Photo by Keith Gillette | Getty Images

Wait, it’s almost January? When did that happen? Gymnastics season is essentially here, Gator fans, and Florida Gymnastics is ready to go. At the team’s December Orange and Blue intrasquad, we got a taste of just how deep this team is, as season ticketholders were once again allowed at the event and shared some videos on social media. After watching these athletes take on preseason, we’re finally ready to talk about what we think this year will look like for the Gators.

Lineups

Head coach Jenny Rowland has her work cut out for her more than ever this season, as she’s blessed with such a massive pool of talent on her squad. The best way to use that pool to its full potential is to rotate gymnasts in and out of the lineup – a practice Rowland has generally shied away from in the past, preferring only to rotate gymnasts out in the event of injury or illness, with one or two exceptions on beam or floor each year. With a more fluid lineup approach, Rowland will be better equipped to prevent new and manage preexisting injuries to her athletes, something Florida has had mixed results with in past years. With as many former elites as will be on the team this year, and as many injuries as the team sustained late last season, it would behoove Rowland and her staff to keep their athletes from doing too many competitive routines before it’s really time to dial in.

That being said, it will eventually be time to dial in – the last two or three meets of the regular season will determine the SEC regular season championship and give Rowland her last few lower-stakes opportunities to set a postseason lineup. Expect to see the lineup firming up around that time, if it hasn’t already, and by SEC Championships, we should be seeing the six on each event that Rowland expects will get the team to the national championship meet. Here’s a breakdown of who we expect those athletes to be, with a few honorable mentions we expect to see during the season.

Vault: Lazzari, Richards, Wong, Blakely, Reed, Thomas; HM: Skaggs, Baumann, Schoenherr
Bars: Lazzari, Wong, Skaggs, Schoenherr, Thomas, McCusker; HM: Gallentine, Baumann, Blakely
Beam: Lazzari, Hurd, Blakely, McCusker, Thomas, Baumann; HM: Clapper, Skaggs, Wong
Floor: Wong, Hurd, Blakely, Reed, Baumann, Thomas; HM: Skaggs, Lazzari, Richards

Within these lineups, there are a few key things to note. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, that vault lineup would field a full six 10.0 start value vaults, something Florida has not achieved since the devaluation of the Yurchenko full. This squad actually has the potential for eight 10.0 starts, with the possible addition of Shilese Jones (who is not included in these lineups, as she hasn’t arrived on campus yet, but has the potential to factor in on several) and the uncertainty surrounding Savannah Schoenherr’s foot injury sustained at Nationals last season. Additionally, Wong plans to vault a Podkopayeva – shown below, a Yurchenko half-on pike half off – which has not been performed by a Gator gymnast in a long time, if ever.

Secondly, most of these lineups leave one of last season’s top five scorers out, due to the height of the talent on this 2022 squad. Per Road to Nationals, Skaggs on vault, Gallentine and Baumann on bars, Clapper and Skaggs on beam, and Lazzari on floor should all be part of the highest-scoring team picture from last season, and yet have a chance of not fitting into this season’s final lineup. That should again emphasize just how deep this team is and remind Rowland and staff how many different iterations this lineup could go through before they make a final choice.

Preparation for Postseason

Last year, the Gators felt they had some unfinished business to attend to. The 2020 season was taken from them early, and they had been on the warpath. Many fans still today claim that they should have been the national champions that season, but unfortunately, we’ll never get to find out. In 2021, Florida dedicated its season to its class of 2020, who never got the opportunity to fight for the championship they had been pushing for since the disappointment of 2019. The 2021 team was carrying two seasons’ worth of fighting on its shoulders, and while that can spark a fire within, it can also come with baggage, not just for the team, but for fans as well.

It’s hard to really pinpoint how and when the perception changed, because generally, there’s no trend to indicate that the Gators have a pacing issue. They’ve been ranked in the top 10 every year since 2001, and except for 2019, in the top 4 every year since 2012. Was 2019 disappointing? Absolutely, but it was also an outlier, and it should be treated as such until the data gives us reason to believe otherwise. 2020 should be more encouraging than discouraging to fans, given the momentum the team had going into what would have been its last meet of the regular season. 2021 saw the Gators finish fourth, returning to nationals after only missing one year, despite being plagued with last-minute injuries to several key players. All this to say – anyone who says that Florida has consistent postseason problems is either looking at the wrong data or no data.

With that said, this year, the Gators need a clean slate. No more unfinished business, no more axe to grind, nothing to prove. Their performances have always supported the idea that they’re one of the best teams in the nation, and the historical statistics going back over a decade show that they’ve delivered on that fact, year after year. They don’t need to act like underdogs. This year, Florida should take on the season with confidence and calm; then when it’s time for postseason, turn up the attack.

The Competition

Staying in their bubble is a strategy the Gators have loved to tout over the last several years, and this year, it will be even more important. The parity across the nation continues to rise in this sport, and the WCGA coaches’ preseason poll only supports that notion. Six different teams got at least one first-place vote in the poll – that’s more teams than will even compete in the final meet for the title! Additionally, in a poll where the winning score was 2,405 points, less than a hundred points separate fourth from first, and only 13 points from second. To even qualify to nationals will be a fight for even the top ranked teams, and it’s likely that from here on out, it always will be.

Florida was ranked No. 2 in the poll, with the second-highest total of first-place votes, after winner and reigning champ Michigan. I said it last year in our nationals preview, and I’ll say it again now: Michigan has the momentum, and that’s an unquantifiable factor that cannot be overlooked in postseason competition. If the Wolverines pick up right where they left off after winning their first national team title, the Gators (and anyone else) will be hard-pressed to keep up.

Oklahoma and Utah are nipping at Florida’s heels, too, with two and thirteen points fewer, respectively, in the poll. This is a very realistic Four on the Floor for Nationals, but LSU, California, UCLA, Alabama, Minnesota, Denver, and Arkansas are also all national championship contenders and could serve as spoilers with a good semifinal meet. The parity is quickly rising, and the Gators will have to be at their best to stay at the top.

In Conclusion

The long and short of it is that the Gators are set for a really strong season. The depth of the team as a whole, the strength of the freshmen, and the grit of the veterans give Florida a solid foundation to build a team strategy for the season. They have the experience with a COVID-era season and the challenges that come with it, and the tragedies of the 2019 disappointment and the 2020 abrupt ending are far enough behind that they should move forward with new vigor and well-founded confidence. Though the parity in the nation is quickly rising, this Gator team has what it takes to go all the way, but it won’t be easy. They’ll have to make the right choices, rotate out those with nagging injuries, and pick the right battles to peak for in order to earn the gold that’s eluded them these last several years. SEC and regional championships are all well and good, but they want the national title. Watch out world – here come the Gators!

Tune in to SECN+ on January 7th for the Gators’ home opener at 6:45pm E.T. It’s a quad meet against Northern Illinois, Texas Women’s, and Rutgers, the likes of which we haven’t seen in Gainesville since 2019! If you can’t make the broadcast, we’ll be liveblogging all the action right here, and in the meantime, be sure to follow ChompTalk and Caroline on Twitter for all your daily Gator Gymnastics news.

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