When the 2018 gymnastics season began, many expected Florida to be one of the top contenders for the national title come April. Expectations often fluctuated throughout the season as the Gators had quite a rollercoaster of a year, from breaking 198 and beating reigning champion Oklahoma, to Kennedy Baker’s devastating injury and losing to Missouri for the first time in program history. Finishing the regular season ranked No. 5 may not exactly be what Gator fans had envisioned for this season, but that doesn’t mean the title is out of reach. This weekend, Florida enters Chaifetz Arena with a clean slate, the same as the rest of the competitors, and has an opportunity to return to glory with a fourth national title – but it won’t be easy.
Breaking it down chronologically, the Gators will start their road to the title in the second semifinal on bars, historically one of their stronger events. Ranked No. 3 on bars after the regular season, Florida has six bar workers that have all gone 9.9 or higher this season. The problem has been getting them to do it all at the same time. The keys to remember for the Gators here are patience and normalcy. Many of them often rush through their handstands and lose valuable tenths rather than taking their time to get the easier elements right. One mantra we’ve heard often this season from head coach Jenny Rowland is that “we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to be normal,” and this is especially true on bars. Some of the team’s top performers, including sophomore Rachel Gowey and senior Alex McMurtry, can sometimes try too hard or go too big on their releases and end up falling, when the way they perform normally is worth an excellent score with less risk. If the bars team can put all the pieces together, they’ll be off to the races.
Beam has given Florida some trouble this season, particularly competing anywhere other than Gainesville. What they’ll want to remember in St. Louis is to take their routines one skill at a time – not think ahead or get stuck on previous mistakes, but keep moving forward and stay in the moment. The momentum starts with the lead-off performer, likely to be sophomore Amelia Hundley now that Kennedy Baker is out for the season. Staying calm and present will be the key to staying on for her, and she’ll set her teammates up for success if she hits her routine. Beam is very much a mental game, and the easiest way to stay positive and confident on beam is for everyone to stay on. That being said, if someone should fall, the team will need the next performer to hit the reset button if they want to still put up a good total. Coach Jenny Rowland has smartly structured this beam lineup with a built-in reset button in junior Alicia Boren, whose dependability this season has saved the Gators more than once. She typically performs third, in the middle of the lineup, so that the three girls after her can feel more secure about their own performances. Those final three are typically Gowey, freshman Alyssa Baumann and McMurtry, all of whom have scored perfect or near-perfect scores this season. Keep an eye out for their spectacular execution and unique skills, like Baumann’s Onodi and McMurtry’s switch side leap to Shushunova to back hip circle combination.
Following beam, the Gators will go to a bye and see how their scores hold up through the halfway point. After bars and beam, if they’re in the top three (which they should be, provided things go according to plan), they should feel confident about their chances of advancing to Super Six. During the bye, coach Rowland has said before that they like to “stay in their bubble,” and there’s some kind of dance ritual that the team does to keep the pressure low and their spirits high. Their standings at this halfway point will be a good indicator for the outcome of the session, but most of the gymnasts will be doing their best to ignore the numbers and just do what they came to do.
After the bye, it’s time for floor. Usually a strong suit for the Gators, floor has revealed some weakness in recent weeks, with lots of landing trouble across the board. The Gators were dealt a devastating blow at their Link to Pink meet at the end of February, when senior floor star Kennedy Baker tore her Achilles, ending her season and career just a few weeks too soon. The floor squad has done its best to cope, bringing Gowey into the lineup and working with Baumann and senior Rachel Slocum to upgrade to their more difficult E tumbling passes. But the underlying concerns are still there. Freshman Megan Skaggs had trouble at SEC Championships just a few weeks ago, crashing her last pass in the very arena they’ll be in this weekend, and McMurtry has gone between running out of juice and overcooking her closing double tuck. Granted, she doesn’t get nearly the practice in that most competitors do, due to a back injury that she and her coaches have managed for years, but that hasn’t stopped her in the past. She is the proud owner of a perfect 10.0 on the event, so she’ll want to get that landing just right to get as close to that number as possible. And Boren is basically guaranteed a huge score as long as she hits. Again, she’s been their rock steady performer all season – it’s time to show that off on the national stage.
