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Where Florida gymnastics stands before showdown with rival LSU

Florida’s undefeated, but doing it without some of the highest highs of years prior. Will that matter?

Hannah White / Florida Gators

The last few seasons, Florida’s star-studded gymnastics team has soared through January and February, putting up huge scores every week. But with maybe their deepest roster since winning national championships, the Gators are still fighting a perception that they’re starting the 2022 season slowly.

There are reasons — good and otherwise — for that.

First off? Florida is deliberately pacing itself. Head coach Jenny Rowland has mentioned multiple times that they are pacing some of their best athletes for the best postseason.

This is, of course, a rational response to what hasn’t been working in recent years. Despite sizzling starts, the Gators have recently come up short at the end of the season. The last time the Gators won a title in a postseason meet was in 2016 — and that was at the SEC Championships, not in the NCAA Championships.

And for some fans, Florida being able to deploy early-season pacing lineups, give its top competitors legitimate rest for some meets, and explicitly focus on the postseason could be received as the Gators trying a new tactic in hopes of a huge payoff. This team has all of the talent to win a championship, but they need to be healthy and prepared to do so.

Unfortunately, injuries to Morgan Hurd, Ellie Lazzari, and Halley Taylor — as well as Sydney Johnson-Scharpf still recovering from a serious injury suffered last season — have reduced the number of athletes available to Rowland considerably, while also making it even more important that the most important lineup contributors are able to rest. And Florida’s having to be a bit more dramatic with its deviations from a presumed best lineup than it would probably prefer to be.

Fans were likely surprised that we didn’t see Trinity Thomas in all-around competition until last weekend at Missouri, but Rowland has assured that Thomas is healthy, and she is just pacing for the postseason. But she also clearly hasn’t lost a step since last season as she put up a 39.750 total in her first all-around meet — a vindication of Rowland’s strategy so far, if only on a smaller scale.

The rest of it is more up for debate. Through the first five weeks of the season, we have gotten to see a lot of performances across the four events. Different athletes have rotated in and out of the lineup, giving new athletes the chance to perform — and some have thrived, while others have yet to hit their stride.

Here are some of the highlights from the first five meets and what we should be looking for as the season progresses.

On vault, the Gators are sorting things out faster than in recent years seasons.

Seniors Thomas, Savannah Schoenherr, and Nya Reed have all found their landings on the highest-difficulty Yurchenko 1.5s this season, and have been able to consistently put up 9.9+ scores. Super senior Megan Skaggs has also picked up where she left off last season, with nearly stuck Yurchenko fulls earning 9.85+ scores each week.

Where improvement at the other two spots could come from is less clear. Freshman Leanne Wong has vaulted three times so far this season for a max score of 9.850. She seems to be working on the amplitude and form, which she will need to score high in the postseason.

Sloane Blakely, Chloi Clark, and Brianna Edwards have all shown Yurchenko fulls this season with varying levels of success. We should watch for which of the three is best able to control their landings.

A few questions remain unanswered about Florida’s vault lineups. Blakley had an excellent 1.5 in Level 10 last season that we have not seen thus far. And Payton Richards was supposed to be in the lineup last week, but was pulled in favor of Blakely. Is Richards working on her 1.5, and can we expect to see it? Will Blakley pull out her 1.5 as a collegian? And if the answers to these questions are no, can Florida deal with the hit of having three lower-value Yurchenko fulls in its vault lineup?

Bars, in contrast to vault, has been an adventure for Florida, even though —by name and background, anyway — this Gators roster should produce one of the highest-scoring lineups in the country almost by default.

Florida’s upperclassmen have been rock-solid on bars so far, as should be little surprise. Thomas, Schoenherr, and Skaggs continue to show clean work on bars and seem to have settled into scoring around 9.9 or above every week.

Blakely has also shown she is able to be a consistent mid 9.8s lead off routine. And after a couple of adjustment weeks, Wong has obviously settled into collegiate bars — she scored her first 10.0 at the Arkansas meet.

But in the first few weeks of the season, freshman Riley McCusker — considered a world-class bars worker in elite gymnastics — has struggled with her double front half dismount. After changing her dismount prior to the Arkansas meet, she was able to find the landing in Fayetteville. We will want to watch how she can progress with her new dismount combination.

Last week, however, McCusker was out and sophomore Gabbie Gallentine competed in the lineup. Gallentine was an inconsistent competitor last year, but has a career-high of a 9.95 on bars. Will Gallentine be able to increase her consistency and break into this lineup? And, if so, could she really displace McCusker?

