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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Gators head to Alabama for SEC Championship

Florida looks to win its first title since 2016

The Gators defeated two ranked conference foes without their star gymnast Trinity Thomas. Photo from UF-Mizzou Jan. 29.
The Gators defeated two ranked conference foes without their star gymnast Trinity Thomas. Photo from UF-Mizzou Jan. 29.

Junior Nya Reed wants her teammates to be themselves when postseason play starts Saturday.

The Gators have done that all season long as they cruised through an all-SEC schedule undefeated, so there’s no reason to fix something that isn’t broken.

“I don’t think that is something that our team has to focus on,” she said. “Our team needs to focus on being ourselves doing what we do in practice.”

The Gators will need to follow Reed’s advice  if they hope to hoist the SEC Championship trophy once again Saturday in Huntsville, Alabama. 

If No. 1 Florida finishes the meet with a score around its season average (197.672), it would most likely secure the title. 

The Gators defeated two ranked conference foes without their star gymnast Trinity Thomas. One competition was against No. 14 Kentucky, and the Gators lineup went without juniors Thomas, Reed, Savannah Schoenherr and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, and coach Jenny Rowland. They were  held out due to COVID-19 contact tracing. 

Even without a quartet of major contributors, Florida maximized its deep roster and rode its bench to a top-15 victory. 

Junior Leah Clapper shined on the balance beam and recorded her first career 10. Senior Alyssa Baumann tallied a 9.925 on the uneven parallel bars even though she hadn’t competed in the exercise in 1,699 days. They helped their team achieve the 11th highest score in the country.

Freshman Ellie Lazzari ascended as the season progressed. She was featured in the all-around in three of the last four weeks. She even scored a 9.975 on beam, her strongest event, versus No. 15 Auburn

Reed continues to have an electric presence on floor. She posted a 9.925 or better on the exercise every time she stepped onto the mat. But she still hunts for that elusive perfect score.

Florida is more fearsome with Thomas in the lineup, however. She became the second gymnast in program history besides Alex McMurtry to record two perfect scores on senior night. 

But Thomas is recovering from a sprained ankle she suffered in warmups versus No. 6 Alabama. Rowland told media Wednesday that she doesn’t foresee her competing in the all-around Saturday. If Thomas feels good Saturday, she’ll perform every event. 

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Statistically, the Gators sit tied for first place as they enter postseason play with Oklahoma. They roamed the top of the Road to Nationals rankings for the first 10 weeks of the season.

Florida also held the top spot on every event during the first two weeks of March but slipped to fourth on vault and second on bars. The Gators stand first on beam and floor. The Gators’ low scores are associated with key gymnasts absences. Rowland, however, said she’s impressed with the team and how they’ve handled adversity all season. 

“The consistency of this team is unbelievable,” she said. “The confidence that this team has in each other is unbelievable.”

To prepare for SEC postseason play, Rowland said they honed in on small details because tiny deductions can add up to be the difference between a championship and heading home bare-handed. 

This meet will be different from the duel meets the Gators have completed. 

The SEC Championship is split into two four-team sessions based on average scores. The first session between the 5-through-8-seeds will start at 3:30 p.m. The second session with 1-through-4-seeds begins at 8 p.m. The highest team score from both sessions will be crowned SEC Champions. 

Florida enters as the No. 1 seed and will compete in the later session. All of the action will stream on SEC Network.

Contact Zachary Huber at zhuber@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber


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