No. 2 Gators open season on the road

FILE - Florida head coach Jenny Rowland hugs gymnast Alex McMurtry after her performance on the floor during the NCAA Gymnastics Regional. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

By Jim Harvin

Year 3 of the Jenny Rowland era begins tonight at 7 when the No. 2 Florida gymnastics team faces West Virginia in Morgantown in the season opener for both squads.

Since taking over for former coach Rhonda Faehn, who led UF to three straight NCAA titles from 2013-15, Rowland has guided the Gators to fourth- and third-place national finishes, respectively, and her 2018 squad has the talent and depth to win it all.

They must be patient, however, as NCAAs are not until April.

“They were hungry day one after nationals,” Rowland said. “We relayed that message to everybody on the team, including the incoming freshmen, which really showed the leadership of this team.”

Two-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma, which visits UF on Jan. 26, tops the preseason poll, followed in order by Florida, Louisiana State and Alabama, with Utah rounding out the top five.

Senior standouts Alex McMurtry and Kennedy Baker lead the way for the Gators’ 14-member roster.

McMurtry, from Midlothian, Va., is coming off an outstanding junior season in which she became the first UF gymnast to record perfect marks of 10 in three of the four all-around events (vault, floor exercise and uneven bars) en route to being named the 2017 SEC Gymnast of the Year and winning the 2017 Honda Award as the nation’s top collegiate gymnast.

A 15-time All-American (10 NCAA, 5 NACGC), McMurtry leads UF with 24 event titles (nine bars, four each vault, beam and floor, three all-around), capped by winning the NCAA all-around title with a personal-record score of 39.8125 last season while also sharing the NCAA uneven bars crown.

“When I came in as a freshman, I thought the senior class was so much older and so much more mature,” McMurtry said. “It’s great to think that’s our class now.”

Baker, an 11-time All-American (6 NCAA, 5 NACGC), won eight event titles (six floor exercise, two all-around) last season despite suffering an ankle injury that limited her to bars and beam for much of February. The Dallas standout has two 10s on floor and shared UF’s MVP award with McMurtry.

Junior Alicia Boren, an eight-time All-American (3 NCAA, 5 NACGC) from Franklin Lakes, N.J., also returns after winning 13 event titles and competing as an all-arounder in every meet last season.

Also returning are All-Americans Rachel Slocum, a senior from Holly Springs, N.C., and sophomore Amelia Hundley from Hamilton, Ohio.

Hundley won six events (four bars, two all-around) as a freshman and garnered three All-American honors (1 NCAA, 2 NACGC), earning UF’s “Most Consistent” award for hitting all 55 of her routines.

Other returnees include senior Grace McLaughlin from Allen, Texas; junior Amanda Cheney from Orlando; and sophomores Rachel Gowey from Urbandale, Ia.; Maegan Chant from Waterdown, Ontario; and Sierra Alexander from Fort Lauderdale.

In addition, freshmen Alyssa Bauman (Dallas), Jazmyn Foberg (Bayville, NJ), Megan Skaggs (Marietta, Ga.), and Nicole Webb (Morrisville, N.C.) comprise the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.

“The seniors have done a great job of mentoring them and showing them the Florida way,” Rowland said. “They came in, their skills were ready and they were prepared, which made everybody else in turn step up their game.”

Rowland will once again be aided by assistant coaches Adrian Burde and Owen Field and volunteer assistant Jeremy Miranda, while Vanasia Bradley will serve as student coach.

Florida’s first home meet will be against No. 3 LSU next Friday at 6:45 p.m. in the O’Connell Center.