Beam is probably the least of Florida’s worries so far. The Gators have been ranked in the top two on beam for the last three seasons, and this should continue.

Skaggs — as is something of a theme, you may be noticing — has been excellent leading off for Florida here, with clean and consistent work giving her the capability to consistently start the lineup with a 9.9+. Blakely seems to have settled into her routine and can also put up huge scores.

Alyssa Baumann took her switch half out of her routine and has hit very clean routines the last two weeks. Thomas on beam may be Florida’s best routine of all 24 it throws out in a meet: She is currently ranked No. 1 on beam and has performed two basically perfect routines.

But if there is an event where Wong can appear shaky, it may be here. She seems to be working out her composition, and we will want to keep an eye on how she is figuring out her routine. If she hits, she has the capability to score huge.

And though Leah Clapper has grown into a consistent anchor for Florida, she recently showed some vulnerability with errors in her series two weeks in a row. She has bounced back, but she may need to keep showing that she can put up anchor-worthy scores to merit staying in that spot, as Florida has options — a wealth of them — for beam lineups.

And those options could multiple if McCusker, who has been seen training beam and is known for her extremely clean skills, proves to be healthy enough to join the lineup this season. If her body permits, don’t be surprised to see her make a debut on the apparatus during the backstretch of the regular season.

Finally, Florida may have its biggest challenge going forward on floor, where its presumptive seventh and eighth routines, those done by Lazzari and Taylor, are now lost to injury. This is the place the Gators most need to stay healthy and/or work on their depth options.

Of course, it’s impossible not to really, really like half of the floor lineup. Skaggs starts this lineup off strong nearly every week with her clean and consistent routine — again, a theme — for 9.875+ scores.

And while Skaggs is not a tumbler on the level of Thomas and Reed, she doesn’t need to be when both of them have been phenomenal on floor this year, already scoring 10.0s and appearing fully postseason-ready.

If Thomas on beam is probably Florida’s best routine based on quality of work and difficulty of apparatus, Reed and Thomas on floor are probably the Gators’ silver and bronze medalists based on quality of work and potential for meet-swinging 10.0 scores.

But who else will be in the Florida lineup? Blakely has shown impressive work on her routine, but has also stepped out on her double Arabian twice. She scored a 9.90 in the season opener and should be in the postseason lineup if she can control her first pass; ifs, though, can be bigger questions for freshmen.

Baumann, a floor stalwart since working back from injuries in her career, is performing a new two-pass routine this year to keep her healthy. Her new leap series, however, has given her start value issues. If she gets the mix of difficulty and durability sorted out, she should surely be notching 9.9+s week in and week out — but she has not been consistently at her best.

Wong has shown beautiful performance quality and tumbling each time she has performed, but she needs to nail her triple full landing consistently. And while Clapper has shown her ability to step in for a usable 9.8+ score, Florida would probably rather have her on standby than in floor lineups.

I would expect Blakely, Baumann, and Wong to eventually solidify themselves as the second half of Florida’s top six. Depth options beyond Clapper could be dicey, however. Clark has showed two hit routines, but maxed out at an 9.825 — and it really did seem like she should have gotten an out of bounds deduction on one of them. Richards looked strong on her double layout last week but fell in her second pass. Will she get another chance in the lineup?

In sum, the Gators have done little to shake the belief that they have the individual pieces for making a championship run — but they also haven’t put everything together yet. These next few meets — and specifically two top-tier matchups with LSU and Oklahoma — will be a test for the Gators.

That begins this Friday night, as LSU comes to visit Gainesville for what many of the Gators have said is their favorite meet of the season. If the Gators want a win at home, and to keep their undefeated record, they will almost certainly have to ditch their pacing lineups to do so, as Florida will be well matched in this meet.

LSU had its own slow start to the 2022 season with two scores under 197 in its two meets, but the Tigers scored a 197.9750 to beat Auburn in a well-competed affair last weekend. With Haleigh Bryant and Kiya Johnson back in the all-around and both scoring perfect 10s last weekend, this meet will likely be Florida’s biggest challenge of the season thus far.

And if Florida rises to it? It could help prove that starting slow in January isn’t a bad thing. Gator Nation should — and does — want the team healthy and ready in April. Healthy and ready in January doesn’t win titles, after all.

But it isn’t January anymore. And these Gators need to get up and go.