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Florida gymnastics is on its usual championship chase in 2023

The season’s early days have seen Florida assert itself as a championship contender and the class of the SEC.

Erin Long

Three weeks into the Florida Gators gymnastics season, and a championship run is beginning to take shape for one of the most star-studded and talented rosters in the history of college gymnastics.

Sound familiar? It is.

I had a chance to talk to Savannah Schoenherr before the Florida-Auburn meet and she told me all about how unified this team is. This team is super supportive of each other and it helps to keep the team motivated and working to be their best self. She said the team has an “unbreakable bond and limitless motivation.”

Head coach Jenny Rowland has echoed the same message, highlighting how impressed she is with “their grit, their heart, their passion for one another.”

The Gators are led by three all-arounders who have each won a title so far this season: 2022 NCAA and SEC all-around champion Trinity Thomas, 2021 World all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong, and 2021 World all-around bronze medalist Kayla DiCello.

Thomas and Wong have already scored two 10.0s each in three meets — and DiCello looks like she could garner her first by the end of February.

Freshman DiCello started the season off with an all-around win at home with a 39.475. In three weeks, she has debuted a new 1.5 Yurchenko on vault (career-high 9.900), scored a 9.925 on both bars and beam, and showed two floor routines for a high of 9.875. Along with her all-around win in the opening meet, DiCello picked up shares of the bars and beam titles at Alabama.

For that opening performance, DiCello earned the first SEC Freshman of the Week honor; she has since picked up the SEC Specialist of the Week award for her second week, when she competed three events.

DiCello is a well-rounded gymnast and could hit 10.0 on any event. Her 1.5Y is really strong and she is already showing the capability to get the stick soon, even after only two times competing it.

DiCello’s bars are her standout event for me. Her excellent handstands and sky-high full twisting double tuck are picture-perfect every week.

Rowland has said that there is nothing DiCello can’t handle. She might be right.

Sophomore Wong returned to the Gators just over two months after helping Team USA to win a gold medal at the World Championships in Liverpool. She has debuted in fine form this year, shocking the college gymnastics community by beating both Thomas and Olympic all-around gold medalist Suni Lee in the all-around when Florida defeated Auburn, posting the highest AA score of the season thus far (39.850) for good measure. She earned that lofty number mostly with back-to-back 10.0s on bars and beam, but also matched her career-high of 9.975 on floor.

The sophomore is now three quarters of the way to her Gym Slam — 10.0s on all four apparatuses — in only her second season. At Alabama, Wong continued her streak of 9.900 bars routines with a 9.90. Wong was the second week SEC Gymnast of the Week.

Wong’s work is next level. On bars, she shows great patience and height in all of her skills, demonstrating complete mastery of the elements. Her Maloney to Pak (low bar to high bar and back to low bar combination) is one of my favorite in the NCAA.

Wong also debuted a new pass on floor for this season, the Dos Santos to stag jump. In this pass she does a half twist into a double front pike and immediately jumps into her stag jump. At the Auburn meet, it was perfect.

Wong’s beam work looks the most matured after her elite season; she is patient and calm while executing perfect leaps and acro skills.

Maybe Thomas said it best when she said of Wong, “I watch her every day in the gym and I’m in awe. I am absolutely obsessed with her gymnastics. And her.”

Graduate student Thomas picked up where she left off with the nation’s first perfect 10 on beam in Week 1, and also picked up shares of the vault (9.925) and bars (9.95) titles in the first meet of the season. She was awarded SEC Specialist of the Week for the first week.

Against Auburn, Thomas notched another 10.0 on the floor and won the vault title (9.925). She was second to Wong in the all around with a 39.725. Thomas grabbed her first all-around win of the season at Alabama (39.650) along with shares of the vault (9.900), bars (9.925), and beam (9.95) titles.

As always, all four of Thomas’ events offer the opportunity for perfection. Her floor routine showcases her double layout, which is one of the best in the country, and hard-hitting and interesting choreography from volunteer assistant coach Jeremy James Miranda.

For her last season, Thomas has stepped it up on beam with a new skill: A front aerial to two feet. It’s a hard skill (rated an E) and Thomas has said that she wants to challenge herself and do it. After a wobble on it at the Auburn meet, she told Jenny Rowland “I will get it.”

