Carter's Corner: If You Haven't Heard, Gators Still Around - Florida Gators (2024)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Hold your horses, folks.

The Florida gymnastics team is returning to Fort Worth, Texas, for the NCAA Championships. Outside Dickies Arena, where the finals will be held April 18 and 20, you can hit the Fort Worth Show Barns and Will Rogers Auditorium with a hearty cow-chip toss.

The Gators are making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships and struck oil with a dazzling performance on Sunday at the O'Dome. Florida's season-high score of 198.325 opened eyes and ranks second only to two-time reigning national champion Oklahoma (198.400) among the eight regional champions to advance.

"It was a statement that the Gators are still around,'' UF coach Jenny Rowland said.

Yes, they are.

The Gators were considered the favorite to win the NCAA Gainesville Regional, but not many projected them to soar as high as they did following a lackluster performance at the SEC Championships last month in New Orleans. Florida placed fourth, the first time since 2005 that a UF team was left looking up at that many teams at the conference finals.

If you listened closely enough, you could hear the wait-'til-next-year crowd.

"I know there were some skeptics out there,'' Rowland said.

They arrived home knowing that for the first time since 2017, they would sleep in their own beds during the regional meet. They would also be in their home arena, undoubtedly a bonus the first weekend of April.

They had sweet dreams when it was over.

"Progress can't always be linear,'' said freshman Anya Pilgrim. "There will be ups, and there will be downs. We obviously came back from that."

Carter's Corner: If You Haven't Heard, Gators Still Around - Florida Gators (1)

And they started the comeback, of all places, on beam. Rowland opted for the Gators to start on beam at the SEC Championships after the coaching staff reviewed the regional format and had a hunch the Gators might draw a beam start at some point. The move didn't pay off in New Orleans, but Rowland looked like a genius on Sunday evening at the O'Dome.

Florida opened with a 49.600 on beam, highlighted by a 9.950 from anchor Ellie Lazzari. The meet was far from finished, but the Gators put up one strong score after another, including a 49.575 on vault and 49.650 on floor.

"After routine No. 1, there was no doubt in my mind,'' Rowland said. "This staff knew this team was prepared. Everyone was extremely present, calm and collected."

Lazzari shared the all-around title with Pilgrim, Leanne Wong nailed a 9.950 on floor, Skylar Draser scored 9.925 on vault, Sloane Blakely and Victoria Nguyen each posted 9.925 scores on beam, and Danie Ferris pulled off a 9.925 on floor right before Wong's closing routine.

In less than two hours, the Gators went from longshots to perhaps something more when they leave for Texas next week. Oklahoma is the distinct favorite to win a third consecutive national title — the Sooners edged the Gators the past two seasons — and has claimed six of the last nine national titles since sharing the 2014 crown with Florida.

Oklahoma won the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Regional and earlier this season, set an NCAA record with a score of 198.950 to win the Big 12 Championship last month. Meanwhile, Utah, Stanford, Cal, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas round out the field.

The Gators, in their first season since 2018 without former star Trinity Thomas, have slowly built toward this time of year. When it appeared the Gators took a step back at the SECs, they took a giant leap forward in the regional.

"We just knew we had to keep going,'' Lazzari said. "This team continues to wow me. People keep stepping up when the team needs them. I'm so excited about what's to come."

So is Rowland.

The Gators turned in their best performance in the season's biggest test to date. The next exam will be even more difficult. They won't be sleeping in familiar beds like at the regional, but that doesn't mean they still can't dream big.

And unlike the past two seasons with Thomas and Co., the Gators won't be the headliners in Fort Worth.

"Proud of this team that we get to keep dancing,'' Rowland said. "I like being the hunter. When somebody tells me I can't do it, or they're skeptical, I love to prove them wrong. I know this team has a lot of that grit and fight in them, as well.

"We have a team that may not have looked like it was going to look like. We've had so many young women step up and just put their heart out there and compete for the Gators. I can't ask anything more than that."

Hold your horses, folks. The Gators are still around.

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Carter's Corner: If You Haven't Heard, Gators Still Around - Florida Gators (2024)


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