No. 1 Florida gymnasts open SEC play against No. 11 Alabama

Graham Hall
Special to
Florida gymnast Sloane Blakely performs on the floor exercise during the opening meet of the year in Gainesville earlier this month.

The daunting SEC slate has arrived for the league’s top teams.

The No. 1-ranked Florida gymnastics program opens SEC play Sunday at 2:45 p.m. in a nationally televised meet against the other conference champion from last season: No. 11-ranked Alabama. 

The Gators claimed their third SEC regular season title in as many years in 2021, while the Crimson Tide emerged victorious at the SEC Championship meet following the regular season. 

Florida lived up to the preseason hype in the season-opener, a quad meet victory over Northern Illinois, Texas Women’s University and Rutgers that saw UF post a season-opening best mark of 197.675 in front of an announced Exactech Arena crowd of 8,219. 

The roster is brimming with talent, largely as a result of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Back in the fold are seniors Trinity Thomas, Leah Clapper, Nya Reed, Savannah Schoenherr, and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, while the Gators also return two players who exercised their fifth year of eligibility in Alyssa Baumann and Megan Skaggs. 

And, for what seems like an annual tradition at this point under Florida coach Jenny Rowland, the Gators signed the top class in the nation according to It’s the program’s eighth No. 1-ranked signing class since the 2010 season; UF’s group of new arrivals was ranked No. 2 the other two times.

Four of the five signees – Sloane Blakely, Morgan Hurd, Riley McCusker and Leanne Wong – participated on U.S. Senior National Teams, with all except Blakely having captured World Championship medals prior to taking their talents to Gainesville. 

That impressive list has already taken a hit as Hurd announced earlier this week on her Twitter page that won’t be able to participate this season after having surgery to repair a torn ACL she unknowingly suffered in the months prior to her arrival. 

“She’s doing well. She’ll be back in the gym today. Really excited to see her with the team,” Rowland said of Hurd. “I know everybody was excited – I know she was excited, I know we were excited. And then just taking a moment and thinking about it, and it’s going to be a great first year for her next year, and that’s OK. Just really grateful and thankful that she’s here, she’s with us and able to provide her wisdom, her joy, her excitement and passion for gymnastics with our team, and I know that’s going to shine through the team."

Of the available freshmen, it was Blakely who impressed the most in the debut. She claimed the all-around with a 39.45, becoming the first freshman to win the all-around in her debut since Kytra Hunter did so against North Carolina State in the 2012 season-opener. Blakely now heads into her SEC debut as the only freshman to begin conference play as the SEC Gymnast of the Week since the award started in 2000. 

“She just has been a solid force in the gym. Very consistent, comes into the gym prepared, ready to go, and you know what you’re going to get,” Rowland said of Blakely. “Having followed her throughout her high school career, she’s a gamer and loves to compete. I was hoping that was going to be the case for the Gators, but really she exceeded the expectations we were looking for her out of this first meet.”

Though there’s plenty of reason to believe the Gators will once again vie for a national championship, the season’s still in its infancy and UF can’t look ahead – the focus has to be on improving, which continues against the Crimson Tide. 

“I think this is huge, to have a regular season meet on ABC is going to be so great for the sport of gymnastics, and just to have that representation and have a women’s sport on national television like that,” Schoenherr said. “I think it’s so great to be using our platforms, and especially to have that meet as Equality Night as well, to represent something greater than gymnastics, to have that and to have this platform is such an honor and such a really great opportunity.”

Who: No. 11 Alabama at No. 2 Florida

When: 2:45 p.m. Sunday