This Thursday, eight teams and 20 individuals will descend on Fort Worth, Texas to compete in the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics National Championship! Coming in still ranked No. 2, the Gators are heavily favored to advance to the national finals on Saturday and maybe win the whole kit and caboodle, but they’ll have some massive obstacles to tackle before they get that far. Let’s take a look at the road to the championship as Florida makes a run at its fourth national title in program history.
The first semifinal on Thursday will see three former title-winners and one underdog vying for just two spots in the national final on Saturday. Alabama, Oklahoma, and Utah have all won four or more team championships in the past, with their most recent wins being 2012, 2019, and 1995, respectively. Minnesota rounds out the field as the only non-title-winner in this semifinal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous – never underestimate the underdog.
Oklahoma is perhaps the favorite of these four to advance, with the most recent run of title wins and spending the last four weeks of regular season at No. 1 in the standings. Unlike many of the other teams in contention, the Sooners don’t have an all-arounder in the Top 10; Audrey Davis is their one and only ranked all-around performer at No. 15. However, in individual events, they have two on vault, one on bars, and two on beam in the Top 10. Floor is perhaps Oklahoma’s weak spot, if they have one, with its highest ranked individual coming in at No. 12 and the next best at No. 19. Still, as a team, the Sooners are No. 5 on the event with an NQS of 49.585, so it’s not of major concern, but they’ll want to start rotation 4 – when they go to floor – in qualifying position already. Fighting an uphill battle on a weak event is not a position any team wants to be in.
Utah is perhaps the next likeliest contender to make finals, although just by the skin of its teeth. The Utes are ranked No. 4 in the country, but the distance between them and Alabama is marginal – less than 0.15 separates the two. Utah has a bit of a leg-up when it comes to all-arounders – it has one in the Top 10, Grace McCallum, while Alabama has no ranked all-arounders at all. The Utes’ biggest advantage, though, is on beam, where they are ranked No. 1 in the country and have four of their six beamers in the Top 20. Utah will finish its night on beam, so even if it isn’t in qualifying position, that last rotation could be where it makes a big move.
Alabama will be nipping at Utah’s heels, though, ranked No. 5 nationally at less than a tenth and a half behind. Though no ranked all-arounders, the Crimson Tide has two on bars, one on beam, and one on floor in the Top 15. The trouble with these rankings, though, is that Luisa Blanco accounts for two of those four Top 15 placements, and she’s now injured. After a nasty fall on her beam dismount at SEC Championships, it was unclear whether team scoring leader Blanco would be finished for the season or not. At regionals, she only competed bars, where she scored a 9.9 in Round Two and a 9.825 in the Regional Final. However, even without her typically strong vault and beam scores, the Tide still figured it out and qualified to nationals with a significant margin over Michigan State. However, Utah is not Michigan State, and neither is Oklahoma. They are far more formidable and (post)seasoned opponents, and just having a normal performance will not put Alabama past either of them – the Tide will need a little extra oomph, or someone else will need to open a door. They’ll start on their best event, bars, so if they can at least be in second after the first rotation, you’ll know they’re off to a good start.
Minnesota stands out among the crowd in this semifinal as the team with something to prove. This is only the fifth time in the data available on RoadtoNationals that Minnesota has ever qualified as a team to nationals, but it’s been ranked in the Top 10 all season, one of its strongest seasons to date. Largely, that’s thanks to its fifth-year stars, Lexy Ramler and Ona Loper, who make Minnesota one of only three teams to have two all-arounders ranked in the Top 10. Despite their success, the Gophers will still need an extraordinary meet to push past Alabama and Utah to qualify to finals. Their best performance this year was 198.025, which is only a tenth better than Utah’s NQS. Minnesota will need to have the meet of the year, or it’ll need to take advantage of tenths given away by other teams. The key rotation will be the first, when the Gophers are on beam – they’ll need to hit there, where they’ve been inconsistent, if they’re going to have any prayer of moving on.
Semifinal I begins at 1pm ET on Thursday on ESPN2, but we will not have a liveblog available. If you’d like to follow the action, we recommend College Gym News‘s liveblog or Dr. Sam of Alligator Army‘s livetweets for this first session.
Before they can challenge any of the above teams, however, the Gators have to make it out of the second semifinal. They’ll face Michigan, Auburn, and Missouri, which is a mixed bag as far as good and bad news. The good news is that Florida has beaten Auburn and Missouri before now on multiple occasions – Missouri at the regular season dual and at SEC Championships, and Auburn at SEC Championships and Regional Finals.
