, instead being relegated to the sidelines and cheering on the Gators.

And earlier this week, Hurd revealed she suffered a torn ACL just before arriving at Florida, one that will lead to her redshirting for the 2022 season.

But even though Hurd’s absence from competition and injury were unfortunate, all four of the other Florida freshmen got to take part in competitive lineups in their first meet as Gators — and they all acquitted themselves nicely at a minimum.

In addition to Hurd’s inability to compete, Ellie Lazzari was also sidelined due to what appears to be minor injuries, and Trinity Thomas did not compete on beam and floor. (Post-meet, Jenny Rowland said that Lazzari has been “banged up,” but that we should see her back on an event or two next week. She also noted that Thomas is fine, but that with these deep rosters they were able to rest her.)

This left the Florida lineups wide open for some new faces.

The vault lineup started with a familiar lead-off, Skaggs, who got things started with her Yurchenko full, which normally scores very well. She had uncharacteristic lack of control on her landing and ended up having to lean very far forward. She had to settle for a 9.750. I wouldn’t worry; this just seemed like some first night jitters.

New faces and walk-ons sophomore Chloi Clark and freshmen Bri Edwards stepped up in the next two lineup positions. They both hit their Yurchenko fulls with nice position in the air and a small hop on the landing and scored a pair of 9.825. I personally was very impressed with their ability to jump in and hit these vaults. I think that this signifies improved depth for Florida on vault this season — they should greatly benefit from having these two lineup-ready vaults in their back pocket even later in the season when 10.0 start value options are ready (i.e. Lazzari, Savannah Schoenherr, Payton Richards, and Leanne Wong).

Seniors Nya Reed and Thomas came out with a bang in their first meet of the season, beginning the back half of Florida’s vault rotation in fine form. Reed looked like no time had passed since she became an NCAA Championships All-American last year and nearly stuck her 1.5Y for a 9.90. Thomas followed her with a practically perfect stuck 1.5Y for a 9.95.

Blakely closed out the lineup with a full for a 9.775. It was a good start to the night for her, but we should definitely expect to see her compete the 1.5Y later this season.

The Gators started their night with a 49.275 on vault, a totally respectable start for a team that didn’t have some of its best vaulters in that rotation — as a reminder, that’s a 49.275 out of 49.85 because the Gators only put up two 10 start value vaults this week. Simply adding in the difficulty and higher start values of Yurchenko 1.5s should boost Florida a bit here.

The Gators headed to bars for one of the most anticipated events of the collegiate season, the NCAA debut of team world champion Riley McCusker and world all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong. This pair is known for their amazing form on the apparatus and being fan favorites overall.

Blakely got things started well on bars with a clean routine finishing with a small step back on her double front dismount. She scored a 9.825. I can see her really being a strong player in this lead-off spot. Skaggs followed her with a 9.850 for her routine. She had a moment of trouble on her half pirouette on the low bar, but it was otherwise a very clean routine.

In the third spot, McCusker had her debut — and what a debut it was! She showed off her perfect handstand and toe point, highlighted by a textbook half pirouette on the high bar before setting up for her dismount. She landed a little low on her dismount, but this was likely the only real mistake of her entire routine. She scored a 9.825.

Seniors Schoenherr and Thomas followed up with beautiful lines and dynamics for a 9.875 and 9.850, respectively. They both showed some early-season rust, but should be back to 9.9+ form in no time.

Freshman Wong anchored the lineup with incredible flight on her between bar releases and nice handstands. She had a lean forward a bit on her landing but showed the potential for huge scores later in the season with nearly perfect form through the routine. She scored a 9.875.

While a 49.275 for bars is a little lower than what I expect from this star-studded lineup, the potential for tremendous showings and scores is certainly there. If and when the freshmen are able to settle into their dismounts and the seniors shake out any first meet jitters, this lineup could be unstoppable.

The Gators have been the top beam team for the last two years, so I was definitely interested to see what they would do in the next rotation.

