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A spirit that is not afraid

No. 5 Tigers to face No. 2 Florida in top-five SEC opener

Auburn gymnast Derrian Gobourne catches airtime while performing on bars during the gymnastics preview meet in Neville Arena on Dec. 16, 2022.
Auburn gymnast Derrian Gobourne catches airtime while performing on bars during the gymnastics preview meet in Neville Arena on Dec. 16, 2022.

The last time Auburn and Florida met head-to-head in the regular season, the Tigers lost to the Gators but tied a dual-meet scoring record with an astronomical 198.775-197.775 finish in front of a sold-out Neville Arena crowd.

This season, Jan. 13, the No. 5 Tigers and the No. 2 Gators once again clash, this time in sold-out Exactech Arena in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for a top-five matchup to begin the conference schedule. 

“I love competing at Florida because they have a great environment,” said head coach Jeff Graba. “You know what you’re walking into with Florida. We’re approaching it like another meet because we know we have to control ourselves and withstand the environment by staying in our bubble.”

After that historic meet on March 4, 2022, Florida and Auburn met again in the SEC Championships, NCAA Regionals, the NCAA Semifinal and the NCAA Team Final, with Florida winning three of those contests and finishing second in the championship meet. This 2023 meet will be the first head-to-head competition between the two teams since those four postseason meets.

With both teams consisting of World Championship and Olympic-level talent, this meet will come down to former elite teammates facing off and will set the precedent for which team will be on the path towards a conference championship.

“The better we do on Friday, the better the rest of the season looks,” Graba said. “To start like that, it’s a big deal. And to build off of it this weekend on the road will only benefit us later in the season.”

For Florida, the Gators brought in a stacked 2022 class along with returning superstars. Fifth-year veteran Trinity Thomas leads Florida after already earning her first perfect ten of the year last weekend. Thomas ended the season last year by receiving the 2022 Honda Award for the nation's best college gymnast. She was also the 2022 SEC all-around, vault and floor champion, as well as being the NCAA champion in the all-around, uneven bars and floor.  

Joining the All-American Thomas is freshman Kayla DiCello, who has a World bronze medal to her name and the all-around title in last weekend’s season-opening quad meet — as well as being a 2020 Olympic alternate. 

Alongside DiCello is returning sophomore Leanne Wong, a World silver medalist and fellow 2020 Olympic alternate who also earned All-American honors — as well as being the SEC beam champion in 2022. 

A new, but experienced, face for the Gators is graduate student Rachel Baumann, who competed for Georgia from 2019-2022. Baumann, a force to be reckoned with on beam and floor, is also the younger sister of former Florida gymnast Alyssa Baumann. Baumann was the star for the Bulldogs in 2022 and will look to continue her high scores from last year, including her first collegiate perfect ten.

An interesting gymnast to keep an eye out for the Gators is red-shirt freshman Morgan Hurd. Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion, had a lower leg injury that sidelined her during the 2022 season. She competed both bars and floor last weekend and is looking to contribute for the Gators this season. 

After Auburn’s magical run to the NCAA team championship last season, the Tigers are returning all but two starting routines to the 2023 lineup. Most notably returning for the Tigers are sophomore Sunisa Lee and graduate student Derrian Gobourne. 

Lee, the 2020 Olympic all-around champion as well as a multiple-time world medalist, is returning for her second and final year on the Plains. After ending the season with the SEC bars title and the NCAA beam title as well as All-American honors, Lee announced in November 2022 that she will be returning to elite gymnastics and is aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Alongside Lee, Derrian Gobourne is also returning for a final season, but this time as a graduate student. Gobourne brought experience and leadership to a young team last year by competing on floor, bars and vault. She also earned her first perfect ten as well as All-American honors last season. 

The Tigers also have All-American sophomore Sophia Groth and other seasoned gymnasts from the Final Four team, such as senior Aria Brusch, junior Gabby McLaughlin and senior Cassie Stevens returning to this year’s lineup. 

Both programs are capable of putting up high scores, especially on bars and floor. The all-around competition is shaping up to be between Lee and Thomas, although Thomas did not compete in the all-around in the first meet of the year. 

This meet also includes the gymnasts who picked up all of the SEC weekly honors: Lee (Gymnast of the Week), Thomas (Specialist of the Week) and DiCello (Freshman of the Week). 

Overall, expect a heavyweight battle between these two programs. Both teams are solid on all apparatuses and put up massive scores in a season-opening meet last weekend. The meet is set to start at 6:30 p.m. CST and will be airing on ESPN2. 

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