Winning. That basically sums up the recent history of Florida gymnastics. Being good. Done. For the first decade of the Rhonda Faehn era, Florida was the almost team. An extremely talented group that became sort of the cool, alternative pick to win a championship because they weren't one of the usual members of the big four. Then they would finish 4th every year. But following the beam-disaster-that-shall-not-be-named that was the 2011 postseason, Florida finally managed to emerge from the shadow of always finishing 4th. In 2012, they improved to a close 2nd after a heartbreaking and vaguely controversial final, and then, of course, followed that up with back-to-back titles the next two seasons.
After Suzanne retired and the Georgia dynasty ended, a few coaches talked about how there would never be another dynasty in college gymnastics because the talent is so spread out now and the level of coaching is so high. That is false. There will still be dynasties, and judging by Florida's roster this year and in the years to come, the Gators are a pretty good bet to do it. It's far, far from a guarantee (this isn't another 2013 where Florida can count a fall and still win), but Florida remains the safest pick to win the championship in 2015.
The biggest challenge for Florida this year is the quality of routines they'll have to replace from last year's team. They haven't lost a colossal number of routines (it's not an Alabama or Michigan situation), but the significance of the departed routines from Alaina Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto puts the Gators in the position of needing a bit more from their freshmen than other teams will. Florida has more new 9.9s to find than either Oklahoma or LSU do, but the freshman class of Kennedy Baker, Alex McMurtry, Ericha Fassbender, and Grace McLaughlin should be able to manage it. There's a hefty number of 9.9s in that group, enough to expect that Florida can stay on the same scoring track as last year, especially with the returning bag of 10s that Bridget Sloan and Kytra Hunter will bring with them in the all-around.
Early in the season, keep an eye on bars and beam. Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto contributed their most essential routines on those events, but the incoming class as a whole leans a little bit more to the power side. If they can find a way to effectively replace (or even near-replace) those bars scores in addition to beefing up the power events with new 9.9s, they'll have the kind of advantage that wins titles.
Returning lineup — Bridget Sloan (9.950), Kytra Hunter (9.945), Rachel Spicer (9.850), Bridgette Caquatto (9.845)
When we talk about the top teams, "weak event" is a relative term, but vault was the Gators' lowest-ranking event last season (at #5 in the nation). On vault, they were more likely to get a 49.400 instead of a 49.600. It took a while for the landings in the first three positions to come into line (a lot of big bounces for 9.800s), which meant that much of the scoring onus was placed on Sloan and Hunter to get 9.950s rather than having it spread out across the whole lineup. With Oklahoma improving on vault this season, it's critical that Florida do the same.
Both Caquatto the Elder and Johnson contributed vital scores around 9.850-9.900 depending on the control of the landing, but with Baker and McMurtry presumably slotting directly into those vacated spots in the lineup, Florida has reason to expect a net vault gain this season. McMurtry has the makings of a vault star who can rival the best on this team and the best in the country, and Baker brings the comfortable power that comes from having a very competitive DTY as an elite, but without quite the same history of shattered ankles as, say, Mackenzie Caquatto. Of course, leading the way will be Kytra Hunter with her 10-able, gigantic 1.5 and Bridget Sloan with her 9.950-able, similarly gigantic full. Those four exceptionally strong vaulters will keep Florida competitive with the top vaulting teams and should push them toward 49.5s.
The one remaining question about Florida's vaulting is whether they can get the same quality from the other two spots in the lineup. Bridgey Caquatto should be there, though she was among those who had a tendency to bounce for 9.800 last year. A few more sticks or tiny .050 steps would be a big help. The Gators will also have options from Rachel Spicer, Kiersten Wang coming back from injury, and perhaps more of the freshmen, but keep an eye on those early routine scores because those are often the real difference when every team can anchor with 9.950s.
Returning lineup — Bridget Sloan (9.935), Bridgette Caquatto (9.890), Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto (9.875), Kytra Hunter (9.860)
Bars would, at first glance, seem to be a worry for Florida. Worrying is what usually happens when a lineup's 5th and 6th workers who posted RQSs of 9.920 and 9.925 both graduate at the same time, but in this case, Florida retains enough exceptional bars routines to consider this event a strength still. There's work to be done to replace those lost scores, but in a 2015 landscape where many of the top teams have lost their best bars workers, retaining Bridget Sloan and Bridgey Caquatto keeps Florida in a pretty comfortable position. Those two can step into the late-lineup positions and keep the 9.925-9.950s coming. Despite losing Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto (I don't think I can describe how happy I am that I will no longer have to remember to add a clarifying first name/initial to Caquatto in live blogs this season (sub-parentheses: I originally wrote "love blogs" instead of "live blogs," like I'm writing love blogs about the Caquattos, and now I can't stop laughing)), the Gators still rank 2nd in the nation in returning bars scores, behind only Georgia. We may see fewer 49.6s from Florida this year, but 49.5s once again seem attainable.