Skaggs led off and really just picked up where she left off last season. She was picture perfect in all of her positions and stuck her dismount. She scored a 9.875, which was honestly a little low for that routine to me.

Blakely followed up with an exceptional routine. She had a lovely and well-connected front aerial to back handspring series, and stuck her dismount cold. For this, she was awarded a near-perfect 9.95. This matched the top score ever for a Gator in their beam debut, set by Lazzari last season.

Richards was up third, and she showed slightly new composition from last season with a chest cartwheel and a new back handspring 1.5 dismount. This clean first routine was, we can hope, the beginning of her redemption for the issues that she had in postseason on this event; her 9.875 was a great score and a good sign for things to come from her.

Baumann, naturally, did her normal perfect beam gymnastics in the fourth spot and stuck her 1.5 dismount to add another 9.925 to the team score. Wong followed her with a slightly nervy routine with a large balance check for a 9.70. She did show her ability to think on the spot, though, as she threw in a side somersault when she missed the connection out of her side aerial to make sure that she preserved a 10.0 start value.

Finishing the rotation was the steady Leah Clapper, who anchored the lineup with another near-perfect routine for a 9.95. In 2021, she really solidified herself as someone the Gators can count on for consistent huge scores on beam; her 2022 debut suggests she’s likely to do the same this season.

The Gators scored an impressive 49.550 on beam — and that was without Lazzari and Thomas, who churned 9.9+ scores in 2021. This lineup is going to be so, so tough to make all season — hopefully, this internal competition will only make the athletes stronger.

Florida finished the meet on floor and was able to show off all of Jeremy James Miranda’s new choreography.

Skaggs, long a reliably very good but not truly elite floor performer, led off with the routine of her career. She perfectly controlled both of her passes and showed great extension and amplitude on her leaps, earning every bit of her career-high 9.95.

Richards was supposed to go in the second spot, but was switched out for Halley Taylor right before the rotation. Taylor struggled with her landings on both of her double salto passes, and therefore only scored a 9.575. After that lower score applied a bit of pressure, Blakely finished her excellent night with another great performance. She opened with a double Arabian and kept all of her landings very clean for a 9.90.

In the fourth spot, Baumann showed off a new routine construction with two tumbling passes that was executed to near perfection and scored a 9.975.

After the meet, Baumann noted that she had been stubborn and wanted to stick to the three-pass — but, clearly, this scored well, so she may stick with it.

Wong showed off her excellent tumbling form and grace to score a 9.80, even with a step out on her triple full opening pass. Reed capped off this incredible lineup and meet with a 9.95 for her fun routine — one that mashes up some notable instrumentals from the last 20 years of hip-hop into a extremely fun two minutes — that is surely going to become a crowd favorite.

The Gators picked up all the event titles, with Thomas winning vault (9.95), Schoenherr and Wong sharing the bars win (9.875), Clapper and Blakely sharing the beam win (9.95), and Baumann winning floor (9.975). Blakely won her first all-around title (39.450).

And though the Gators’ 197.675 team score is a great score for the first week, it’s fair to say it might prove to be the floor for this team on good nights, as that number came without Lazzari (likely to be an all-arounder at her peak) and a full-strength Thomas (missing on two events), and with McCusker working only bars. Even with Hurd out for the year, this team has a lot of room to grow over the season.

I also hope the lineups in this meet are a signal that, blessed with an extraordinary level of depth, Florida’s coaches plan to pace some of their athletes to peak in postseason competition and keep some of the more injured athletes healthy. It was very nice to be able to see some different athletes, as well: Clark and Edwards getting to perform in a lineup on vault for the first time was good, and to see Blakely get to do the all-around — and star in that role — in her first meet might instill a lot of confidence even if she doesn’t end up being an every-night all-arounder.

What we saw last Friday suggests that what most thought of this Florida roster is true: This really is the deepest and most talented roster Florida has had in a long time.

And there was no reason to believe, after their scintillating start, that these Gators should not be expecting to do big things this season.