The 2023 college gymnastics season opens for No. 2 Florida on Friday night with a home quad meet against Ball State, West Virginia, and Lindenwood. 2022 NCAA and SEC all-around champion Trinity Thomas and 2022 World Championships team gold medalist Leanne Wong are back to lead the Gators to another great season.
But Florida’s lineups will look quite a bit different this season. All-Americans Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann leave six lineup holes — on all four events — with their exhaustion of collegiate eligibility and the as-yet-publicly-unexplained exit of Nya Reed from the roster leaves another two holes on vault and floor. To make matters worse, an eleventh-hour injury from graduate student Savannah Schoenherr suffered on Thursday leaves an even wider hole in the returning lineup options from last season. (Junior Gabbie Gallentine transferred to Penn State as well, which puts the Gators down a depth option on bars.)
In total, Florida will need to replace three vaults, two bars routines, two beam routines, and three floor routines from 2022’s postseason lineups. Sounds like a bit of an uphill climb for the Gators? Well, it’s a good thing that there are several new faces ready to take on the challenge — and several athletes returning from injury that are ready for a comeback season.
Kayla DiCello is Florida’s most obvious replacement for all four events. The Maryland native and Hills Gymnastics alumni — the same gym that Gators great Kytra Hunter hailed from — is the 2021 World all-around bronze medalist and a four-time U.S. National Team member, and was an alternate for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. DiCello is strong on all four events, but her bars form has really shined in pre-season training clips.
DiCello was an impressive vaulter during her elite career and seems to have effortlessly shifted from her double twisting Yurchenko (DTY) to the 1.5 twisting Yurchenko (1.5Y) just in time for the season.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Jenny Rowland takes the time to ease DiCello into lineups, but honestly, I also wouldn’t be shocked to see her compete the all-around week one. She’s a strong competitor with excellent form.
Joining DiCello in the small freshman class is Florida native Lori Brubach. A walk-on hailing from Apopka, Brubach brings a clean Yurchenko full to the table and solid tumbling on floor. In preseason, Brubach trained all four events and she should be ready as a depth option on floor and vault right away if she’s called on.
The big difference makers this season, though, are a pair of transfers from Georgia, each of whom have tight Florida ties despite their Dawg history. Junior Victoria Nguyen — known to be Florida redshirt freshman Morgan Hurd’s best friend — and graduate student Rachel Baumann — younger sister of Alyssa — shocked the gymnastics community in the offseason by announcing that they would be leaving the GymDogs to compete for the Gators this season.
Nguyen, known as V, has come out of the gate running as a Gator. She struggled with injuries during her two years at Georgia, but showed impressive work on bars and beam both seasons, and was the only All-SEC honoree from Georgia in 2022. In preseason, Nguyen trained all four events at a competitive level and even showed an upgrade from her Yurchenko full vault to the 1.5Y.
While I doubt we will see V in the all-around week one, she is a likely fixture on bars, beam, and floor. She stunned the O’Dome at the Gators’ first-ever Hype Night — a preseason public exhibition in December — with her beautiful beam performance.
A healthy V will be a force for the Gators.
Rachel Baumann, on the other hand, comes in with a long and strong resume from four years of competition at Georgia. While Georgia struggled at the bottom of the SEC, Baumann scored a perfect 10 on floor and career-highs of 9.95 on vault and beam in 2022. Baumann seems to be settling in well with the Gators, and we have seen strong work on all three events in preseason. She will be a welcome addition to the floor lineup and a great option for both the vault and beam lineups.
These four newcomers will be joined by a trio of athletes returning from injury: Hurd, junior Ellie Lazzari, and graduate Halley Taylor.
Hurd’s debut as a Gator has been long-awaited — and oft-postponed. She finally arrived in Gainesville in 2022 after deferring to try to make the Olympic team and then joining the Gold Over America Tour in the fall of 2021. In January 2022, she shockingly learned that she had a torn ACL before she could ever get on the O’Dome floor. She brings a prestigious resume — nabbing a world all-around championship in 2017, during the reign of Simone Biles, is but one accomplishment — but it has been a long time since we have seen Hurd in competition.
The good news for Florida is that Hurd appears to be healthy and training bars, beam, and floor. She is an obvious option on all three if she remains healthy. I personally hope that she is able to compete on floor this season because she brings a level of performance to her routines that I think is often missing.
INSERT MORGI FLOOR YOUTUBE
Lazzari is returning from an Achilles tear that dashed her hopes of reprising her strong freshman campaign in her sophomore year. While we haven’t seen Lazzari training anything but her signature beam, she looks strong and ready to go there. Lazzari was a 9.9+ staple of the beam lineup in 2021 and I would be surprised if we do not see her inked in there again this season, even if it seems she is taking some time coming back on the other events.
Taylor is also returning from an Achilles tear this season. We have seen her training beam and floor, where I hope she will continue to be a depth option that the Gators can count on.
As an addition, I want to mention senior Payton Richards here, as I think that she will also have a comeback story. In her first two seasons, Richards competed often across all four events. She was a solid leadoff on bars, showed impressive work on beam, had a clean vault, and tumbled high on floor.