And she did — one week later, at Alabama.

In my preseason preview, I predicted that we may see some new faces in the lineups and I couldn’t have been more right. All four new Gators have made their lineup debuts: Rachel Baumann (vault and floor), Lori Brubach (floor), DiCello, (all-around), and Victoria Nguyen (bars, beam, and floor).

Georgia transfers Baumann and Nguyen have made an impact in a big way. Baumann started off with a stuck 1.5Y for a 9.900 in her Gator debut. She also picked up her first title as a Gator with a 9.925 on floor. Unfortunately, Baumann sat out the second meet due to an elbow injury suffered in warmups. She was back and ready to go in the floor lineup at Alabama for a 9.825.

Nguyen has started her season with a bang. In her first meet as a Gator, she set her career high on floor with a 9.900 and scored a 9.900 on bars. Her complex and beautiful choreography, high leaps, and nice tumbling led to her to her matching her career-high (9.900) floor score again against Auburn. Injuries kept Nguyen from competing on floor most of her time at Georgia and it is really great to see her happy, healthy, and thriving on multiple events!

At Alabama, Nguyen also joined the beam lineup with a 9.825. She is a huge asset to this team.

Redshirt freshman Morgan Hurd has also made her Gator debut on bars, beam, and floor. Hurd is the 2017 world all-around champion, and after deferring her arrival in Gainesville to try to make the 2021 Olympic team and suffering a season-ending injury before getting to compete a year ago, the gymnastics community has been waiting for NCAA debut for a long time. While her first few performances have not been without errors, she has shown amazing potential — especially on floor, where she is simply one of the greatest performers I’ve seen in gymnastics.

Rowland has called Hurd stunning and electrifying, and I couldn’t agree more.

Along with the five newcomers, Ellie Lazzari has returned to the beam lineup, and Payton Richards has competed all four events so far in three meets after barely competing last year.

Lazzari has already showed why she was the 2021 SEC beam champion. Her elegant triple series, high and extended leaps, and her new back handspring to 1.5 twist dismount look solid every week.

Richards looks to be in top form this year. Her solid 1.5Y is back this season, and her landing is getting stronger by the week. Richards was ready to go as a depth option on both bars and beam, both of which she had not competed since the 2021 season. On floor, Richards tied her career high with a 9.925 at the Auburn meet.

As a steady member of the bars and beam lineups last season with contributions on vault and floor, Sloane Blakely is starting her season the same way. She has already matched her career-high on bars (9.900) and is showing steady and controlled beam work. She has also been working on her 1.5Y, so I expect we may see that vault soon as well.

Walk-ons Brubach, Chloi Clark, and Bri Edwards have contributed in big ways to the team as well. Brubach competed two solid floor routines for a 9.825 and 9.850. Clark has come in to take Baumann’s lineup spot and support the team for the last two weeks. Edwards continues set the tone for the vault lineup with her huge full. She set her career-high with a 9.85 in the opening meet and will improved landing she can score even higher.

As a team, Florida remains in the top three nationally and undefeated in competition. After a breezy quad meet at home against lower-ranked teams, Florida beat Auburn and Alabama in the last fortnight. The Gators have also scored 197.0+ each time, although their 197.325 against Alabama will be a score they would like to drop from their National Qualifying Score (NQS), not least because it’s a more important road score.

The Auburn and Alabama meets forced the Gators into an early peak this season, so I would not be surprised if we see some of the stars resting an event or two through the next few meets to ramp back up in time for LSU, the last top-10 SEC team they will see in the regular season.

This week, the Gators will have another home meet, where they will welcome the Georgia Gymdogs to Gainesville. This will be Baumann and Nguyen’s first chance to compete against their former teammates — but is perhaps not the showdown it has been in years past.

Georgia once won five straight national titles with Courtney Kupets, one of the greatest collegiate gymnasts ever, as its star performer. Now, as Courtney Kupets Carter, she is coaching the Gymdogs, and struggling to return them to the prominence enjoyed when Suzanne Yoculan coached in Athens. Georgia comes into this week ranked just 17th nationally and with a surprising home loss to Ohio State on its resume.

The meet will start at 5:45 p.m. Eastern and will be broadcast on the SEC Network. I’ll be on Twitter at @DrSam_PhD to bring you all the action.