The seeding is done, the stage has been set – the SEC Championship has arrived! Saturday, the eight teams of the Southeastern Conference will take over Birmingham, Ala. to compete for the title in what is arguably the highest-ranked conference in the nation. No other conference can boast five teams (that’s over half the conference!) in the top ten and all teams in the top 25. The AAI Award recently announced its finalists, and three of the six belong to SEC teams, which is the most of any conference in the country. The list of accomplishments could go on for miles… it’s the SEC – like the tagline says, it just means more.
The SEC has always been a top conference in the sport due to its funding, recruiting, and visibility, which all really feed into one another, but this year, it’s a whole new level of parity. Any of the night session teams on its best day could steal this out from under the others, and frankly, some of the afternoon session teams could have a shot if they’re able to capitalize on underperformances from the night teams. As head coach Jenny Rowland said, “it’s the most exciting meet of the year.”
Florida is, of course, the front runner, but it has been before and still lost. The Gators have gone undefeated this season, which cannot be understated, but those wins were not without their close calls. Both duals against Alabama and Missouri came down to the very last routine, and LSU and Oklahoma were no walks in the parks either. Auburn even tied the Gators for the highest score this season, which was the third-highest in NCAA history! Still, Florida pulled it out when it got tough, and while many of the athletes are the same, this is not the same team that has lost before.
Rowland was quick to remind press earlier this week: “Each team is completely different every single year, even though we have the majority of our athletes back this season. It is a completely different team than last year – different personalities, some have matured or grown in various and different ways.” Those differences have been reflected at the very core of this season for the Gators, as they’ve really taken on a new strategy this year on how to approach lineups and team construction. In the past, Florida has largely relied on a few core athletes to do the all-around every week – Baker, Boren, McMurtry, and Hundley all competed all four events in every postseason meet back in 2017, for example – but this year really completed their evolution into more of a rotating cycle kind of team. No Gator athletes had enough AA scores to calculate an NQS – or the right mix of away/home scores, in Skaggs’s case – which means they all rested enough to only compete AA five or fewer times during the season. A change of strategy could mean the difference for Florida in terms of ensuring healthy, ready athletes now that it’s time for postseason.
However, as the Gators are already aware, they’re going to have some stiff competition. LSU, Alabama, and Auburn will be nipping at their heels throughout the night, and Kentucky and Missouri will set a high bar for them to clear in the earlier afternoon session. Let’s break down the competition team by team to see what Florida is up against.
The Crimson Tide are the reigning champions at this meet, and trust me when I say they will not let anyone forget it.
They had a slow start to the season with a bumpy road meet at Oklahoma, but since then, they’ve been gathering steam, and they’re now tied for No. 6 in the nation after back-to-back 198+ scores in their final two regular season meets. They also are led by one of the conference’s three AAI finalists, super-senior Lexi Graber, who’s also a two-time SEC beam champion. The Tide will also have the closest thing to a home team advantage of any team, as even though the meet is held at a neutral site, it’s in Birmingham, Ala. – less than an hour away from campus in Tuscaloosa.
Head coach Dana Duckworth is really looking forward to the competition atmosphere that that crowd and the parity among the teams will create. “It’s fast paced, it’s going to be competitive and it allows these ladies to shine. It’s the sweet spot between all the hard work of the regular season paying off and starting postseason with something that is so much fun. I want us to be present, have fun and enjoy the ride because it’s going to be intense and it’s going be fun in Birmingham.”
Of course, when we talk about threats to a Florida SEC title, we can’t not talk about LSU. This rivalry has lit a fire in fans and treated the nation to some truly spectacular gymnastics over the last several years, selling out crowds for meets where Gators and Tigers alike have broken records in past meetings. Despite some ups and downs this year – canceled meets, injuries, and illnesses, to name a few – LSU has somehow steamed ahead, posting a No. 5 rank nationally as we head into postseason. They also passed Utah in average attendance, becoming the nation’s leading destination for women’s gymnastics for the first time in program history!
Tigers have earned a total of five perfect 10.0s this season, with Haleigh Bryant earning three on vault and Kiya Johnson earning one each on beam and floor. While the team did have three losses this season, LSU did post big wins against Alabama, Auburn, and non-conference opponent Utah, so the Tigers definitely have proven they have what it takes to compete against the top teams despite their setbacks. They’re led by a massive class of super seniors, including AAI nominee Sami Durante and a resurgent Christina Desiderio, who is having a Skaggs-like renaissance of her own.
Head coach Jay Clark said of the stiff competition, “We know that [these] are tough teams… but we’ve seen them all year long! I think we’re battle-tested and we should be able to go in there with a great deal of confidence – a calm, resolute confidence that they’ve shown at various times this year.” He also shared that despite the injuries his star athletes Bryant and Johnson are battling, he is “optimistic that [they]’ll be able to put a really strong lineup out there on Saturday.” He anticipates Johnson being available for the all-around, but even without her, they’ve proved that they have the floor scores to compete.
What may come as a surprise to casual fans has been building for several seasons to careful watchers – the Auburn Tigers hit it big this season. Having been on a steady climb to greatness, this Tiger team has been making waves for a while, finishing No. 17 or higher each season from 2015 to 2020. (In 2021, they were forced to withdraw from regionals due to COVID-19 and thus finished the season No. 35.) This year, bolstered by a strong freshman class including reigning Olympic AA champ Sunisa Lee, the Tigers finish the regular season ranked No. 6, tied with Alabama, which also ties their highest final season finish in program history. If Auburn can keep numbers like this up, it could very easily make it to the big dance for the first time in six years.
