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Skeptics will really flip out if this Florida gymnastics team wins it all | Whitley

There were an unusual number of questions about Florida’s gymnastics team this year. The Gators just answered a lot of them.

As the O’Connell Center crowd cheered Sunday night, the team stuck the “Florida” nametag at the end of the big NCAA Regional bracket that was attached to a wall. UF had blown the mats out from underneath Utah, Missouri and Michigan State.

“It was a statement,” coach Jenny Rowland said. “It was a statement that the Gators are, you know, still around.”

Now they’ll still be around for the NCAA championship meet. It’s two weeks away in Fort Worth, which has become Heartbreak City for the Gators.

They’ve finished second to Oklahoma the past two years. Both losses were agonizingly close. A wobble here or there by a Sooner would have given Florida the crown.

There was also the Hold-Your-Breath injury drama over Trinity Thomas. Two of the past three years, she was injured leading up to Fort Worth. Thomas managed to get her 28th career perfect score on the vault, but her gimpy left leg would not cooperate for the other events.

We knew there would be life after Trinity for UF, but how good would it be? Not only was she gone, Kayla DiCello took the year off to train for the Olympics, as did uber-recruit Skye Blakely.

All that is why this qualified as a rebuilding year for Rowland. After finishing fourth at the SEC championship meet two weeks ago, the skepticism seemed justified.

At least until Sunday.

“The journey is different every year,” Rowland said. “And this year, it’s extremely sweet.”

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The Regional performance didn’t answer every question. Oklahoma is not rebuilding and will be a solid favorite to win its third straight title. But the Gators just might be onto something.

Instead of a superstar and a supporting cast, they come at you with top-to-bottom consistency. There were no 10s during the Regional final, but anything below 9.90 was rare on Florida’s scorecard.

Freshmen have evolved, most notably Anya Pilgrim. She tied for first in the all-around and seems totally at ease on the NCAA stage.

“Coaches had a feeling that Anya was going to be a superstar,” Rowland said. “She’s doing exactly what we expected her to do.”

The person who tied her for first place was senior Ellie Lazzari. She tore an Achilles tendon two years ago and recovered just well enough to be part of the Trinity supporting cast last season. Now she’s fully back with one meet to go.

“I feel so mentally and physically strong, more strong than ever in my entire gymnastics career,” Lazzari said. “And it's, it's really cool to see where I am right now.”

Victoria Nguyen and Leanne Wong were just .05 behind their teammates as Florida swept the top four spots in the all-around. The team score of 198.325 was the best of the year, and it was higher than Florida scored at the past two NCAA championship meets.

Florida Head Coach Jenny Rowland celebrates with her team after their performance Friday night. The Florida Gators competed in the NCAA Regionals at Exactech Arena at The Stephen C O'Connell Center in Gainesville, FL on Friday, April 5, 2024. Florida scored 197.250. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]
Florida Head Coach Jenny Rowland celebrates with her team after their performance Friday night. The Florida Gators competed in the NCAA Regionals at Exactech Arena at The Stephen C O'Connell Center in Gainesville, FL on Friday, April 5, 2024. Florida scored 197.250. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

All of which could amount to nothing when the Gators get to Fort Worth. Though unlike recent years, at least they won’t spend the next two weeks in suspense over the availability of a key performer.

When asked about that Sunday, Rowland just knocked on the wooden table she was sitting at. No need to jinx anything.

But she kind of likes that people think Florida will be lucky to stay on the mat with Oklahoma, not to mention higher-ranked LSU and Cal.

I like being the hunter,” Rowland said. “When somebody tells me I can’t do it or they’re skeptical I love to prove them wrong, and I know this team has that grit and fight in them as well.”

We’ll find out soon enough. If the Gators don’t go wobbly and Oklahoma does, this could go down a rebuilding year just might turn into an unforgettable one.

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

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Florida's gymnastics team has rebuilt for NCAA title run