Freshman Feature: Florida & Kentucky

FLORIDA

What Is This Class?

Florida’s class is named Payton Richards. The Gators are in an odd (though not that odd for the year before the Olympics) position wherein verbal commits Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker both elected to push back their entrance to pursue Tokyo, so the team is left with an entering class of only one.

Richards is an accomplished JO recruit who placed 4th AA at JO Nationals in 2018 (3rd FX, 4th UB), which followed a 2nd-place finish in 2017 (1st BB, 2nd UB), and a championship in 2016 in the junior division. She has been racking up the titles for years and years with pretty equivalent placement across the events, one score unlikely to stand out over the others.

What Should We Expect?

It’s not especially dire that the Gators have a freshman class of just one athlete because they’re losing just one athlete from last year’s postseason lineups—albeit an exceptionally important one in Alicia Boren.

With the return of Jazzy Foberg from injury and the introduction of Richards, Florida shouldn’t be short on routines in 2020, even if coming up with equivalent scores to some of those Boren routines will of course be a challenge.

The question for Richards is not whether she has the goods—she would do the AA on most teams—but whether she can consistently break into Florida lineups. She has a clean Yfull. She has a DLO on floor. She has a solid loso + loso series on beam. For the most part, I watch these sets and see 2nd-in-the-lineup routine potential, but looking at what Florida returns to the squad from last season, these could just as easily become 1st- or 2nd-alternate routines. We’ll see Richards this season, she’ll get chances on multiple events, but how things trickle out in terms of those early halves of lineups is still TBD.

Show Me Now

Payton Richards VT UB BB FX

KENTUCKY

What Is This Class?

Operation Big Shoes To Fill has amassed a large staff—as it would need to be to try replace a program-defining departing class that provided more than half of Kentucky’s postseason routines in 2019—with six gymnasts in the freshman class and among them several realistic contributors.

The name brand in the group is Kaitlin DeGuzman, the former elite (and former Oklahoma verbal) who placed 12th AA at Classic in 2016 and went on to compete for the Philippines at the SEA Games. We’ve seen only minimal gymnastics from DeGuzman in the last couple years, but for gymnasts who have been elites, the built-in expectations are always high, especially for how lovely DeGuzman was on bars in her elite years.

While DeGuzman has the name, the most significant member of Kentucky’s class may turn out to be Raena Worley, the most JO-accomplished gymnast of the group, who finished 2nd AA at JO Nationals this year and has proven scores across all four events.

She’s one of two Raena/Raina athletes in the class (it’s the new McKayla) with Raina Albores also joining, an athlete who finished 14th AA and 10th on VT at JO Nationals in 2018.

It’s rare to have event specialists make a big mark in JO because it’s so AA focused—especially with qualification to nationals based entirely on AA score—but Shealyn Luksik has carved out an identity specifically as a UB specialist and was multiple-time regional champ on the event (regionals is the farthest you can go if you’re not doing AA).

Walking on as part of the class are Kassidy Howell, who did place 7th on bars at 2018 regionals, and Elyssa Roberts, who is the younger sister of Beth Roberts, a walk-on on the Georgia team who graduated a few years ago.

What Should We Expect?

A lot. This class has to do a lot, and we should expect to become very familiar these athletes soon. General expectations are not that high for Kentucky in 2020 because of how many important routines have been lost, and though it’s unrealistic to expect this freshman class to be able to mimic the accomplishments of the departing class, they’re going to be thrown immediately into the fire to see if they can.

They will also have help in that regard. Arianna Patterson missed the 2019 season with injury, but she had a bigggg floor routine and a 10.0 start vault in JO and will basically be a 7th freshman in this class, one from whom we’ll need to see serious contribution if Kentucky is to keep up its power status.

Two of the most important routines, and the sets we can most comfortably bank on seeing from this freshman class, are the VT and FX from Raena Worley. She has a Y1.5 on vault and easy full-in on floor, and both of those events should be treated as definites. It’s quite likely that we’ll see her as a weekly all-around contributor—she has a beautiful Pak on bars and a quick aerial + bhs + loso series on beam—but vault and floor are the real standouts.

Bars should also get a solid injection of new quality with DeGuzman and Luksik. DeGuzman has gorgeous toes at every moment on that event, and Luksik has a number of solid-difficulty elements to choose from like a Van Leeuwen and a piked Jaeger. Though bars is her most impressive event, DeGuzman will probably need to feature on more pieces than that, which is mostly going to come down to how well she has physically withstood being an elite (translation: she hasn’t competed floor in like two years, so…)

As for Luksik, her gymnastics is almost entirely about bars since she has only sparingly competed the other events in recent seasons, but check out her beam routine as well. Those individuals skills are too lovely to just throw that one out as a concept.

Since these freshman are going to have to contribute a crap-ton of routines and routine options, Albores is also key for me. Kentucky has brought in a number of athletes in the last few seasons who profile similarly to Albores—accomplished enough in JO with viable 9.4ish routines on a few events that need a little polishing to be in a nationals-contending NCAA lineup—but those athletes haven’t tended to appear in lineups, at least with any consistency. They, including Albores, are going to have to pick up more of the weight in 2020 to fill out a complete, SEC-competitive team.

We’re less likely to see the others, but when I watch those videos for Howell, I see a floor routine that looks totally viable.

Show Me Now

Raina Albores VT UB BB FX
Kaitlin DeGuzman VT UB BB FX
Kassidy Howell VT UB BB FX
Shealyn Luksik VT UB BB FX
Elyssa Roberts VT UB BB FX
Raena Worley VT UB BB FX

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