David Whitley: Florida gymnasts finished the home season strong, but the real test awaits
Florida gymnastics coach Jenny Rowland preached one thing to her team Friday night. She just couldn’t bring herself to follow the edict.
Rowland wanted her athletes to keep their game faces on. It may have been Senior Night, but second-ranked Oklahoma wasn’t likely to get all choked up over the occasion.
But as four seniors finished their final routines, Rowland hugged them and fought a losing battle with tears each time.
“I told them, ‘Let’s not get emotional until the end. We’ve got a lot of gymnastics left,’” Rowland said. “But that’s just me.”
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Friday night fun at O'Connell Center
No harm done. The third-ranked Gators beat the Sooners 198.100-197.775 before a record crowd of 9,685 at the O’Connell Center. Neither of those results was all that surprising.
Florida was ranked No. 3, and anyone who follows the university’s teams knows a Friday night gymnastics meet is a pleasant, pulsating haven.
It’s all hugs and high-fives and positivity. There’s no underlying fire-the-coach or kill-the-ref drama. Maybe there’s a harumph when the NCAA version of the Russian judge doesn’t give a Gator a 10.0, but fans are G-rated to the point of applauding opponents.
With a perpetually winning program to cheer for, there’s no doubt Gainesville has become a gymnastics town. Fans know a good Yurchenko when they see one.
One thing has been missing lately, however.
The Sooners and Gators have combined to win six of the past nine NCAA championships. But Florida’s last trophy came in 2015, which was Rhonda Faehn’s last year as coach.
The seasons under Rowland have turned into familiar routines. They get off to impressive starts, have perfectly executed twists and turns, feature eyeball-popping aerials that have crowds anticipating another national championship banner hanging in the O’Dome rafters.
All that’s left is a strong finish. But a not-so-funny thing or two happens on the way to sticking the landing.
Last year, it was injuries. Trinity Thomas, who is a perfect 10.0 waiting to happen, sprained an ankle in early March. She and the team were never the same.
The year before, it was fate. Florida was unbeaten and on a redemption tour when COVID-19 canceled everything.
The Gators were seeking redemption for 2019, when they went wobbly on the beam and failed to qualify for the NCAA title meet for just the second time in 37 years.
Whether it’s bad luck, bad timing or bad Yurchenkos, Florida’s tumblers are in title drought. What would it mean to break it?
“Oh my gosh,” Thomas said.
Give the Gators a 10.0 for desire, but that’s always the case. This year, their approach is different.
A No. 1 recruiting class has made for the deepest roster Rowland’s ever had. She hasn’t had to use the same people in all four events in every meet. That’s allowed them to throttle back in practice.
“Breaking it back to basics,” Rowland said. “Keep tumbling soft and landing soft.”
Could UF have Trinity Thomas back next year?
That’s why Thomas wasn’t initially scheduled to compete in her favorite event Friday night. She’s the queen of the floor, with five 10.0s in her career.
It’s always the final event for the home team. Senior Night would have felt a little hollow if the queen hadn’t given one last performance. There was also the matter of Oklahoma trailing by only a few tenths of a point. Assistant coach Adrian Burde asked Thomas whether she needed to rest or felt like tumbling.
“I’m good,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one. Megan Skaggs and Alyssa Baumann had 9.90s, and Nya Reed threw down a 9.95. But the Sooners were rocking on the balance beam.
Thomas stepped onto the mat, and the world seemed to stop. I’d say it was a storybook ending, but it’s such a familiar story nobody at Exactech Arena could have been surprised when the score was posted.
Thanks for coming, Sooners. Please pick up your parting gifts at the door.
“It definitely felt special,” Thomas said. “Especially on Senior Night.”
Like Rowland, she couldn’t quite manage to keep her game face on until the end.
“I was like, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry!’” Thomas said, “and trying to blink the tears away.”
With an extra COVID year of eligibility, Thomas left the door open for returning next season. Friday night might not have been the last Gainesville will see of her, but it was definitely the last time this year.
Two more road meets await, then comes the postseason. Does this year’s run-up feel any different?
“Not necessarily different,” Thomas said. “But just every week, I can tell we’re getting a little bit better. I can tell we’re focusing on the details in the gym.”
Even with that, a crapshoot awaits. Every team is one awkward landing, one sprained ankle, a couple of bad Yurchenkos from having their dream derailed.
But if the final home appearance was any indication, Florida looks eminently capable of finally sticking the landing. Then nobody will be able to fight back the tears.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley