Florida Gators gymnastics fights through highs and lows, punches ticket to NCAA Championships

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

While gymnastics is vastly different from many other sports, one of the common traits it shares with most any sport is the "next man up" mentality. Or, in this case, the "next woman up" mentality.

"We make sure that we're all working hard to be ready no matter what," said fifth-year standout Trinity Thomas ahead of Florida's trip to Pittsburgh for this weekend's NCAA Regional meet. "Because you never know what can happen and everybody has to be ready to step up and do their job."

In an unfortunate case of irony, Thomas was right − you never know what can happen.

For Thomas and the Gators, the unknown happened to be an injury to Thomas in the region semifinal on Friday. Thomas, who is the NCAA's reigning all-around champion, was sidelined Sunday night with a lower-leg injury as the Gators competed for a spot in the NCAA championships from Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center.

Sidelined:Trinity Thomas suffers lower leg injury at NCAA Regionals, Florida advances

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

Fortunately for Florida, its preparation paid off as Thomas' teammates appeared more than ready to step up and do their job.

"A lot of people put a lot of pressure on (Thomas)," Florida senior Payton Richards said. "And there was just never a doubt in our mind that we couldn't be successful today without here. And she has honestly instilled that in us."

The Gators posted a score of 197.800 and placed second in the region final behind California (198.075).

"We had highs, we had lows," Florida head coach Jenny Rowland said Sunday night. "At the end of the day, the Gators kept fighting, they kept taking their bites one bite at a time, one step at a time and had each other's backs."

And considering the top two teams from each region earn a spot in the championships, the dance will continue for Florida as it vies for the 2023 National Title.

Leanne Wong wins region's all-around title

In Thomas' absence, Florida sophomore Leanne Wong shouldered the load, posting wins on the uneven bars and balance beam.

Wong earned a pair of perfect 10s from two of the four judges on the uneven bars, while the other two judges gave her a 9.95, good for a total of 9.975. Wong beat out Arizona State's Sarah Clark (9.950) for the title.

At the balance beam, it was the same story for Wong as she collected two more perfect 10s, a 9.95 and a 9.90, all helping her finish with a 9.975. California's eMjae Frazier, who finished second in the all-around, placed second on the beam with a 9.950.

With Wong's all-around win, a Gator has won the all-around title in all 13 of Florida's meets this season.

Strong night on bars and beam makes up for struggles on floor

Midway through the meet, the Gators found themselves sitting nicely with a 0.275 lead after strong efforts on the uneven bars and the balance beam.

Florida had five gymnasts stick landings on the bars, helping the Gators post the top team score of 49.575, beating out California and Michigan State, which each posted scores of 49.525.

Meanwhile, with Wong leading the way, the Gators went a perfect 6-for-6 on the balance beam.

On the heels of Wong's event-winning 9.975 was Florida freshman Kayla DiCello, who posted a 9.95, which tied for second place with three California gymnasts. Meanwhile, Richards and sophomore Riley McCusker brought up the rear for the Gators with scores of 9.90.

Florida's strong performances on bars and beam paid off Sunday night as the Gators were hit with two out-of-bounds during their trip to the floor.

California's Frazier took home the floor title, while Wong was the top scoring Gator with a 9.925.

Florida set to make 39th NCAA Championships appearance

This year's NCAA Championships will be the 41st in history and the Gators are set to make their 39th appearance after their second-place finish Sunday night.

Florida joins California as the pair of teams to advance from the Pittsburgh regional. The Gators will hunt for their third national title and first since 2015 on April 13-15 in Fort Worth, Texas.

"We live to dance to the Great Eight, so looking forward to it and super grateful for two more weeks to be with this team," Rowland said.