Michigan, however, is the top contender to advance, alongside Florida. The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 for the first part of the season, including in the preseason poll, and are the reigning champions. With two all-arounders in the Top 10, Sierra Brooks and Abby Heiskell, and a third, Natalie Wojcik, winning the AAI Award earlier this week, they have a high number of athletes who can compete on all four and barely have a weak event. However, if this team has a weakness, it’s beam. The beam squad has only cracked 49.5 twice this season, which equals a 9.9 average for the counting routines, whereas on all the other events, they’ve gone 49.5 seven times or more. Michigan has to finish the meet on beam, so if the Wolverines are in any kind of precarious position going into the final rotation, we could be in for a shocker.
Auburn is the likely spoiler, if there is one, and for good reason – the Tigers have had one of their best seasons on record, qualifying to nationals again for the first time since 2015. With the addition of Sunisa Lee and Sophia Groth as powerhouse freshmen and the retention of super-senior Drew Watson, this Auburn squad has maybe the highest concentration of talent in program history, so it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if they snuck into the national final. Lee is ranked No. 2 in the nation in the all-around and the team is ranked No. 6 or better on every event. Auburn’s least consistent event, however, is beam, where it had to count a fall at SEC Championship just a month ago. That’s where the Tigers will have to start the meet, though, so we’ll know after the first rotation whether they have a shot at the upset or not.
Missouri won’t go down without a fight either. Though they’ll be the only team in Fort Worth without a 198 to their name this season, the Tigers have pulled out some wild wins already this year, and it wouldn’t be beyond reason to say they could do it again here. However, it’ll be an uphill battle. Team leader and SEC Specialist of the Year Sienna Schreiber is ranked No. 13 in the all-around and No. 11 on beam, and freshman Jocelyn Moore is ranked No. 7 on vault, but they’re the only two in the top 20 on any event. Though they’re ranked No. 8 currently, due to making it into the Elite Eight that go to nationals, their individual event rankings at the end of regular season tell a different story. Missouri’s best event is floor, where it’s ranked No. 10, and bars are its worst at No. 22. Bars is where the Tigers will kick their competition off on Thursday, so it’ll be immediately evident whether they’re putting together the meet of their lives or if they’re going to pale in comparison to the other teams in their session.
The Gators are heavily favored to advance from the second semifinal, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. We’ve seen firsthand what can happen when teams take things for granted – both in the past and this year – but so has this team. They’re not about to let what they’ve fought for all season slip through their fingers at the finish line.
As the top seed in the second session, Florida will compete in Olympic order, so the competition format will be most familiar. Vault is a great place to start, as the team is ranked No. 2 on the event, and most athletes have been dialing in their landings better and better as postseason has continued. After rotation one, the Gators should at least be in qualifying position if they’re having a good night.
Rotation two will bring a hotly contested battle for the top spot, as Florida goes to bars and Michigan goes to vault, where the latter is ranked No. 1. While normally, the Gators might want to lead after competing two events where they’re ranked No. 2 in the nation, being second here would still be perfectly fine. Michigan will have finished its two best events, and the Gators will still have beam and floor left, where they’ve scored 49.55 or higher in every postseason meet so far.
Beam will be a test for Florida. If they can capitalize on their strengths here, the Gators should be able to move into first after the third rotation, as they’re capable of some truly stellar numbers. The beam squad hit a season high in Regionals Finals – a 49.75 – and broke the program record for highest beam team score at an SEC Championship meet. However, beam is the number one event where unpredictable things can play a major role. It’s a mental game, and the Gators will have to stay on top of it in order to succeed.
The final rotation should be an opportunity for the floor squad to let loose and have a little fun. The Gators will stay in their bubble for most of the meet, but they’re at their best on floor when they feed off of the energy of the crowd chomping and celebrating with them. Nya Reed had some heel pain before Round Two of regionals, so she was held out of the lineup, but she came back strong for finals. With the rest she’s had in the last two weeks, we would hope that she (and the rest of the squad) will be up to competing twice this weekend with such high stakes at risk.
Florida’s performance at Regional Finals can be summed up in a single word – dominant. If the Gators can bring that attitude and confidence to Fort Worth, they should be well-equipped to qualify to finals and maybe finally recapture that elusive national title.
Semifinal II begins at 6pm ET on ESPN2 on Thursday, but if you don’t have access or can’t make the broadcast, we’ll have a liveblog right here for you with every moment of the action. To see the full rotation order for both semifinals, click here. To see the full NCAA Gymnastics Championship Tournament bracket, click here.