Florida gymnastics: Seniors go out in style, help Gators top Kentucky for 5th straight SEC title

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun

Another Senior Night, another win, another sellout, another SEC championship and another night of choking back tears.

Some things never get old for Florida’s gymnastics team.

The Gators beat Kentucky 198.150 to 197.575 Friday night in the last home appearance for six seniors. The night wasn’t quite perfect, thanks to Judge No. 2. But it was a fitting finale for one of the most accomplished group of seniors in UF athletic history.

“I’m so emotional because I’ve loved every second of my time here,” Trinity Thomas said.

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Florida’s gymnastics fans have loved every second, as well. That’s why 9,298 showed up at the O’Connell Center, a turnout that clinched the record for highest average attendance in a season.

On the list of accomplishments, that probably came in second place Friday. The topper would be winning a fifth straight SEC regular-season championship.

“It blows my mind,” UF coach Jenny Rowland said. “I don't think (the gymnasts) quite understand what it means. But the coaching staff most definitely does.”

Payton Richards, shown during the meet against Missouri on Feb. 10, noticed a certain head football coach sitting in the stands during her floor routine on Friday night.

Florida football coach Billy Napier watches UF gymnastics

One coach who undoubtedly does is Billy Napier, who was sitting in the front row with his daughter, Annie. Payton Richards couldn’t help noticing the Gators head football coach during her floor routine.

“After my first pass, I made eye contact with Billy Napier, and he was smiling so big, and it made me smile,” she said. “I think he was enjoying himself, so that made me feel special.”

By that final event, No. 2 Florida had pretty much clinched the win over the 12th-ranked Wildcats. The Gators pulled away with a 49.80 on the uneven bars.

That set a school record for best score in any event and was the highest single-event score in the nation this year. As high as the score was, the crowd felt the Gators were robbed.

Thomas, Leanne Wong and Riley McCusker all got 10.0 scores from Judge No. 1. But Judge No. 2 gave McCusker a 9.90, Wong a 9.95 and Thomas a 9.95.

Boos rained down when those scores were posted. The Gators were decidedly more diplomatic when asked about the scores.

“There were some darned good routines tonight,” Rowland said.

Did Thomas think she deserved a 10.0?

“It was close,” she said.

It would have been her 26th perfect score and moved her within two of tying the NCAA record. But there are still two regular-season meets remaining, and the postseason will run through mid-April.

There’s plenty of time left to strive for perfection. But for Thomas, Richards, Rachel Baumann, Halley Taylor, Leah Clapper and Savannah Schoenherr, there won’t be any more Friday nights at the O’Connell Center.

The memories they made there will never get old.

“Gator Nation just one-ups itself every single year. It's incredible,” Thomas said. “I just think it goes to show how the legacy just keeps on building and keeps on getting greater, and it’s amazing.”