Photo by Brian Fox /

In commanding fashion, the Gator gymnasts stepped onto the floor Friday night with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove – what happened last year would not happen again. This was their chance to show the nation, and themselves, that they were starting on the right track.

Their word for the week was “take a breath,” and after last night, they can absolutely exhale knowing that their path is on course. The Gators matched the nation’s highest score so far this season with a 197.350, tying Oklahoma’s result from the Collegiate Classic last week. Sophomore Trinity Thomas won three of the four events and clinched the all-around title for a 39.7, the second-highest all-around score in the country so far this season (as of the time of the meet.)

Despite all these accolades and pulling out the win, the road to nationals is long and difficult, but the Gators are off to a great start. Looking event by event, there’s more work to be done in some places than others.

On vault, the Gators’ issue is primarily landings. Only Nya Reed had any real control over her landing, and even she had to wave her arms to keep her landing that tight. If the vault squad can’t zone in on their landings, those scores will not go much higher than they were last night. It’s very likely that these are the right six for the lineup this year, unless someone else upgrades or gets their Yfull to a really consistent place, to where they will score higher even with the lower start value. Thomas and Schoenherr in particular are definitely capable of better landings than they showed at this meet, so expect more from them in the coming weeks. While Florida took on vault, Arkansas went to bars and faced some difficulty, though perhaps were scored a little harshly.

Bars for Florida was also scored a little oddly, with a lot of theoretically better routines getting stuck in the 9.8-9.85 range, but there were definitely foundations for greatness to come. The ending 1-2-3 punch in this lineup of Schoenherr, Thomas, and Skaggs is fantastic and could probably be rearranged in any order and all still score incredibly well. Freshman Payton Richards led this lineup off, and head coach Jenny Rowland could not sing enough of her praises. When asked about what made Richards a good choice for the role, she talked about how reliable and steady the freshman is. “You can put her first, you can put her last, you know without a doubt – Payton’s going to hit her routine.” Landings were much better here than on vault, but the Gators will score higher if they push themselves just a little more toward perfection. Handstands closer to 90 degrees and more amplitude and extension in their releases will be what drives these scores higher. While Florida worked through bars, Arkansas struggled on vault, with only 9.95 SV vaults in its lineup and some amplitude issues. However, they definitely had better landings than the Gators, so it was a bit of a game of opposites – neither team could get it 100% right.

Beam held some surprises, including the lack of Megan Skaggs in the lineup, but all six Gators delivered. Again, the back half of the lineup delivers in a major way, with Baumann, Gowey, and Thomas all being almost interchangeable in terms of placement and all scoring 9.9 or higher. To get the rest of the lineup to that level, Florida will want to focus on eliminating any moments of weakness or hesitation that can lead to bobbles or fluidity deductions. Rachel Gowey was the highlight of the rotation, scoring a 9.95 for a routine that was virtually flawless. Arkansas took to floor in the third rotation, showing off the newfound stamina and style that came with their new head coach, Jordyn Wieber of London 2012 fame. Their best rotation of the night, floor was the only event of the night where the Razorbacks broke 49.0.

The Gators ended the meet on floor, where the energy that had been building all night in the O-Dome was finally unleashed. This team was absolutely on fire on floor, so I’m going to talk about all of them! Sydney Johnson-Scharpf gave her best competitive performance to date (if only in entertainment and not in score), Gowey showed off her new two-pass routine that brings drama and mystery to the table, and Amelia Hundley brought the crowd to their feet with her engaging classic rock routine. Reed nailed all of her tumbling and had Gator Nation roaring for her, Thomas earned the tenth 9.975, a score so close to perfection it hurts, of her career to date for an electric performance, and Alyssa Baumann embraced the ice queen persona she’s known for on Twitter and owned every minute. Arkansas finished the meet on beam, where they had several significant bobbles and breaks, being forced to count several scores in the 9.5-9.65 range to avoid counting a fall. For the Gators, there is still some work to be done, on endurance with the tumbling as well as in some of the finer details of the dance elements and exactness of choreography. But in terms of commitment to performance, energy, and control, the Gators are exactly where they want to be.

Overall, this was a great start to Florida’s season. As coach Rowland said, “Now we can all exhale,” and the team can continue to do what they’ve set out to do since last March – prove that they have what it takes.