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The new flight: How Florida’s freshmen could aid Gators gymnastics’ title chase

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A deep lineup that challenged for a national championship in 2021 got reinforcements for its charge at the 2022 crown.

Erin Long

After an unusual offseason that featured the first off-year Olympics in the modern era, the 2022 NCAA gymnastics season opens this weekend — and for Florida, on this Friday night, with a rare home quad meet. The Gators, who open their season ranked No. 2 nationally behind only defending national champion Michigan — and ahead of powerhouse teams No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Utah — host Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Texas Woman’s University in the O’Dome to open their season.

And Florida appears primed for one of its best campaigns ever.

All-Americans Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann return for their fifth seasons thanks to options presented by the COVID-era rules, all-everything performer Trinity Thomas returns for her “true” senior season, and Florida brings in not just the No. 1-ranked freshman class but a who’s who of successful elite athletes from the past few years — Leanne Wong, Sloane Blakely, Riley McCusker, Morgan Hurd, and Brianna Edwards. Wong, McCusker, and Hurd alone combined for eight World Championships medals, three American Cup wins, and countless international appearances between the three, and Wong served as an alternate at the Tokyo Olympics, with Hurd and McCusker also narrowly missing the team.

But a class with one Olympian — and two other should-have-been Olympians, arguably — is somehow still deeper than that top line. Blakely holds her own in the class as the only athlete to ever win all five Level 10 national titles outright in her age division this past summer, becoming the first to do this since USA Gymnastics has publicly reported Level 10 Nationals results. She is strong across all four events, but her 1.5 twisting Yurchenko vault has scored 9.9+ in Level 10 this season and will be a huge add to the Gators vault lineup.

McCusker, sure to be a fan favorite, has had to fight through a lot in her elite career: She was plagued by numerous injuries, and experienced extremely abusive coaching, ultimately providing key testimony against her former coach, leading to an eight-year suspension from coaching.

But despite this turmoil in her career, McCusker’s record is one of accomplishment. Her arm’s length list of top finishes includes all-around (AA) and team gold at City of Jesolo Trophy in 2017, all-around bronze and uneven bars (UB) gold at US Nationals in 2017, AA bronze at US Nationals in 2018, team gold at the Doha, Qatar-set World Championships in 2018, all-around silver at the Birmingham World Cup in 2019, and team and UB gold, AA silver, and balance beam bronze at the Pan American Games 2019.

After moving to Arizona to train at Arizona Sunrays with Brian Carey, McCusker showed increasing power on her vaults and tumbling, as well as a new bars dismount. She was considered a strong choice for the individual athlete spot at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer. Her Olympics quest was derailed, though, first by an injury to her ankle and then a mistimed handstand on her last bars routine at the U.S. Olympic Trials. When she was ultimately not selected for the team, she had surgery to repair her ankle and headed to Florida in August to start her career as a Gator. Her lines and execution on bars alone should make her a stellar performer on that apparatus, and her sunny disposition is sure to win crowds over.

Wong, who earned silver along with the U.S. women’s team in Tokyo, arrived in Gainesville in November immediately after winning two individual medals (AA silver and floor exercise bronze) at the 2021 World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan. Wong trained at GAGE in Blue Springs, Missouri, and is known for her excellent form and execution across all four events. She was the 2018 junior all-around and floor champion and the 2019 American Cup all-around champion.

Hurd, meanwhile, is merely widely regarded as one of the most beloved athletes by the growing contingent of diehard gymnastics fans known as the Gymternet. She has won five World Championships medals — gold as an all-arounder in 2017 and as part of the U.S. team in 2018, silver for beam in 2017 and floor in 2018, and all-around bronze in 2018 — to go with four World Cup all-around medals (gold in the American World Cup in 2018 and 2020 and in Tokyo in 2019, and bronze at Stuttgart in 2017), and has participated in numerous other international competitions.

While Hurd — who only arrived in Gainesville in December, after years of breathless and largely unfair speculation that she would not follow through on her commitment to compte for the Gators — is incredibly balanced across bars, beam, and floor (she herself says that she doesn’t like to vault), her performance on floor should be her biggest contrbution to the Gators roster this winter and spring. She is one of the athletes I am most excited to see with a Jeremy James Miranda floor routine.

Hurd’s delayed arrival in Gainesville this fall also came for good reason: She spent the fall semester performing on Simone Biles’s Gold Over America Tour. Florida coach Jenny Rowland said earlier this week that Hurd is settling in well and is a happy and positive addition to the team; whether she competes in this meet remains to be seen.

The fifth and final member of this star-studded class is Florida native Brianna Edwards. Don’t overlook her in this group of impressive athletes: She may not have the background of the other four, but she does bring in a really strong Yurchenko full that definitely has a potential to be a Megan Skaggs-style lineup staple on vault in her time as a Gator.