But in the 2021 postseason, she struggled — to put it kindly —with her beam series, falling numerous times, including in the NCAA finals. After this, we did not see too much of Richards in her junior campaign — until, when it was absolutely crucial, she met the moment in the 2022 NCAA Finals with essential hit routines on vault and floor.
I don’t like to make assumptions, but it’s hard not to feel like Richards had a crisis of confidence last season, probably stemming from her frustrating close to 2021. But that performance at the end of last year could have been what she needed to emerge from that crisis, and things are now looking up for her: The 1.5Y she has performed in preseason looks better than ever, and she is back to training all four events. I would be surprised if she is not at least a steady vault and floor competitor again this season, and that alone would be a significant recovery from where she was at the lowest point of her Florida career.
With 10 of 24 postseason routines to replace, and a small freshman class, one might think that Florida is in bad shape this season. I hope I have convinced you otherwise, and that the Gators prove me right. Hopefully, this will be another season in which Rowland needs to make some tough lineup choices, but has the option to rest her top athletes if needed.
I expect we will see a lot of different lineup options this weekend from Rowland’s Gators. This meet will not count towards the SEC regular season title and with the other teams visiting standing considerably lower in the rankings — West Virginia was the highest-ranked of the three visiting teams that will compete on Friday to finish 2022, and the Mountaineers were No. 33 — Rowland has the chance to try out some options and depth.
On vault, Thomas (1.5Y), Wong (Pod), DiCello (1.5Y), and Richards (1.5Y) feel like locks to me. All have 10.0 start value (SV) vaults, have shown solid preseason training, or have the competitive history to back them up. Vault coach Adrian Burde may choose to rotate them in and out for resting purposes, but I think this will be the core of your 2023 Gators vault lineup.
Sloane Blakely (1.5Y), Baumann (1.5Y), and Bri Edwards (Yurchenko full) serve as your additional lineup options. Blakely and Baumann also bring 10.0 SV vaults to the table, but are less consistent with their landing and training than the four I see as locks. Edwards’s full has looked impressive in preseason and looks very poised to be a Skaggs-like low-ceiling, high-floor option.
Beyond those seven, Nguyen (1.5Y), Chloi Clark (full), and Brubach (full) are depth options. Nguyen is working on the 10.0 SV upgrade, but it doesn’t appear quite ready for primetime yet. Clark and Brubach bring solid fulls that can be called on at any time, but don’t quite have Edwards’s form and ability to stick.
On bars, Thomas and Wong return as your only two lineup locks from last season and really do not need any explanation; they could each be national champions in the event. DiCello should join them as a lineup staple this season.
I expect that they will be joined by Nguyen, Hurd, and Blakely. Nguyen has shown clean work in preseason, Hurd looks ready, and Blakely was a steady lead-off last season who has looked stunning on the event in preseason.
Richards is back training bars and is a good seventh routine here, as well as sophomore Riley McCusker. McCusker has not looked prepared during preseason, even though she was a lineup staple last season, so my hope is that she will be ready soon and not needed immediately.
Bars definitely seems like the event where Florida will have the least depth. Leah Clapper and Brubach are also training bars, but they would definitely be depth options — and I am holding out a tiny bit of hope that maybe Schoenherr will be able to make it back from her broken foot for postseason bars, a la Florida great Alaina Johnson.
On beam, the lineup will honestly be anyone’s guess. Rowland said on a podcast this week that she has 16 viable beam options — a number that is obviously now 15 without Schoenherr. That means that 15 out of Florida’s 16 healthy athletes are training full beam routines.
I expect this is the lineup where we will see the most shuffling, as Rowland works to determine who will score best among the embarrassment of 9.9+ option riches.
Thomas and Wong will likely be locks once again, and I expect that Blakely will also be a postseason lineup lock.
DiCello, Lazzari, Nguyen, Hurd, and Baumann seem like high probabilities for lineup time this season and all could be expected to compete a regular 9.9+ routine. Beyond that octet, though, Florida still has plenty of potential contributors. Clapper has been a staple of the beam lineup for years. Richards hit 9.9+ numerous times in 2020 and 2021. McCusker, even, has looked stronger on beam than bars in preseason training.
I think that your guess might be as good as mine here, and I hope that we get to see all of these athletes at least once. But it might be hard to see any of them more than once if the cream rises quickly.
On floor, Wong, Thomas, DiCello, and Baumann are likely postseason lineup locks. But I expect Wong and Thomas to be rested at the beginning of the season, leaving a lot of space for other lineup options.
Based on what I have seen from preseason, Richards, Nguyen, Hurd, and Blakely are my top choices for floor options. Clapper, Clark, Edwards, and Brubach will serve as the depth possibilities.
The coaches certainly have their work cut out for them when figuring out the lineups this season, but that is the best problem to have. Tonight, we will get our first look at their first attempt — and the 2023 Gators.
When: Friday, January 7, 2022 at 6:45 p.m.
Where: Gainesville, FL
TV: SEC Network+
Follow along with me on Twitter: @DrSam_PhD
Live Stream: ESPN
Live Stats: StatBroadcast
Meet Notes: FloridaGators.com