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League of their own: Florida gymnastics puts on a show to prevail at SEC Championships

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The Gators’ first SEC Championships title since 2016 came via a night of hit routines marking them as peerless in their league.

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The Florida Gators gymnastics team captured their first SEC Championships crown since 2016 on Saturday night. And in a stunningly steady victory, the Gators looked calm, collected, and clearly ready to run for a national championship.

The SEC Championships consist of two sessions, with an afternoon session featuring the league’s fifth- through eighth-ranked teams (this year: Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Georgia) and the evening session featuring its first- through fourth-ranked teams (Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn). By the time Florida started competing, Missouri had already come out on top of the first session, with a respectable 196.875 score to its name.

And before the meet, the Gators looked to have tough competition from Alabama, LSU, and Auburn, as all four programs have season highs over 198 and National Qualifying Scores over 197.6.

But Florida looked like the night’s likely winner from the first rotation onward.

In the first rotation, LSU and Auburn stumbled. Auburn had to count a fall on beam and settle for a 48.900 team score, while LSU had to count a fall and a large mistake on floor to only score a 48.575. This took some of the pressure off of the Gators — and Alabama would still apply some of its own — but they still needed to make sure that they were mistake-free.

The vault rotation was exactly how the Gators wanted to start. Megan Skaggs, Savannah Schoenherr, and Leanne Wong opened the rotation with a trio of 9.850s and set the stage for Nya Reed (9.950) and Trinity Thomas (9.975) to stick their Yurchenko 1.5s for massive scores. A 49.475 on vault was exactly how the Gators needed to start.

Thomas’s 9.975 ended up holding up for the whole rest of the meet, making her champion of the event.

Alabama kept things close after their floor rotation, 49.425, where they avoided having to count a fall in the third spot. But a floor rotation is generally higher-scoring than vault — and Florida was already ahead for good.

In the second rotation, LSU (49.550) and Auburn (49.425) started their fights back into the mix, putting some pressure on Florida and Alabama to keep things clean.

Alabama had a solid rotation on vault but wasn’t able to break above a 9.9, adding a 49.350 to its total.

Sloane Blakely set the Gators up for a good rotation with a clean 9.825 to start. Riley McCusker, unfortunately, struggled a bit with her routine for a 9.750. This forced the rest of the lineup to hit their routines so the Gators didn’t have to count a score below 9.800.

So Skaggs and Thomas righted the ship with a pair of 9.950s, and Wong sealed the rotation with a 9.900, leading the Gators to another 49.475 event score.

At this point, the Gators were leading the Crimson Tide, 98.950 to 98.775, with Auburn (98.325), and LSU (98.125) well behind that top two.

Auburn (49.2250) and LSU (49.325) didn’t do themselves any favors in the third rotation, either, with scores low enough to allow Florida and Alabama to continue to distance themselves as the clear title contenders.

For Alabama’s part, a fantastic effort on bars meant the Gators would need to keep up their pace. The Crimson Tide avoided counting a low 9.425 in the leadoff position thanks to the rest of their lineup scoring a huge 49.675. Half of their lineup matched the highest score so far on the day, set by Skaggs and Thomas in the last rotation, with a 9.950 (Shania Adams, Makarri Doggette, and Luisa Blanco).

Meanwhile, Florida had little to no idea what was going on with Alabama — and didn’t really need to, as the Gators were putting on their own show on beam.

Skaggs led off by matching her career-high 9.950 once again — and every other Gator followed with a 9.90 or higher score of their own. Blakley (9.900), Alyssa Baumann (9.950), Wong (9.975), Thomas (9.925), and Leah Clapper (9.900) helped to make up the best beam rotation in SEC Championships history, combining for a nearly unbelievable team score of 49.700.

Wong’s score would also hold for an SEC title.

It was clearly the Alabama vs. Florida show as the Gators headed to floor to finish up the meet.

And the Gators looked excited and confident as they danced their way to a 49.550 on floor to seal their SEC championship, led by Thomas’s individual title-winning 9.975.

Thomas also captured her first SEC all-around title as an individual, her 49.825 matching the best individual all-around score posted this year.

The Crimson Tide would have needed to match the Gators’ history making beam routine to even try to contend — and their own excellent beam trip from the 2021 SECs had only garnered a 49.450.

Unfortunately for them on this night, most of their lineup scored in the 9.800s, and they had to settle for a 49.375.

Auburn tried its best to fight into the mix with its own 49.675 on bars, paced by Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee’s 10.0, but that wasn’t enough to even catch Alabama. (And LSU? Well, those Tigers ended up behind Missouri in the day’s final standings.)

Florida ultimately won the title by over three tenths of a point, finishing with a 198.200. And in the evening session, Florida was the only team to hit all 24 routines without a fall.

Florida’s victory was not just a true team effort but something close to a clean sweep. The three top Gator all-arounders — Thomas (49.825), Wong (49.650), and Skaggs (49.650) — topped the standings, and Gators also led the way on three events: Vault with Thomas (9.975) winning the title and Reed tying for second (9.95), beam with Wong (9.975) winning the title and Baumann and Skaggs (9.95) tying for second, and floor with Thomas (9.975) winning the title and Reed once again tying for the runner-up position.

Only Lee’s perfection on bars kept the Gators from the top of a podium, but Skaggs and Thomas (9.95) were a part of the seven-athlete tie for second place.

As comprehensive a performance as it was, though, the best news for Florida is that while the Gators looked fantastic on Saturday, there is still more for them to do, and still room for improvement on this form.

And they already look ready to make a run at the NCAA title. What if they get better?