Short-handed Gators step up sans Thomas, coach Rowland in defeating No. 15 Kentucky, 197.500–196.875

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida gymnast Leah Clapper competes on the beam where she scored a perfect 10 in the meet against Kentucky at Exactech Arena on Friday.

Short-handed on the night and missing several coaches, including head coach Jenny Rowland, the No. 1-ranked Gators gymnastics team may have been down, but they were anything but out. 

With juniors Nya Reed, Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, Savannah Schoenherr and star Trinity Thomas all sidelined due to a combination of COVID-19 positive tests and subsequent quarantining of individuals, Florida called on a combination of critical contributors and underclassmen on the rise in Friday’s 197.500–196.875 victory over No. 15-ranked Kentucky in the Link to Pink meet. 

From Alyssa Baumann’s all-around title in her all-around debut, Leah Clapper’s first-career 10 on beam, the list of notable accomplishments left Rowland, forced to watch at home from her couch after finding out earlier in the day she’d have to miss the meet, overcome with emotion. 

“I couldn’t be more proud. It just says a lot about this team’s character and perseverance, and what they’ve been doing day-in and day-out of the gym,” Rowland said, joking that watching from home “was miserable”. “It was so much more nerve-wracking, I don’t know why. I’m not nervous in a meet and I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t have the confidence in them, it was just so different. I was yelling, I was screaming.” 

Nothing different than what she’d have been doing on the floor of Exactech Arena. 

The Gators opened with a 49.125 on vault, which saw junior Halley Taylor’s collegiate debut in the event; she would score a 9.675 to help Florida take the lead after the first rotation. Freshman Ellie Lazzari would lead all gymnasts with a 9.875 in the event. 

Megan Skaggs’ 9.925 led UF on the second rotation, uneven parallel bars, before Clapper’s impressive beam performance in the third rotation.

“We knew what we had to do, and we just wanted to keep fighting and do our best, because that’s all we can do,” an overjoyed yet humble Clapper said. “We were confident we’d go out there, have fun and have a great meet.”

Despite missing several key contributors, UF scored higher on beam against the Wildcats than the Gators did last week at LSU when they totaled the nation’s highest score.

Immediately after her dismount and before Clapper’s score had been revealed, the socially distanced crowd repeatedly chanted “10”, perhaps aware of what they’d just seen. 

“Really just pure joy watching her do beam. Just her smile, her calmness, her ownership. You can just tell she was ready and she was going to attack it,’ a choked up Rowland said of Clapper. “Well-deserved, very well-deserved. And she gets to be on the 10.0-wall now.”

The Gators weren’t done yet when it came to impressing — and making their head coach even more emotional in the process. 

The senior Baumann, who overcame an elbow injury prior to enrolling at UF, hadn’t competed in the all-around during her time in Gainesville. 

On top of that, it had been exactly 1,699 days since she’d competed on bars. 

Baumann showed no signs of rust or nerves, tying her career-high on bars with a 9.925 and capping off UF’s floor routine with a 9.950 en route to the all-around title. 

Unlike her head coach, she was feeling the weight of the moment and had to hide her emotions on the floor. 

“I was definitely nervous going into today, and I knew there were some people out that you just can’t fill those shoes but we were going to have to do the best we could, so that’s all I was going to do,” Baumann said. “I trained for these events, and just because I haven’t competed them doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready. I knew my coaches believed in me, and I got a lot of texts from my teammates saying that they believed in me and they knew I was ready, so I just needed to believe in myself.”

Still undefeated, having now weathered the best outside of the building along with the circumstances of the pandemic, the Gators will look to keep things going when they host Auburn in the home finale Feb. 26 at 8:15 p.m.

The meet will also serve as Senior Night for Baumann, Jazmyn Foberg and Megan Skaggs. 

“I think that’s why half of my make-up is gone,” Rowland said of Baumann’s night. “She’s so very detail-oriented, but just getting her into a position to be successful and have that success, I’m so happy that it paid off and she was able to reap all those benefits tonight. I just wish I was there to give her a big hug. It’s just her and Leah and the entire team, that’s what I missed most tonight.”