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Gators open season with national championship on mind

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2008 12:00 am

Despite the uncertainty of Coach Rhonda Faehn's future, the UF gymnastics team is prepared to make a run at a national championship.

Faehn had a baby boy on Tuesday night, and although she plans to be back coaching the Gators as soon as possible, there is still a chance she won't be able to return for some time.

If Faehn takes a leave of absence, the team is ready to move along without many changes.

"We have prepared ourselves ever since we found out she was pregnant," said Melanie Sinclair, a redshirt sophomore and co-captain. "We're going to go out there and do our thing. We're not going to change a thing."

Assistant coach Adrian Burde will run the team until Faehn returns with volunteer coach Jeremy Miranda helping out with the beam event.

With or without its coach, the team looks to improve upon its third-place finish at April's NCAA Championships.

The result wasn't exactly the finish the Gators wanted considering that many regarded them as favorites to win it all.

"Well, it was a little disappointing. There were a lot of people thinking we had it, knowing we were No. 1 all season," Sinclair said.

With five All-Americans returning - Sinclair, Corey Hartung, Amanda Castillo, Ashley Reed and Tiffany Murry - the Gators are ranked second in the nation by the GymInfo preseason coaches' poll.

Those five are surrounded by four other experienced competitors from last year's team and two new freshmen - Lynn Denblyden and Alicia Goodwin.

The Gators also added Maranda Smith, a redshirt sophomore transfer from UCLA, who will likely compete in vault, uneven bars and floor events.

"Look for Maranda Smith, who's a newcomer just for this semester, Faehn said. "It is going to take her a little bit of time to get used to everything, but she could be in our lineup soon.

Even with all their talent, the Gators' road to the national championship won't be easy, as they must pick through one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

UF has two fewer meets than last year with only 10 competitions, but seven of the meets are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25.

After enduring the brutal Southeastern Conference slate every season, Faehn isn't worried by the schedule. In fact, she thinks it will be beneficial, because her team will be in better shape for the postseason and not tire out as it did after 12 meets in 2007.

"Because our season was so long, at nationals they were a little tired," Faehn said. "[The shorter schedule] will help keep our athletes fresher not only heading into the postseason, but, also, it gives them a little bit of hunger."

One meet that UF is looking forward to is its matchup with Georgia on Jan. 18 in Gainesville.

The Bulldogs are the preseason No.1 and three-time defending national champions, and the Gators know the road to a national title goes through Georgia.

The prospect of defeating a rival en route to accomplishing a lifelong dream is an exciting idea for Sinclair.

"I would feel as if I could cure cancer," she said.

Welcome to the discussion.