In spectacular fashion, though not without incident, the Gators won both their regional semifinal and the regional final in Athens to advance to NCAA Nationals, which will take place this coming weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. Semifinals was a normal meet for the Gators – steamrolling toward their goal while the drama happened outside their bubble, as NC State upset both Illinois and Central Michigan to qualify to the regional final. Florida’s semifinal performance was highlighted by a perfect 10.0 from superstar Trinity Thomas on bars, her only event of the night.
Finals, on the other hand, revealed the bumpier section of road on the way to nationals. Florida began on vault, the most familiar running order for a meet, but typical standout Nya Reed balked on her vault a total of three times – the first due to her run feeling off, and the following two more due to nerves and head games more than anything else. But the Gators learned their lesson from regionals – they were able to leave what happened on vault at the vault and move on to bars for a stellar 49.475. Checking in after beam, which is where I said in my preview the Gators needed to be ahead to have the best chance of moving on, the Gators led Denver by 0.075 and Minnesota by 0.175.
But even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing. The floor lineup was decimated in a matter of seconds, as both lineup mainstay Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and alternate Halley Taylor both sustained lower body injuries in the 30-second touch warmup before the final rotation. Johnson-Scharpf later announced that she tore her Achilles and has already undergone surgery to begin her recovery and rehab in hopes for a strong senior season in 2022. Taylor, however, was spotted traveling with the team and standing on her own power, so it’s possible she may be ready to compete at nationals.
Even so, the Gators notched an excellent 49.55 on the event after Payton Richards stepped into the lineup, despite having some nagging injuries that contributed to her difficulties at SEC Championships last monht. Tumbling and vault coach Adrian Burde made the decision to switch up the order of her passes to help her better manage her stamina to make it through the full routine, and it paid off, as she didn’t fall. However, she did go out of bounds, so hers was still the score to drop. Reed was able to shake off her vault mistakes and clinch the Gators’ ticket to Fort Worth with her floor routine, scoring a 9.95 as she’s done so many times already this season.
Moving ahead to nationals, though, the competition gets even stiffer. Florida will be in the first semifinal facing Minnesota again, as well as California and Michigan, who qualified out of the Morgantown regional. Both will be difficult opponents, with the differences between them and Florida just as small as those between Florida and its regional opponents. Rowland echoed that in a press conference upon arrival in Fort Worth today:
Michigan is peaking at the right time, scoring above 198 at three of its last five meets. Florida’s NQS, average score, and high score all outdo Michigan, but the momentum Michigan carries into nationals cannot be underestimated. The Wolverines have a strong bevy of individuals as well – Natalie Wojcik and Sierra Brooks are both ranked in the top 15, and Gabby Wilson is No. 24, so they match the Gators for number of all-arounders in the top 25 since regionals gave Florida freshman Ellie Lazzari enough AA scores to be ranked. Michigan actually has two more vaulters in the top 25 than Florida, though Reed and Megan Skaggs aren’t far behind at No. 30 and 35, and they’re even on bars. Beam again gives the Gators the edge, with four top 25 athletes to Michigan’s one: Wojcik. Floor will also help the case against the Wolverines for the Gators, with three top 25 athletes to their one. Florida should take heart in the statistics that give them the edge, but momentum is a factor that cannot be quantified down to the numbers, and Michigan has it in spades.
California is no slouch either – it’s also broken that 198 threshold this season, leaving Minnesota as the only team in this semi without at least one 198+ meet. However, Cal has had a shorter season due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state and the uncertainty of season even taking place in the Pac-12 conference. The Golden Bears only had six opportunities to compete during the regular season, compared to Florida’s eight and Michigan’s seven, and had a far shorter preseason to train before competition began. The shorter training time has played a significant role in many PAC-12 teams, and caused many California teams in other conferences to outright cancel their seasons, so it’s a testament to the quality of Cal’s gymnastics that they’ve accomplished so much with that handicap. Their top-25 individuals are not quite as numerous – three in the AA, like Florida and Michigan, but only one on vault, none on beam, and one on floor. They do match the Gators and Wolverines on bars with two apiece, but they have two tied at No. 27 with Florida’s Savannah Schoenherr, among others, so bars may give the Bears a slight edge. Their athletes to watch include steady all-arounder Nevaeh Souza, freshman standout Andi Li, and senior star Kyana George.
The key to advancing past this strong group of teams will be to capitalize on strengths and minimize weaknesses. Again, if the Gators can lead after beam, that’ll be a good sign, but not the end-all be-all considering their rotation order. They’ll have to contend with their worst event statistically, vault, to close the meet, while Michigan will finish on its second-best. However, both Cal and Minnesota will also finish on their worst event, so if Florida is ahead after the third and can prevent disaster on vault, it is highly likely it’ll be through to finals, even if it’s behind Michigan.
Thomas’s health will also be a tipping point for Florida: her one event played a key part in the team’s advancement, but having her 9.9+ scores on the other three events (especially vault and floor, particularly with Johnson-Scharpf out on the latter) would be a huge advantage. It’s not crucial, as the Gators have proved they are plenty capable without her, but it would certainly give the team (and us fans!) more room to breathe. Rowland was not certain about it, but did confirm she has been training all four events in the gym and that it’s really Thomas’s call as to whether or not she’s good to go.
The last thing to look out for in measuring the Gators’ performance and likelihood of success is their attitude. At regionals, they succeeded because they were able to leave vault behind them – short memories, as several athletes and coaches have called the phenomenon before. At SECs, bars threw them out of their groove and it stayed with them until it was too late. If anything goes wrong on Friday, the Gators need to forget and move on like they did in Athens, and not let it haunt them like it did in Huntsville. If they’re able to qualify to the final on Saturday, the Gators could face one or both of the teams that defeated them in Huntsville (LSU and Alabama), along with Oklahoma or Utah, strong contenders whom they have not faced in over two years. Regardless of which of those two opponents qualify to the final, Florida will need all their wits about them to have a shot at the title.
Rowland, Reed, and Schoenherr all echoed this sentiment at press today, saying that the Gators are at their best when they’re loose, having fun, and staying in their bubble. Reed told us that many of her teammates have superstitions, including lots of them who have to have a coffee before competition, but she’s not really superstitious herself. She just loves to sing and dance and stay “hype,” and admitted to getting so excited she broke two corrals at regionals! She and Schoenherr both agreed that the energy level with the team is high right now, and that they’re trying to ride that all the way into the weekend.
If you’ve been paying attention, those are the same three keys to success as they were for regionals. It worked there, and frankly, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Keep an eye on all three of these factors, and you’ll have a pretty good idea how the Gators are doing. Their semifinal begins at 1pm Eastern time on Friday, so don’t miss it! We’ll be here with a liveblog on all the action, and we’re virtually credentialed with the NCAA for press afterward, so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for live updates after the meet! And if Florida qualifies to Saturday (cross your fingers, light your candles, deck yourself out in orange and blue – whatever superstitions you have!), we’ll be here with a quick preview of the competitors and how the Gators’ odds look the morning of.