Auburn has had some enormously high highs this season: senior Derrian Gobourne finally got her 10.0 and is a finalist for the AAI award, Lee has earned three perfect 10.0s of her own, and the team tied Florida for the highest score yet this season – 198.575 – to blow its program record out of the water. However, the Tigers have had some lows as well. They tend not to score as well away as they do at home, which could affect them in Birmingham despite the large Auburn contingent we expect to see in the crowd, and this past weekend, they tied their second-lowest score all season after some beam flubs and floor flops cost them a meet against Michigan.
Still, head coach Jeff Graba is optimistic about their chances. “We’re capable of being a top team and it all comes down with how we handle our business,” Graba said. “Our expectations and standards are high for this team and I’m looking forward to seeing how we handle in the night session against the nation’s best.” He really isn’t exaggerating either – against the other teams in the night session, Auburn absolutely has a shot. The Tigers defeated Alabama earlier this season and tied Florida as previously mentioned, and even though they lost to LSU, it was only by about two tenths. That’s about the equivalent of two stuck landings, so forget about a margin of error.
Kentucky and Missouri
While it’s never been done since the institution of the two-session format, both Kentucky and Missouri have the building blocks to put together a win from the afternoon session today. Kentucky is ranked No. 9 in the country, with its average less than 0.7 below Florida’s at No. 2. Like we said, margin of error? We don’t know her. Vault and bars are where the Cats can really raise the bar, with quite the bevy of 10.0 start value vaults and a No. 7-ranked bars squad. They’re led by Raena Worley, who’s ranked No. 3 in the all-around just behind Auburn’s Lee and has won several SEC Gymnast of the Week awards this season. They even beat LSU by the narrowest of margins two weeks ago, so watch out for these Cats – they’ll sneak up on you!
Missouri has also had surges of greatness this season, giving Florida a run for its money earlier this year and besting Arkansas and LSU a few weeks ago as well. Like Auburn, these Tigers have also been helped by strong recruiting, and this freshman class is the first of several that will change the game for this team. Freshmen Jocelyn Moore and Amari Celestine have been clutch on vault and floor, especially the latter, where the squad is ranked No. 10 in the nation. It will be difficult, but Mizzou has shown us that more unlikely things can happen.
Arkansas and Georgia
Unfortunately, based on ranking and current performance, it doesn’t look like Arkansas or Georgia is headed for even a possible upset win here. Arkansas started with a big bang, and the Razorbacks are clearly building toward a major program moment here in the next few years… it’s just not this year. The bars squad has been too inconsistent and they’re fighting too many injuries to make it happen right now. Still, Jordyn Wieber has done a fantastic job increasing the team’s visibility at the school and within the community, and she’s recruited both a top-notch coaching staff and fantastic athletes, so we fully expect to see Arkansas making a play for the night session here in the next year or two.
Georgia… how the mighty have fallen. This once-perennial nationals contender is now seeded last within its own conference, a lowly No. 22 in the nation with only a single score over 197.0 in the entire season. To be fair, the team has been plagued with injuries, including the medical retirement of senior leader Rachael Lukacs, but injury management is a problem in and of itself. Don’t expect to see the Gymdogs making a play for the title at this meet – they’ll be lucky to have any individuals contending for titles. Their likeliest candidates are Rachel Baumann, Gator Alyssa’s younger sister who earned her first perfect 10.0 when Florida came to visit Athens, and Megan Roberts, whose strong bars and vault performances have helped keep the team afloat. It’s no accident that the team’s worst event, beam, is the only event she doesn’t compete. It will be interesting to see just how Georgia’s performance stacks up against the rest of the SEC field at this event, and it may have some effect as to whether head coach Courtney Kupets Carter’s contract is even renewed at the end of the season.
Having looked at each of the contenders, the competition is clearly stiff. There will be no walks in the park, no taking it easy, no ‘try it and see what happens’ moments left in this season for the Gators. Too many other teams are too close at their heels. However, this meet is winnable.
The Gators have the momentum: they’re undefeated, they have seven consecutive scores 197.5 or higher, and they’ve wiped their slate clean from past upsets. They are not the same team that lost to Alabama last year or LSU in 2019; they’re a new one, hungry for a challenge, ready to rise to the occasion. They have the most 198+ scores in the conference (four) and the most 10.0s – a whopping nine, almost double what any other SEC team has scored this year.
Florida also boasts its own AAI finalist in Trinity Thomas and is one of the favorites to win. Rowland said that to have her “among the AAI Award finalists is a well-deserved, well-earned honor. Trinity… not only has the talent, but the leadership, the work ethic, and everything that entails being a student athlete the best they can be.” Thomas has earned five of those perfect 10.0s this season and made her mark in history as only the 12th athlete ever to complete a Gym Slam – a perfect 10.0 on every event – and the third Gator to do so.
But the strength of this team lies not just in Thomas, but in the depth and breadth of the talent on the entire team. She herself told us this past week about the different roles each team member plays, the different ways they lead in the gym, and how sticking together as one team, this 2022 team, will prepare them for today’s conference championship and beyond.
Each of these SEC teams has a star gymnast, some of them even have a few, but this Gator team has a whopping four athletes who have reached that coveted 10.0 this year, and yet a fifth who reached a perfect 9.95 for her Yurchenko full, which only starts from that score. No other team in the conference can say that, and that depth is one major component that gives Florida the edge over its competitors.
But Thomas also revealed to us that this team is conscious of the competition. “I don’t even know what to expect in that arena,” she said. “They know and we know that it’s going to be a tough meet… [even] the fans know it’s going to be super close.”
How close will it be? Find out when Session I starts at 3:30pm ET this afternoon, 3/19/22, and the Gators compete in Session II at 8:00pm ET. If you can’t make it to a television, we’ll have a liveblog for both sessions right here at ChompTalk.com. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and follow Caroline for all your gymnastics updates throughout the weekend and the weeks ahead in postseason!