'No more, No different': Gators gymnastics isn't changing a thing heading to NCAA regional

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

Florida gymnastics' Trinity Thomas has had a special college career that sings to the tune of 27 Perfect 10s, three consecutive SEC Gymnast of the Year awards, an all-around national title and 32 All-American recognitions.

During much of that career, however, Thomas' family has had to watch from back home in York, Penn.

"My family often doesn't get to see me compete," Thomas said. "Florida is nowhere near Pennsylvania and I've got four younger siblings that they've gotta run all around."

On Friday night, as Thomas kickstarts her final collegiate postseason run, her family won't be watching on television. They will be in the stands.

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After a brilliant performance from the Gators in the SEC Championship meet on March 18, which saw Thomas notch a pair of Perfect 10s on uneven bars and floor, Florida moved back up to the No. 2 spot in the country, sending the Gators to the Pittsburgh regional.

When Thomas takes the floor of the Petersen Events Center Friday night, she'll bring with her a sizeable entourage. Thomas' pass list consists of around 30 names of family, friends and past teammates, she says.

"Before going into SECs, it wasn't like we we're going to go to Pittsburgh," Thomas said. "So to be able to move up into second again and get Pittsburgh as a regional, it feels like it was pretty much fate, huh?"

Gators looking to carry momentum, confidence from SECs into NCAAs

Florida's performance at the SEC meet was unlike anything anyone had ever seen − literally.

Paced by Thomas' two perfect marks, the Gators posted a meet score of 198.425, an SEC meet record. The record was held by the Georgia Bulldogs' 1997 score of 198.375.

"The team did absolutely incredible at SECs," Thomas said. "To see everything that we've been in here working hard on pay off out there was super special. I know that was definitely a confidence booster for a lot of my teammates and for myself as well."

Even after the countless accolades she's collected, Thomas struggles with confidence from time to time.

"Nobody is a machine," Florida head coach Jenny Rowland reminded.

Alongside Thomas, sophomores Leanne Wong and Sloane Blakely are also looking to ride the wave of success from SECs into the Iron City.

Wong and Blakely found spots on the all-SEC team last week after impressive seasons and event titles at the SEC meet. Wong successfully defended her balance beam title with a 9.975, while Blakely posted a 9.95 on the vault, good for a share of the title.

"We can do it," said Thomas when asked what Florida learned about itself at the SEC meet. "We've got it. We've got everything it takes and we just gotta keep focusing on the little details and just going out there and being us."

Nothing more, nothing different

Often, college coaches are tasked with figuring out how to get their teams to kick it up a notch in the postseason, where the competition is stronger and the stakes are higher.

But that isn't the case for Rowland and the Gators' staff.

"We try as a staff and as a team to filter each meet and make it just like any other competition," Rowland said. "Postseason is no more important than a regular season meet and just attacking it like we would normally approach a competition.

That being said, it's not a normal competition. It's win or go home.

The second-ranked Gators have been paired with No. 15 Arizona State, No. 24 Maryland and either Towson or Penn State, depending on who wins the region's opener Thursday.

Rowland admitted she'd be lying if she said she didn't expect the trajectory of her team to be what it is heading into the postseason. However, in her eighth season as the Gators' head coach, she also knows that despite the odds of Florida advancing in the NCAA Championships, this weekend's opportunity shouldn't be taken for granted.

"We go in, we prepare to the best of our ability and we go in and compete," Rowland said. "We do what we've done all year long. No more, no different ... We don't need anything more than what they do on a day-to-day basis in the gym."

What is it about this team?

Looking back to the ever-seasoned Thomas, she's been a part of wildly successful and special teams during her time in Gainesville.

In her five seasons at Florida, Thomas has played a hand in winning five regular season SEC Championships and a pair of NCAA Region Championships.

And as good as Thomas is, those aren't won on her own.

"This is cliché, but there's no 'I' in team," Thomas said. "One person can't win a national championship. It takes everybody. It takes a village. ... We know we're only as strong as our weakest link."

For some on Florida's roster, this will be their first run at NCAAs.

For example, this year has been nothing but "firsts" for freshman Kayla DiCello, who brought home the SEC's Freshman of the Year award last week after finishing as the top-finishing freshman at the SEC Championships with an all-around score of 39.60.

DiCello notched a pair of 9.95 efforts on the balance beam and floor exercise − both good for shares of second place.

Florida will need more of that from DiCello as the Gators chase a national title. Fortunately for the Gators, DiCello has quite the veteran to lean on as she takes on NCAAs for the first time in her career.

"Trinity is a great leader in and out of the gym for all the Gators and is especially a great leader and great mentor for Kayla," Rowland said. "Kayla, I think, is good for Trinity as well. She's very light and free. Sometimes Trinity gets a little serious at times, so it's really good to see those two come together and balance each other out."

Given the talent Thomas has been surrounded by since stepping foot on Florida's campus, it's hard to isolate why this team might be different and be the one to hang the first national championship banner in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center since 2015.

But for Thomas, finding that difference is no trouble at all.

"This is the most passionate and determined team I've ever been on," Thomas said. "I feel like everybody this year is working so hard towards out common goal. Everybody's rowing in the same direction and that makes it so much easier to work towards our goal."

But wait, what about that Perfect 10 record?

As most know by now, Thomas is on the cusp of history as she sits with 27 perfect 10s. One more would tie the record, which is held by UCLA's Jamie Dantzscher and Kentucky's Jenny Hansen.

But the talk all year has been whether or not Thomas has a shot at breaking the record − at least that's the outside buzz.

Within the program, the Gators don't talk about the record, Rowland says.

And up until recently, it wasn't something on Thomas' radar, either.

"I know where I am now because it's everywhere," Thomas said. "It's something I'm not really focused on, honestly. I have three more weeks of gymnastics here, so I'm just trying to take it all in. I'm more focused on having fun with my team and working hard towards our common goal of winning a national championship."