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'Unfinished business': Is this the year Florida gymnastics ends its title drought?

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun

A lot of coaches like to downplay expectations. Jenny Rowland isn’t even going to try.

“This team is ready to rock and roll,” she said.

If Florida’s gymnastics team were a rock band, it would resemble the all-star ensembles that perform at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Only instead of Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards playing guitar, it would be Morgan Hurd and Leanne Wong.

Ellie Lazzari might take Dave Grohl’s seat behind the drum kit. Kayla DiCello could be the hot new bass player. There’d be a stage full of vocalists. And playing the part of a resurrected Elvis would be Trinity Thomas.

Okay, when the image of Elvis in a leotard might materialize, it’s time to end the analogy. But there is no doubt the Gators have the stars.

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“How good can this team be?” Rowland said. “This team can be unbelievable.”

We should start getting glimpses Friday night at the O’Connell Center. The Gators begin their season with a quad meet against West Virginia, Ball State and Lindenwood.

It’s basically a sound check before the real shows begin. Florida will begin a four-month tour that will culminate at the NCAA Championship meet in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth. When it comes to UF gymnastics, those two words inevitably evoke two more words.

“Unfinished business,” senior Savannah Schoenherr said.

Florida lost by 0.125 of a point to Oklahoma for 2022 national title

The Gators were favored to win last year’s title but lost by 0.125 of a point to Oklahoma. It was pretty much a replay of the last half-dozen or so postseason gigs.

Florida’s had the stars, but injuries or wobbles popped up at just the wrong moments. Other teams performed better. A dog ate someone’s balance beam homework.

Whatever the reason, it’s been eight years since the Gators won the NCAA team title. Since it had won three in a row before, that adds up to a lot of unfinished business.

“It’s in the back and the front of our minds,” Schoenherr said. “I think after the end of our season last year, it really motivated us and fueled our fire a little bit more than in years past.”

Trinity Thomas, Leanne Wong and Morgan Hurd highlight star-studded roster

UF’s roster is a convergence of recruiting, COVID extra eligibility years, NIL and the sport’s evolution. Top gymnasts used to shun college to compete internationally, and they often retired before they were old enough to drink.

Advances in training and coaching are now extending careers.  More Olympic-level talent is competing in college. Wong’s a sophomore who was on the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the 2022 World Championship.

Apr 16, 2022; Fort Worth, TX, USA; University of Florida gymnast Leanne Wong performs on vault during the finals of the 2022 NCAA women's gymnastics championship at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DiCello’s a freshman who was an alternate on the 2020 Olympic team. Hurd won the 2017 World Championship all-around title when she was 16. She enrolled at UF last year but tore an ACL and missed the 2022 season.

“Morgan Hurd is ready,” Rowland said. “She’s been waiting for this moment for several years now.”

Thomas won the Honda Award as the nation’s top gymnast last year. She’s accomplished just about everything a gymnast can in college. But with an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, she decided to return and keep working toward the 2024 Olympics.

If she finally wins an NCAA team title along the way, all the better.

“Trinity just needs to be Trinity,” Rowland said.

Gator gymnasts start season ranked No. 2 behind Oklahoma

Despite the hype, the Gators are ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll behind Oklahoma. SEC rivals Auburn, LSU and Alabama are in the top seven.

Winning the NCAA championship will take more than talent, though it’s a good place to start. The Gators have more depth than years past.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Rowland said. “And our weaker links, per se, have been pushing the envelope.”

What you might see Friday night is not what you’ll get in April. Rowland will dabble with a lot of lineups between now and Fort Worth.

The goal is to stay healthy and peak at the right time. If all those stars finally align, this should be the year Florida finally finishes its business.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley