The Gators gymnastics program has been among the best in NCAA history.
Only seven teams have ever won a national championship, and Florida is one of them, winning three consecutively from 2013-15.
Last season, though, it missed the NCAA Championships for only the second time in school history after falling to Denver and Oregon State in the regionals.
Now, after months of waiting, UF will try to finally put last season behind it, and that quest begins tonight.
The No. 3 Gators begin their 2020 season at 6:45 p.m. against No. 19 Arkansas at the O’Connell Center. The match will be televised on SEC Network+.
Florida is returning most of the team that lost only two regular season matches last season and only one at home. That includes six All-Americans: sophomores Trinity Thomas and Savannah Schoenherr, junior Alyssa Baumann and Megan Skaggs and seniors Rachel Gowey and Amelia Hundley. Thomas and Schoenherr also earned All-American honors at the 2019 NCAA Individual Championships.
One of the toughest tasks for the squad this season will be replacing Alicia Boren, who graduated after last season. Her senior campaign was one of the best in school history, capped off by winning a share of the floor title at the Individual Championships last season.
Despite losing Boren, UF only brought in one freshman in the offseason. It’s just the third time in program history the program brought in only one recruit. However, that freshman-- Payton Richards-- has already earned the praise of coach Jenny Rowland, who is entering her fifth season coaching the team.
“She is an old soul and a very happy soul and has already fit in well with this team,” Rowland said. “You will probably see Payton in multiple events in this first meet and throughout the season.”
Two things working in Florida’s favor this season are experience and, most importantly, depth.
“At our intersquads, we had everyone doing pretty much every event,” Gowey said. “That’s a huge benefit to have so many people and so much depth at each event.”
The Gators’ opponent, the Razorbacks, are coming off a disappointing year. Last season, they finished eighth in the SEC with a 1-7 dual record. Mark Cook, who had been the coach of the program since its founding in 2003, retired and was replaced by Jordyn Wieber. Wieber was a member of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. Olympic team and is the first Olympic Champion to coach a collegiate program.
This is the first of nine straight meets for the Gators against teams ranked in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association (WCGA)’s top 25.
“There is no down time in gymnastics,” Rowland said. “You hit the ground running, and you are prepared, and you do what you can and it’s go time.”
Given the returning talent and the preseason rankings, expectations are sky high for the team this season.
“Everybody is super fired up for the season, and we have been looking great in the gym,” Thomas said. “When we get out, you’ll see what we’ve been doing in the gym.”
The gymnasts expect the O’Connell Center to be rocking again in 2020. Last season, the O’Connell Center averaged 8,333 fans per meet last season, about 90 percent of the arena’s capacity for gymnastics.
“The O’Dome is really indescribable,” Gowey said. “I was trying to explain it to Payton (Richards) but you really just have to experience it yourself.”
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Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.