Payton Richards

Payton Richards recorded a career-best 9.95 at Auburn last week.

If you were to ask any member of the Gators gymnastics team, they would tell you that every Friday night in the O’Connell Center is special.

There was one common theme that came out of the team this week, however.

This meet is not a normal meet, both in terms of the uniforms and the impact.

On Friday night, No. 2 Florida will host No. 8 Alabama at the O’Connell Center. The meet will kickoff at 5:45 p.m. and will be on the SEC Network. It is the only meet this weekend between two top-10 schools.

The difference in uniforms is the leotards the teams are wearing. Both schools will put aside their primary colors of orange and blue and crimson and white to wear pink.

This is the 14th annual “Link to Pink” event for the Gators. In last season’s event, UF defeated Auburn in dominating fashion (197.850-196.700).

“Link to Pink” aims to create awareness for breast cancer prevention and research, and it has a special place in the heart of many UF gymnasts and coaches.

“A lot of the girls have links to breast cancer,” senior Sierra Alexander said. “It means a lot to be able to go out and show off our skills in support of those brave women.”

It is especially personal for freshman Payton Richards, who has family members who have suffered from breast cancer.

“This meet, I am thinking about doing my best for my family and the others who are dealing with breast cancer,” she said.

But there is more that makes this meet different.

An SEC title is also on the line.

Heading into this weekend, the Gators (7-0, 5-0 SEC) are the only undefeated team in the SEC. Right behind them is the Crimson Tide (4-3-1, 3-1 SEC). A UF win tonight will clinch its second-consecutive SEC regular season title.

Florida only has one more conference meet after Alabama on Feb. 28 against Georgia.

The Gators are coming off their best road performance of 2020, putting up a road season-high (197.875) in their demolishing of Auburn. This tied Florida’s second-highest score of the season.

Sophomore Trinity Thomas scored her second 10 on the beam in as many weeks and racked up her fourth-straight SEC Gymnast of the Week honor. Richards set a new career-high in vault (9.95) and won her first vault title. In total, four gymnasts equaled or set new career highs.

The Tide are coming off a two-meet homestand that saw it beat then-No. 21 Missouri and then-No. 14 Arkansas. Its score against the Tigers (197.55) is a season high. Junior Lexi Graber’s all-around score (39.55) leads ’Bama’s all-arounders this season.

“Alabama is a tough competitor, always on their A game,” Rowland said. “We’ve got to go in and work hard and not take anything for granted.”

Follow Noah on Twitter @Noah_ram1 and contact him at [email protected].

Noah Ram is the gymnastics beat writer. He previously covered men's and women's tennis. He is a sophomore majoring in journalism and this is his third semester at The Alligator.