By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
Tonight represents several unique challenges for the Florida gymnastics team, beginning with – but not limited to – remaining undefeated.
For the only time in the 2020 regular season, the second-ranked Gators will face more than one opponent when they host No. 4 Denver and No. 18 Iowa State in a tri-meet at the O’Connell Center’s Exactech Arena beginning at 6:45 p.m. today.
This will be the first home event featuring at least three teams since 2012.
“I’m really looking forward to this Friday night,” UF coach Jenny Rowland said. “It’s going to be a little bit different for our Gator fans, but I think they’re thoroughly going to enjoy the atmosphere in the O-Dome. It’s a little faster pace, if you can believe that.
“You’re going to be seeing a lot of great gymnastics. It’s No. 2 against No. 4 and No. 18, so really it’s going to be a highly competitive evening.”
Florida is off to a 4-0 start, while Denver (9-1) is making national waves and Iowa State also is ranked.
“The tri-meet should be fun,” UF junior All-American Alyssa Baumann said. “It’s going to be similar to the SECs or nationals-type fields where everyone is going at the same time, so you just have to stay focused on your team and what your team is doing. It’s a big matchup and we’re looking forward to it.”
Freshman Payton Richards is happy to be back home for tonight’s meet as well.
“I think it will be great,” Richards noted. “We definitely bring our A game for all of these meets, and I think we build up each meet and get better. This one is going to be a great one, and it’s always good to have good competition because we push each other. It makes everyone better.”
The meet will feature two reigning gymnasts of the week: Florida sophomore All-American Trinity Thomas (SEC) and Denver senior All-American Maddie Karr (Big 12).
In addition, Denver’s head coach is former Gator gymnast Melissa Kutcher-Rhinehart (1989-92).
The returning members of the 2019 UF team remember last year’s NCAA Regionals in Corvallis, Oregon, all too well.
After finishing first in the semifinals despite having to make the cross-country trip, the Gators were one of four teams to advance to the region final.
But they ended up missing out on one of two berths to the NCAA Championships the next night, finishing third after having to count a fall.
The squad that was all smiles the night before was left with a mixture of tears and disbelief, missing the finals for just the second time while Denver advanced en route to a best-ever fourth-place finish. Host school Oregon State also advanced.
“It’s a little more personal for the Gators coming off last season,” Rowland noted. “Denver was one of the teams to qualify for the NCAA Championships, so the Gators have a little something to prove and a big house to protect. But they’re definitely ready for the challenge.”