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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Next stop: Nationals

Florida advances to NCAA Championships for the first time since 2018

NCAA Semifinals start April 16 in Fort Worth, Texas, and will broadcast on ESPN2. Photo from UF-Mizzou meet Jan. 29.
NCAA Semifinals start April 16 in Fort Worth, Texas, and will broadcast on ESPN2. Photo from UF-Mizzou meet Jan. 29.

The Gators were pushed back this season more times than one can count, but they still fought their way to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday. 

Florida embodied the quote from legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” 

They were tested more than any other team in the country. But those experiences will prove invaluable when they sprint onto the floor at Dickies Arena April 16. 

Adversity struck the orange and blue first when Florida announced that coach Jenny Rowland and juniors Trinity Thomas, Savannah Schoenherr, Nya Reed and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf would miss the meet against Kentucky due to COVID-19 contact tracing.. The four gymnasts accounted for 36% of Florida’s lineup. 

But the Gators didn’t seem phased the entire night. Junior Leah Clapper recorded her first 10 on the balance beam, and senior Alyssa Baumann tallied the highest all-around debut score in program history (39.65). 

Then trouble found Florida again. Thomas collapsed to the ground in obvious pain after a dismount during an uneven bars warmup against Alabama a week after she became the second UF gymnast to record two 10s in a single meet. She missed the meet against the Crimson Tide, and now a month later, she competed only on bars at SEC Championships and NCAA Regionals

Rowland said she hopes to have her back at full strength at NCAA Championships.

In Huntsville, Alabama, the Gators suffered at least one fall on every event. One mistake snowballed into several. They finished SECs third, and that served as a much-needed wake-up call before NCAAs. 

They faced misfortune once more Saturday in the Athens Regional Final. Johnson-Scharpf announced on Instagram that she ruptured her Achilles during a floor exercise warmup. 

A volunteer assistant coach carried her off into a medical tent while tears swelled in her eyes. Then her alternate junior Halley Taylor came up gimpy, and Thomas had to assist her. Sophomore Payton Richards stepped up. 

Watching teammates collapse is devastating for a team. But Florida showed out and clinched its ticket to NCAA Championships. Clapper and freshman Ellie Lazzari registered career-highs with a 9.9 and a 9.925, respectively. 

The Gators showcased that they had a vendetta out for this season after two bittersweet conclusions in 2019 and 2020. 

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Two balance beam falls doomed them in Corvallis, Oregon, which prevented UF from advancing to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2000. Florida responded and dominated every opponent in 2020 before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ten of the 14 gymnasts on the team remember the heartbreak they felt. That emotion resurfaced after Saturday’s victory. 

“This feels amazing,” Reed said after the win. “I’ve never made it to nationals before, so it’s surreal to make it this far. There’s tears everywhere like I could start crying just thinking about it right now.”

Happy tears flooded the locker room. 

“We worked so hard last year, and it got taken away from us,” the junior said. “We deserve it. We’ve been working so hard, so hard work is definitely paying off for us.”

The adversity the team faced Saturday wasn’t any different from the challenges they had already seen, Baumann said.

“Every little obstacle that we’ve overcome has made this moment so much more special,” she said. “It’s going to make nationals that much more rewarding.”

NCAA Semifinals start April 16 in Fort Worth, Texas, and will broadcast on ESPN2. 

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

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