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No. 4 Gators enter NCAA Regionals hoping best is yet to come

GAINESVILLE — Another close call to Oklahoma and the end of the Trinity Thomas era capped Florida’s 2023 season in gymnastics.

A program reset was inevitable. A massive overhaul was possible.

Instead, coach Jenny Rowland’s squad beat the odds and remained elite.

“It’s been very fulfilling to see this team go from point A to to where we are today,” she said.

The next step will be the hardest.

Florida is no shoo-in to advance to the NCAA Championships April 18-20 in Ft. Worth, Texas, despite missing out just twice (2000, ’19) in the event’s 41-year history. During this weekend’s Gainesville Regional, the No. 4 Gators will need one of their better efforts to secure one of two spots among nine teams, including No. 5 Utah, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 13 Missouri and No. 20 Georgia.

“You have to be on your A game,” Rowland said. “For this competition usually it’s not your A-plus game. It’s go and hit and who can hit the best. The Gators have consistently done that all season long, so not expecting anything less.”

At their best, the Gators scored a season-high 198.1 points to beat No. 3 LSU on Feb. 23 in Gainesville. A week later, UF bettered the performance with a 198.225 at No. 6 Kentucky to edge the Wildcats by .125.

But a disappointing fourth-place finish during the star-studded SEC Championships, behind LSU, Kentucky and No. 7 Alabama, highlighted the sport’s razor-thin margin for error and Florida’s abundance of youth.

“How you respond and move forward … separate the great teams from the good teams?” Rowland said. “There were some mistakes. They weren’t big mistakes, but something that I don’t always mind because it makes you a little hungry.

“This team definitely came back ready for some more.”

The have the pieces in place to make another postseason run.

Veteran Leanne Wong, who tied for fourth in the SEC’s all-around competition, is the Gators’ anchor; 2022 Georgia transfer Victoria Nguyen, who tied for sixth, has proved to be another veteran presence; and Anya Pilgrim, who tied for eighth, headlines a freshman class featuring six newcomers.

Sloane Blakely, a junior who finished 12th all-around, rounds out a quartet capable of producing a score to reach the NCAAs Super Six for fourth straight year and possibly challenge for Oklahoma for UF’s first team title since its three-peat (2013-15).

The Sooners nipped the Gators at the wire by .125 points in 2022 and .150 in ’23, when Thomas suffered a leg injury during the regional meet that limited her to the vault and uneven bars a season after she won the NCAA’s all-around title.

The end of Thomas’ college career and freshman phenom Kayla DiCello’s departure to focus on training for the Olympics left Rowland facing a rebuild.

But Nguyen’s development and Pilgrim’s season-long evolution have solidly filled the gaps.

A specialist in the uneven bars and balance beam at Georgia, Nguyen has become a top all-around performer primarily because of her strides in the vault. Meanwhile, Pilgrim has become a force, highlighted by a perfect 10 during the floor exercise at Kentucky.

“It’s been so fun to watch Anya compete,” Nguyen said. “Every week, she just seems to have this aura that glows even brighter. You can tell that she puts in the work in the gym.”

The Gators hope their hard work produces results at the right time. If nothing else, the 2024 season has shown the strength, resilience and staying power of Rowland’s program.

“I know a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, this is the rebuilding year,'” Nguyen said. “But it doesn’t have to be rebuilding year. The girls have shown that.

“I’m excited to see where we can go from here.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com