In addition to Sloan and Caquatto, who will be having regular meetings of the "Our Name Is Bridget(te) and We Perform Rays" Club (it's a super fun club), Dancose-Giambattisto has carved out a sure place for herself in the lineup and will receive a 9.850 or a 9.900 depending on how many judges can see her leg separation on the DLO. Hunter will also return, though she tended to be a little more 9.850 last year than she was in 2013, and a return to those sophomore 9.9s wouldn't be a problem. Kennedy Baker has huge releases and should be a major player on bars, as well as everywhere. She's the best new nominee to make up the lost 9.9s and give Florida the same boost that Dowell will give Oklahoma by saying, "Any tkatchev variations you can do, I can do similarly."
I'm also personally holding out hope that Kiersten Wang finally makes a bars lineup because she's always been either the 7th-best bars worker or injured. She's certainly good enough to be in there with the rest of them. But there will be other options on bars as well. I haven't yet mentioned Grace McLaughlin, and bars seems her most likely area to contribute.
Returning lineup — Bridget Sloan (9.950), Claire Boyce (9.880), Kytra Hunter (9.865), Rachel Spicer (9.830)
Florida was a strong beam team last season, finishing the year ranked #1 tied (foreshadowing!) with the much more heralded Oklahoma beam lineup. Beam is always a scary experience, but the Gators were among the more consistent teams (they, along with LSU, did not count a beam score below 49 all season), though there were a few prominent issues when Kytra struggled with consistency for a while and when Bridget Sloan had that weird mini-collapse for a couple meets in the postseason. Still, for the most part they hit consistently, especially once Kytra's routine was reconstructed. I hope the punch front mount does come back into her set this year because it makes the routine special and interesting. On the other hand, the team will be more dependent on a big score from her this season, which means safety and reliability may trump interesting.
Sloan will lead the way with her usual 10 potential, but I'm also excited about what Kennedy Baker can do. She possesses comfortably executed acro elements with true lift, and as much as I loathe wolf turns, hers is a signature skill that makes the routine memorable. Florida has enough beam options to feel safe this season (including potential contribution from all the freshmen), but they will need to develop a couple more consistent 9.9s to help Sloan out if beam is going to reach the level of the other events. As of now, they have more likely 9.9s on the other events. Beam can't be sitting down in the 49.3s after a couple early 9.825s given what Oklahoma and LSU are bringing this year.
Baker can, and must, be one of those 9.9s. Also don't forget about Claire Boyce, who silently became Florida's third-best beam worker last season by resolutely giving nothing away in the leadoff spot. That routine became one of the pleasant surprises of last season, so she'll be seriously relied upon for real scores again. She's not just a bonus contributor this year.
Do we dare imagine that Bridgey Caquatto might finally make the beam lineup and be an all-arounder this season? I didn't think so.
Of note, I appreciate that Florida is bringing actual dismounts this year in multiple lineup-ready routines, with Baker and Hunter performing double backs and McMurtry doing a 2.5. That helps to balance out any potential gainer full nonsense. It's only considerate. If you're going to force gainer fulls upon us, at least then reward us with double backs as well.
Returning lineup — Kytra Hunter (9.975), Bridget Sloan (9.945), Bridgette Caquatto (9.890), Rachel Spicer (9.865), Claire Boyce (9.850)
Given what we saw last season, Florida wasn't exactly in the market for a scoring boost on floor. They're getting one anyway. Everyone remembers that 49.875 last January, which I can barely even talk about. So silly. That's what happens when you give a 9.950 to a 9.825 routine. But now, they're taking that floor lineup that got a 49.875 and making it markedly better, which is a little scary. The judges will need to be sure to cool it for the first few routines because I'm sort of scared they're going to give this lineup a 50.
We know Kytra is a likely 10 every time she goes out on the floor. That helps. In particular, it helps Bridgey Caquatto. The decision to put Caquatto right after Kytra has reaped tangible rewards, mostly in the form of that 9.950 from Super Six last year that clinched the tie. Add to that Bridget Sloan, who was already getting weekly 9.9s last year, and now this season she's training a DLO. Veteran elites always add DLOs. Sloan was consistently able to stick her old opening pass, the front double full, but changing to a DLO would certainly help the routine both by increasing the difficulty and getting rid of those pesky crossed legs that made the front double full a little more meh than it should have been.
But that's not all! Call now and we'll throw in Baker and McMurtry, the new power tumbling sisters. Baker has the greatest piked double arabian you will ever meet, McMurtry has a stellar full in, and both should be major contributors. That's already five (presumably) big scores, and there's still Spicer and her piked full in, Boyce who got 9.9s in the leadoff spot last year, and Wang who has a DLO and was a reliable worker before her injury. I would imagine Ericha Fassbender will be in the mix somewhere. She's a possibility on most events, including floor, but these are tough lineups to make. All in all, the Gators are spoiled for choice. Best floor team in 2015? With this roster, they better be.