Despite some missteps, Florida Gymnastics pulled out the win over Alabama last night, clinching the regular season SEC title, even with one more conference meet on the schedule. The Gators are the only undefeated team in the SEC and one of just four teams left in the nation with a perfect record – Oklahoma, Michigan, and Utah are their only equals in that regard.
The night started off with a bang, with Sierra Alexander delivering her first Ernestine Weaver Award-winning performance on vault. Third in the rotation, she performed her usual high-flying, incredibly clean Yurchenko full and stuck it cold. Alexander earned a 9.95 for her efforts, which, for the vault that she performs, is a perfect score. It sparked a major turning point in the first rotation for the Gators – following Alexander, Trinity Thomas hit one of her best vaults of the season and Savannah Schoenherr matched her career high with a 9.9.
Bars, however, was not the Gators’ strongest outing we’ve seen on the event. Few landings were stuck, handstands were not as strong as they usually are, and in general, things were not as crisp as we are used to seeing from this bars squad. Only Amelia Hundley and Thomas were able to reach 9.9s, and that was where the rotation topped out. Their collective 49.35 was the lowest bars score Florida has totaled since week 2 at Missouri, a relative disaster of a meet this team would like to leave in the past. Whether this is a one-off or the sign of a midseason slump is yet to be seen, but we do know that several athletes have been sick this month. If that is factoring into the performance of this bars squad, hopefully the team will continue to heal and be at 100% next week against Georgia.
Beam once again saw some adversity, with Sydney Johnson-Scharpf falling in the second spot in the lineup. However, Alyssa Baumann did a great job of resetting in the third slot, earning a 9.9, and the team rallied behind her. All three remaining gymnasts hit excellent routines, capping off the lineup with an enormous 9.975 from Leah Clapper. The mark became her new collegiate best and earned Clapper her first event title of her career, and the team carried that momentum into floor. The Gators set a new NCAA record with this beam performance for the longest streak of consecutive beam performances scoring 49.5 or better. The Gators have now scored 49.5 or better on beam for five meets in a row, beating the previous UCLA record of four consecutive meets.
On floor, landings once again proved problematic for the Florida squad. Despite a strong score, Rachel Gowey overdid her first pass and came up short on her second pass, indicating that maybe her air awareness last night was not at its best. Thomas, too, came up short on her final tumbling pass, dashing her hopes for a floor 10.0 after everything up to that point had been close to flawless. Baumann came in to anchor and was absolutely on fire, earning a near-perfect 9.975, bringing the team total up to a 49.575, but despite the strong score, there are weaknesses showing. Again, maybe illness is at play here, because the landings seem to be a stamina issue in many cases. The real test will be in the next three weeks, whether things return to normal or they continue to have problems.
Another big red flag last night was how close Alabama came to an upset, particularly at the halfway mark of the meet. The Crimson Tide won two individual event titles – vault and bars – with enormous scores, and after those two rotations, Florida was only 0.125 ahead. The only other meet where Florida did not win three out of four event titles was against LSU, a comparison that should indicate how closely fought this meet actually was. Florida’s beam comeback lengthened its lead, and floor solidified it, but Alabama was not as far behind performance-wise as the scores might indicate. Additionally, the Tide’s all-around star Lexi Graber was within striking distance of Thomas, who has won the AA in every meet this year except at Missouri, where she fell. Thomas only led Graber by 0.025, the smallest margin she’s won by all season. This proves she’s catchable, which could spell trouble for the Gators as they head into postseason. There they’ll face stars like Maggie Nichols and Kyla Ross for the first time this season, and the latter for the first time in Thomas’s career.
Overall, it was a strong performance: a 198.05 is an incredible score, but sometimes the scores don’t tell the whole story. The errors that did exist, even in the routines whose scores were dropped, are starting to tell a story; they’re not just one-offs. If that story is just winter illness making the rounds through a very close-knit team that spends a ton of time together – great. That’s fixable and just takes time. But if a week or two does not show improvement, it might be time to take a closer look at some of these errors and play with the lineup again. According to head coach Jenny Rowland, she’s not done tweaking and testing new things in these lineups, and a major part of that will be Nya Reed’s return after her illness. But the whole lineup picture at the next home meet should look a lot more fine-tuned and finalized than it did this week, for fear of not being comfortable going into postseason. The Gators have three weeks to make that happen – keep your eyes peeled and stay tuned while we watch it unfold.
NOTE: The original version of this article stated that only Florida, Oklahoma, and Michigan had undefeated records so far this season. It has been edited to reflect Utah’s undefeated status.