2016 was the beginning and the end of an era for gymnastics in Gainesville.
It was Jenny Rowland’s first season as head coach of the Gators — daunted with the task of replacing Ronda Faehn, who coached all three of Florida’s national championship teams.
It was also the end of a magical career for one of the most decorated Florida athletes of all time.
Bridget Sloan — 2016 NCAA All-Around Champion and two-time Honda award winner — graduated after four years of breaking records in an orange and blue leotard.
Entering the 2016 season after winning back-to-back-to-back NCAA Championships, the feeling around the program was national championship or bust.
And with those expectations, a first-year coach and a young, untested roster, Florida stumbled down the stretch.
For the first time in four years, Florida didn’t hoist the NCAA Championship trophy in April, finishing fourth overall at the NCAA Super Six.
But while the Gators fell short of a four-peat last season, the reigning SEC champions have a deeper, more experienced roster that is poised to make another deep postseason run.
“I think we have a lot of people that are a lot healthier this year,” junior Alex McMurtry said after an intrasquad scrimmage on December 8.
“We can’t wait to have a strong team on vault and floor, which last year we had whoever could compete on vault and floor. I think we are looking really, really strong.”
McMurtry, a 10-time All-American, was the only gymnast in the nation to score multiple 10s on bars in 2016.
Now, with the departure of Sloan, along with seniors Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto, Morgan Frazier and Bridgette Caquatto, McMurtry along with fellow All-American junior Kennedy Baker are ready to lead their preseason No. 5 team to another NCAA title.
“I’m very impressed with the confidence of the athletes,” Rowland said. “I think the confidence level is through the roof right now… We definitely have a lot more to work on but nothing that we are not capable of correcting. We are not ready to peak yet, so I’m very pleased with where they are.”
In addition to the eight returning athletes, this season’s team features four accomplished freshmen.
Two of them, Rachel Gowey and Amelia Hundley, competed in the US Olympic Trials in July while another, Maegan Chant, has represented Canada in international competitions during her career.
“I think everyone is doing well, but there are always improvements to be made,” Chant said. “There is so much energy and I can’t wait for season.”
The Gators also lost and gained an athlete through transfers during the offseason.
Peyton Ernst, who was in all but one balance beam lineup during her freshman season last year, transferred to Alabama.
But UF gained junior Rachel Slocum from Eastern Michigan. Slocum was the 2016 Mid-American Conference Specialist of the Year.
These athletes, now having competed in three intrasquad meets and with the season just two days away, are ready to compete.
And while the ending to the 2016 season might still sting, the Gators now have the opportunity to rewrite their story in 2017.
“We can’t wait to get on the road for our first meet,” McMurtry said. “It’s almost here.”
Contact Lauren Staff at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lstaff27.
UF coach Jenny Rowland applauds after Alex McMurtry’s balance beam routine during Florida’s win against Alabama on Jan. 29, 2016, in the O’Connell Center.