Now that you have met the freshmen, here’s what I think that you will see on each event.

Vault

To start, the Gators are returning nearly every single routine from last year, with the exception of Jazmyn Foberg’s vault that was an occasional lineup contributor. This makes for a lot of competition for lineup spots — the Gators’ 2021 campaign ended in the new Four on the Floor, so what returns was already a national title-caliber team, and the nation’s top freshmen class will have to crack an established lineup.

But on vault, arguably their weakest event last year, the Gators have many more options here than they have had in the past.

Trinity Thomas, Savannah Schoenherr, and Nya Reed return as last year’s top 3 ranked Gator vaulters. All three have 1.5 twisting Yurchenko vaults with full 10.0 start values (SVs) and posted National Qualifying Scores (NQS) over 9.9 a season ago. Sophomore Ellie Lazzari has been competing her 1.5 Yurchenko in fall intrasquad videos as well. Blakely’s 1.5Y will be a strong content for the back half of this lineup and Wong brings in a Podkopayeva (round-off ½ on; pike ½ off) vault that also starts out of 10.0.

While those are the most likely six vaults to make a championship lineup, it’s also hard to imagine a vault lineup without Skaggs’s nearly perfect Yurchenko full, despite its lower 9.95 start value. More likely to be fighting for inclusion in the rotation is Payton Richards, who could also offers a 1.5Y option if she can get back to her 2020 form — she was one of the Gators’ top three vaulters in the abbreviated 2020 season, but struggled often in 2021.

And then there are some depth options on vault: Edwards and Chloi Clark have solid full Yurchenkos, while the superannuated-for-college gymnastics Baumann could try her 1.5Y in a pinch.

Uneven Bars

The Gators were excellent at the top of their bars rotation a year ago, but struggled to fill out a group of six that would work, rotating in Gabbie Gallentine, Baumann, and Leah Clapper to try to get consistent performance up and down the sheet. Hopefully, though, the Gators’ additional depth will fix some of these issues.

The top scorers from last season will return this year, with Skaggs, Thomas, and Schoenherrr all expected to put up large scores this season. Freshmen Wong and McCusker will be expected to join this lineup as well, and could potentially solidify a top five that could churn out 9.9-worthy routines. The sixth spot will likely come down to Blakely and Lazzari, who are both capable of their own strong and clean routines. Depth options for bars are Baumann, Clapper, Gallentine, and Richards.

Balance Beam

If vault and bars were places to improve weaknesses, though, beam is where the Gators are set to build on strength.

The Gators were the No. 1 beam team in the country in both 2020 and 2021, and I expect them to continue having one of the top lineups this season. SEC champion Lazzari (NQS 9.956), Clapper (9.95), Thomas (9.944), SEC champion Baumann (9.938), Skaggs (9.925), and Richards (9.888) all return this season after superb showings in 2021, and wth the additions of Blakely, Wong, McCusker, and Hurd, all excellent beam workers in their own right, this lineup is truly an embarrassment of riches.

I expect that will we see this cast of performers — one in which every performer could realistically earn 9.9+ scores routinely, with chances for 10.0s coming from the best workers more often than not — rotate in and out until Rowland finds her most consistent lineup. I also expect that McCusker and Hurd will not be a part of this lineup initially.

Floor Exercise

And on floor, where Florida has historically been one of the nation’s best teams for more than a decade, Rowland can lean on what should be a deep, fluctuating lineup. The coaches have many athletes to choose between, and beyond the top two returners — Reed and Thomas, each of whom will be aiming for a 10.0 most nights this year — I expect that we will see a lot of variety in rotations here through the season.

Wong will most certainly join this lineup as a regular, and brings incredibly strong and clean tumbling. Baumann, Lazzari, and Skaggs all had great outings last season and should be considered strong options; those three would make up the bottom of my top six, practices largely unseen. But Blakely also has a great shot at joining this group with her beautiful double Arabian, and Hurd and McCusker should definitely see a floor lineup in their careers as Gators, though their transitions from elite gymnastics this season may mean a wait-and-see approach to how they are managing old injuries and a transition to the collegiate schedule keeps them mostly off the floor. Depth options for floor should be Clapper, Halley Taylor, Richards, and Clark.

Tonight’s debut, however, comes in a meet that should see Florida breeze to victory — none of their foes has a realistic chance of knocking off the Gators in Gainesville barring utter disaster from Florida. And that could lead Rowland to get experimental and freshman-heavy in the first meet of the year.

Meet Details

What: A season-opening “quad” meet with Florida hosting Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Texas Woman’s University

When: Friday, January 7, 2022 at 6:45 p.m.

Where: Gainesville, FL

How to Watch: Live streaming via SEC Network+

Live Stats: StatBroadcast

Pre-meet Notes: FloridaGators.com