The Gators will close their evening on vault, their strongest event this season. Ranked No. 2 in the country, the Florida vault squad boasts three 10.0 start values, including a Yurchenko 1.5 from Boren, a handspring pike half from Slocum and a Yurchenko double full from McMurtry. The scoring potential from these three is enormous, but they’ll need to keep their landings under control in order to maximize on their dynamic vaults. The first three in the lineup have varied throughout the season, but expect to see three Yurchenko fulls from some subset of Hundley, Gowey, freshman Jazmyn Foberg, Skaggs or Baumann. The full only starts from a 9.95 and nearly everyone competes it, so the judges get lots of practice scrutinizing every minute detail of it. Most of those five have gotten good scores at home, but Nationals is a different story entirely.
Florida will spend its final rotation again on a bye, anxiously awaiting the final results. If they can just be normal, in the words of Coach Rowland, the Gators should go through to Super Six without any issue. Once they get to Super Six, they have to do it all over again. The order of their competition at finals will be determined by how they place within their session, so it’s hard to predict exactly how their day will go. But the principles on each event are the same – the stakes just rise that much higher.
To clinch a fourth national championship, the Gators will have to duke it out against the best of the best. But lucky for them, they’ve already competed against over half of their likely competitors in Super Six. The Gators faced off against LSU, Oklahoma and Alabama earlier in the regular season, coming up with the W against the latter two but falling just short of a victory against LSU. That was, of course, back when Baker was at full strength. Since then, Florida lost to both LSU and Alabama at SEC Championships, coming in third after counting a fall on floor. These aren’t Florida’s only competition though – UCLA and Utah both expect to challenge for the title as well. All of these teams presumed to advance to Super Six have won national championships in the past except LSU, who’s been runner-up the last two years, so it’s clear every team has what it takes to make a run for it.
Starting in 2016, the NCAA discontinued the Sunday event finals session in favor of more live TV coverage, so instead of having a separate competition, event titles are awarded after semifinals, including the all-around. The Gators have some strong contenders for each of these crowns, starting with the all-around. Boren is Florida’s top-ranked competitor at No. 9, and without a true “weak” event (her RQS -regional qualifying score- is 9.870 or higher on every event), she could be a definite contender as long as she keeps her vault landing clean and is patient with her handstands on bars. McMurtry isn’t ranked in RQS this year, but as the reigning national all-around champion, she can’t exactly be left out of the conversation. Her inconsistencies on beam and floor will be her biggest weakness, but if she has good days, she is absolutely in the mix for the title.
Both Boren and McMurtry could contend for vault, but let’s not forget about Slocum. Tied for No. 10 in the nation, her handspring pike half can come close to perfection on her best day. On bars, the strongest competitors for the title will be McMurtry and Gowey, whose elegant lines and dynamic Ray release often earn her high scores. McMurtry and Boren will also be beam contenders, but a better bet would be Baumann. Her vast vocabulary of difficult skills and near-perfect execution have already earned her a 9.975 as just a freshman, so she’s got the chops. And Baumann should have no trouble dealing with the high-pressure atmosphere of a competition like this: she comes from an elite background that included a trip to Worlds with Team USA and an invitation to Olympic Trials. She’s always been considered a beam queen, so don’t be surprised to see her begin her reign in college this year. And on floor, Boren and McMurtry again will come as Florida’s best foot forward, provided McMurtry can get her landings together. Boren’s routine is a real showstopper and she’s ranked No. 11, so expect to see big numbers out of her.
All in all, Florida’s chances are good. It isn’t coming in as the heavy favorite, as Oklahoma is, or even a favorite spoiler choice, as LSU and UCLA seem to be. But if there’s one thing that’s become evident over the years, it’s that you can never count the Gators out. They’re good at peaking at the right time, they’re good at making adjustments in the moment, and they have a core of excellent, well-rounded competitors that can step up and make it happen when they’re needed. It may take a little luck, and maybe even some help from other teams’ slipups, but this Florida team can absolutely be a championship team.
That being said, here’s the most realistic prediction of how Super Six will finish, provided the presumed teams qualify:
*Caroline Medley is an English Lit grad from Elon University, living and breathing gymnastics in Orlando, Fla. When she isn’t coaching her after-school gymnastics program or writing, she’s binging on superhero TV with her fiance Stephen and their two tortie cats, Ailith and Dara. She is the Managing Editor for the SEC and MRGC at NCAA Gym News and will be providing live coverage from St. Louis this weekend at ncaagymnews.com.