Close, but no cigar – the Gators had an exceptional meet on Saturday night, but they ended up just shy of the title, placing second to Oklahoma’s champion.
At the start of the meet, this seemed like the least likely of outcomes. After a less-than-ideal vault rotation, Florida sat in third. Most of the vault squad’s Yurchenko 1.5s had come up just a little short of rotation, likely overcompensating for the bounding landings they had in semifinals. Star Trinity Thomas had stuck hers for a session-winning 9.9875, but one stuck vault does not a strong rotation score make. Even the triumphant return of junior Payton Richards to the lineup was only good enough for a 9.8125, and the Gators notched just a 49.35 after one rotation. Still, they stood above Oklahoma, who had a messy floor rotation with two routines out-of-bounds errors. The Sooners sat just short of two tenths back at a 49.1875. Auburn had somehow leapfrogged both frontrunners with a stellar bars rotation, with highlights from Derrian Gobourne and Sunisa Lee, scoring 9.9375 and 9.9125, respectively. In first, though, was Utah, who started on beam, its best event. The Utes earned a cool 49.5125 for their efforts on the often-make-or-break event. Despite being in third, Florida fans felt pretty positive about this start – the rotation score was an improvement over semifinals and vault has been pretty inconsistent over the course of the season. It seemed likely the Gators would only go up, while Utah and Auburn would likely go down. And Oklahoma? It didn’t seem the Sooners could have that big of an edge on the Gators to overcome that deficit.
The second rotation was much more normal than semifinals, with no equipment malfunction in sight. However, this time, it was Riley McCusker who had a fall, sitting her dismount despite her best efforts to save it. This lineup knows how to deliver under pressure, though, and all four remaining athletes hit fantastic routines, earning a 49.525 total for the rotation as they were able to drop McCusker’s score. However, Oklahoma came back from its disappointment on floor to notch an excellent vault rotation, including a 9.975 for Katherine LeVasseur, finishing with a 49.6625 event total. Auburn, meanwhile, had faded after a difficult beam rotation kept the Tigers stuck in the 9.8 range for all but one routine – Lee’s 9.9 – that left them with only a 49.2 for the event. Through it all, Utah hung onto a razor-thin lead, finishing floor with a 49.4625 thanks to a strong performance from Sydney Soloski, whose 9.9125 allowed the team to drop Maile O’Keefe’s uncharacteristic fall before her. At the halfway point, it was Utah in first with a 98.975, Florida with a 98.875, and Oklahoma with a 98.85.
The third rotation is where Oklahoma made its move. Florida’s beam rotation was stellar, but not as stellar as it could have been. In their final beam routines, Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann went 9.9 and 9.9125, respectively, and pictures from the meet show just how textbook-perfect many of their elements were. Unfortunately, most of the Gators weren’t able to stick their landings, so there were just a few too many deductions they weren’t expecting to give up. A 49.5 is pretty normal for this team, and it would have taken a better-than-normal rotation to fight off the incredible wave that was Oklahoma bars. In each of their counting routines, the Sooners stuck every single landing and hit nearly every handstand, leading to a whopping 49.725, the highest single-rotation score of the entire meet. Utah, unfortunately, struggled on vault, with Cammy Hall sitting her Yurchenko 1.5 and Lucy Stanhope only earning a 9.7625. Auburn’s Gobourne and Lee again made a splash on floor, but the Tigers had to count two scores 9.825 or lower, continuing to limit their upward mobility. With only one rotation left, Oklahoma took the lead with 148.575, Florida trailed at 148.375, Utah fell to 148.2, and Auburn dropped to 148.0125.
Two tenths was still a deficit the Gators had hope of overcoming, especially as they went to floor while the Sooner had to contend with beam. Florida went lights out on floor – its 49.7125 was the second-highest single-rotation score of the meet – marked by Thomas earning yet another perfect 10.0 in the fifth spot, which was her fourth in a row. Even so, Oklahoma earned a 49.625 on beam, capped off by a 9.9625 from 2016 Olympic alternate Ragan Smith, which made the title unreachable for the Gators, no matter the score Richards got in the final lineup slot. She still went out and performed the routine she’s done all season, earning a 9.9 for her efforts, but it was too little, too late. The Gators finished their night with a 198.0875 – an incredible score, especially for a national championship meet where there are six judges per event instead of two. Oklahoma took the crown, though, edging out Florida with a 198.2.
So where do the Gators go from here? After everything was said and done on Saturday, Thomas had some hopeful words. “This team really had something special… we’re going to go back, and we’re going to be excited about second place, that’s OK. But I know that Florida has more to give.”
This team has no regrets, as head coach Jenny Rowland said. “Really, this team made the most of every day and made the most of this entire season.”
Alyssa Baumann agreed: “Absolutely no regrets… To go the whole regular season undefeated, win the SEC Championship, and finish second [at NCAAs], that’s pretty good. We had more fun this year than I’ve ever had. We were really ourselves. We just did it our way.”
The Gators left it all on the floor, and they seem pretty pleased with that. But don’t expect them to sit on their laurels – like Thomas said, next year, there’s more to give.
Will she be back? All athletes who were on an NCAA team in 2021 have the option to take an extra year of eligibility, though starting next season, it will count against the team’s scholarship totals. Thomas only had this to say: “We’ll see.”
That pretty nicely encapsulates the brief look toward the future the Gators seem to have allowed themselves in the moments following the meet. “We’ll see” what the offseason and preseason bring – there’s so much more this team is capable of come 2023.