After last season’s disappointment, Florida head coach Jenny Rowland knew that this year would be a big year for her team – it would be comeback season, with the Gators vowing to channel their sorrow and regret into a fire that would fuel them for their best year yet. It’s clear now: as the only undefeated team in the SEC and the owners of the highest score in the nation thus far this season, Florida is making good on the promise they made themselves.
Friday night in Kentucky brought out some highs and some new things to work on, as the Gators continue to improve. With Nya Reed out sick, the Gators were tested in their depth on vault and floor, while the challenge on bars and beam was continuing their high-scoring streak after last week’s triumph (and record-matching beam score).
As the away team, the Gators went to bars first, where freshman Payton Richards continued to serve in the leadoff spot she’s come to call home. The landings here were not nearly as sticky-footed as they are at home, but sophomores Trinity Thomas and Savannah Schoenherr delivered a pair of excellent routines to cap off the rotation, earning 9.925 and 9.9, respectively. Notably, Maegan Chant also performed in the exhibition slot, having returned from her minor hand injury that kept her out of Orange and Blue Intrasquad in December. Meanwhile, Kentucky struggled with landings on vault, with only two 10.0 SV vaults in Ariana Patterson and Mollie Korth, compared to Florida’s usual five.
However, Friday’s vault lineup only featured four 10.0 starts, since Reed was out sick and didn’t even travel with the team to Lexington. Megan Skaggs stepped into the leadoff spot and stuck her gorgeous Yurchenko full for a 9.9, setting the tone for what would be Florida’s best vault team score so far this season. The squad is starting to dial in on those landings, as hops are smaller and smaller every week. This week, it culminated in Richards nailing her best Y1.5 thus far, with just a miniscule hop forward to earn a 9.925, her new career high. Vault featured another notable exhibition, as Jazmyn Foberg showed a Yfull that could definitely contend for a lineup spot now that it’s ready. While the Gators knocked vault out of the park, Kentucky went to bars, where handstand and leg separation issues plagued them. The Wildcats only earned one score higher than a 9.825 – Cally Nixon’s 9.9, punctuated by a perfectly stuck landing. At the halfway point, the Gators were up with a comfortable lead, 98.850 to Kentucky’s 98.275.
Florida continued to assert their dominance on floor, with Sydney Johnson-Scharpf stepping back into the lineup, due to Reed’s absence, after Richards stepped in for the former last week. Richards led off this event as well, only earning a 9.775, but the team continued to build from there, with Johnson-Scharpf unveiling her double arabian for the first time this season for a 9.875. Alyssa Baumann and Thomas were the highlights of this rotation, earning 9.925 and 9.95 respectively. Baumann in particular nailed the landings on her tumbling passes, not needing to dance out of her passes as she does frequently. Again, it’s apparent that the Gators are working on dialing in these landings a lot more, as this has been a key factor preventing them from scoring higher. As Florida was showing improvement on floor, Kentucky had some issues on beam. Though they were able to drop a fall from senior star Korth, the Cats still had to count a 9.725 and 9.775, essentially extending Florida’s lead. Hailey Poland, famous for her iconic blue lipstick, was the highlight of their rotation – she earned a 9.850 as “Ice Ice Baby” pumped up the crowd in the background.
Finally, Florida went to beam, where last week it matched its program record on the event. Amelia Hundley had a few balance checks to lead off, but fought to stay on like the rock that she is. Her 9.775 was the score the Gators were able to drop, though, with the rest of the rotation going 9.85 or higher. Thomas again was a highlight, here, earning a 9.95 for her strong showing – the only flaw being a small shuffle on her dismount. As the meet wrapped up, Kentucky hit its best event of the night on floor. The Cats earned 49.3 total despite some landing issues for some. Korth capped off the night with a 9.925 with her huge full-in and floaty Rudi to layout-stepout combination pass. The Gators finished the night with the win, 197.8 to Kentucky’s 196.6.
A 197.8 at an away meet will be a huge boon to Florida when it comes time for RQS. For those newer to the sport, RQS is the Regional Qualifying Score, which takes each team’s top three away meets, the top three remaining scores regardless of location, drops the lowest, and then averages the remaining five. Away scores are emphasized here because it minimizes home scoring bias, a phenomenon frequently present in top scoring teams like Florida. If a team can score big away from its home arena, that is essential to a high RQS score and will be beneficial as the end of the regular season approaches. Florida has shown this week that it is fully capable of scores like that – it’s just the ability to replicate these results that will cement the Gators as one of the lead title contenders this year.