This season was supposed to end differently for the Florida gymnastics team.
Last season, UF dropped only two regular season meets, but lost in the NCAA Regionals and failed to make the Super Six for the first time since 2011.
This season, though, felt different. The team’s depth and experience were paying massive dividends, and it was 10-0, one win away from the program’s first perfect regular season since 1985. If it wasn’t for No. 1 Oklahoma’s equally stellar play, No. 2 Florida would have the top spot in the nation.
The Gators were far and away the best team in the SEC and seemed to be in excellent shape to win the SEC Tournament on March 21 and then, possibly win the school’s first national title since 2015.
However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, this year’s Gators Gymnastics season will always be remembered for what could have been.
The season effectively ended for the team on March 12, when the NCAA announced that all winter and spring sports championships had been canceled. This included the gymnastics championships, scheduled to begin on April 2. The season officially ended on March 17, when the SEC announced all competitions would be canceled.
“We went from training for SEC and nationals and going into the gym every day and tutoring. It was 14-hour-plus days,” senior Amelia Hundley said. “And now it feels like it just went to nothing.”
Initially, it seemed like the UAA and the SEC were going to find ways to continue the season. First, the team announced there would be no fans at the final regular season meet – senior night – against Texas Woman’s University on March 13.
Then the SEC announced later that day all-conference competitions would be suspended until April 15, which included the SEC Tournament.
“Jenny (Rowland) came rushing into the gym and had a worried look on her face and she broke the news to everyone,” junior Leah Clapper said. “It was almost like a weight fell on top of you.”
Despite the announcement, the squad still practiced that Thursday and Clapper said it was “a fabulous practice.”
After practice, though, they heard about the NCAA’s declaration – a nail in the coffin for the team.
“We knew what we were capable of this season and we were going for that national championship,” sophomore Trinity Thomas said. “We were doing so great and it was just really hard to comprehend.”
This was a team that seemed to be peaking at the right time. In its final two meets before the season was shut down, UF dominated No. 10 Georgia and No. 25 Penn State on the road. Against the Nittany Lions, the Gators had their second-highest point total of the season (198.10) and had two gymnasts – Thomas and senior Rachel Gowey – score a 10.
For the four seniors on the team – Gowey, Hundley, Sierra Alexander and Maegan Chant – their title hopes are over.
Their senior night was supposed to be a celebration, especially for Gowey and Alexander, who were arguably having the best seasons of their careers.
Gowey had scored a 10 just a week before and Alexander was setting new career highs on the vault.
“Last year, when we didn’t make nationals, it hurt but we were able to bounce back from it,” Gowey said. “But this one might take a little longer for me to feel closure.”
Hundley was quick to say her time with Florida gymnastics isn’t over quite yet.
“I’ll be here helping out on the coaching side,” she said. “I still have a little bit left, just in a different role.”
Despite losing those four seniors, UF is still expected to be a force to be reckoned with when play returns next spring. Thomas will return and look to build upon this season, where she won eight-straight SEC Gymnast of the Week awards. Freshman Payton Richards is also expected to improve from an already top-flight season.
In addition, four new faces will join the team – Riley McCusker, who is a member of the U.S. Senior National Team, Gabrielle Gallentine, Ellie Lazzari and Chloi Clark. The four of them — all who come in with impressive resumes — are expected to fill the void, meaning Florida’s depth should be just as impressive in 2021.
“The season ending this way has made me even more excited for next season,” Clapper said. “This coming year it’ll be a little bit different with new leaders coming in. Hopefully, though, we can transfer the team dynamics we had this year to next year.”