Sierra Alexander

UF gymnast Sierra Alexander finishes performing a routine during Florida's win against Missouri on Feb. 24, 2017, in the O'Connell Center.

Grace King / Alligator Staff

As​ ​soon​ ​as​ ​Sierra​ ​Alexander​ ​stuck​ ​her​ ​vault​ ​landing​ ​on​ ​Friday,​ ​a​ ​huge​ ​smile​ ​spread​ ​across​ ​her face.

It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time​ ​she​ ​had​ ​done​ ​that​ ​at​ ​the​ ​college​ ​level.

For​ ​the​ ​first​ ​four​ ​weeks​ ​of​ ​the​ ​season,​ ​the​ ​freshman​ ​was​ ​forced​ ​to​ ​watch​ ​her​ ​team​ ​compete​ ​from the​ ​sidelines.

But​ ​when​ ​illness​ ​and​ ​injury​ ​depleted​ ​Florida’s​ ​roster,​ ​the​ ​Fort​ ​Lauderdale​ ​native​ ​made​ ​her​ ​debut​ ​in the​ ​vault​ ​lineup​ ​at​ ​Alabama​ ​on​ ​Feb.​ ​3​ ​and​ ​never​ ​left.

Alexander​ ​competed​ ​in​ ​all​ ​but​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​next​ ​five​ ​meets.

So​ ​when​ ​she​ ​earned​ a ​collegiate-best​ ​9.875​ ​for​ ​her​ ​yurchenko​ ​full​ ​that​ ​night​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Gators’​ ​regular season​ ​finale,​ ​it​ ​was​ ​a​ ​testament​ ​to​ ​​how​ ​hard​ ​she​ ​had​ ​worked​ ​to​ ​stay​ ​in​ ​the​ ​lineup​ ​since​ ​that matchup​ ​with​ ​the​ ​Crimson Tide.

“This​ ​one​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​sets​ ​herself​ ​apart​ ​from​ ​everyone​ ​else,”​ ​Florida​ ​coach​ ​Jenny​ ​Rowland​ ​said​ ​on Monday.​

​“After​ ​that​ ​competition​ ​you​ ​weren’t​ ​going​ ​to​ ​stop​ ​her.​ ​…​ ​We​ ​don’t​ ​train​ ​vault​ ​every day, but​ ​she​ ​does.”

With​ ​the​ ​help​ ​of​ ​Alexander,​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​improvement​ ​within​ ​the​ ​lineup,​ ​the​ ​Gators​ ​have​ ​nearly mastered​ ​the​ ​event.

They​ ​are​ ​tied​ ​with​ ​Oklahoma​ ​as​ ​the​ ​second​ ​highest-scoring​ ​team​ ​in​ ​the​ ​country​ ​on​ ​the​ ​apparatus, trailing​ ​only​ ​LSU.

When​ ​Florida​ ​begins​ ​its​ ​postseason​ ​run​ ​on​ ​Saturday​ ​at​ ​the​ ​​SEC​ ​Gymnastics​ ​Championships​ ​in Jacksonville,​ ​​Rowland​ ​is​ ​looking​ ​for​ ​her​ ​team​ ​to​ ​continue​ ​that​ ​dominance​ ​from​ ​the​ ​regular​ ​season not​ ​only​ ​on​ ​the​ ​vault​ ​but​ ​all​ ​around.

As​ ​the​ ​reigning​ ​SEC​ ​Champions,​ ​the​ ​Gators​ ​have​ ​even​ ​more​ ​pressure​ ​to​ ​try​ ​and​ ​repeat​ ​their success​ ​from​ ​last​ ​year​ ​against​ ​stiff​ ​competition​ ​within​ ​their​ ​conference.

Four​ ​SEC​ ​teams​ ​are​ ​ranked​ ​in​ ​the​ ​top 10​ nationally,​ ​and​ ​seven​ ​of​ ​the​ ​eight​ ​teams​ ​in​ ​the conference​ ​are​ ​in​ ​the​ ​top-25.

However,​ ​going​ ​against​ ​that​ ​level​ ​of​ ​competition​​ ​almost​ ​every​ ​weekend​ ​for​ ​the​ ​last​ ​nine​ ​weeks has​ ​seasoned​ ​Florida’s​ ​athletes​ ​heading​ ​into​ ​the​ ​most​ ​important​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the season.

“SEC​ ​is,​ ​in​ ​my​ ​opinion,​ ​the​ ​toughest​ ​conference​ ​in​ ​college​ ​gymnastics,”​ ​Rowland​ ​said.​ ​

“There​ ​is no​ ​down​ ​weekend.​ ​…​ ​I​ ​think​ ​it​ ​just​ ​helps​ ​our​ ​athletes​ ​learn​ ​how​ ​to​ ​compete.”

But​ ​while​ ​the​ ​Gators’​ ​only​ ​two​ ​losses​ ​this​ ​season​ ​came​ ​against ​teams​ ​they​ ​will​ ​face​ ​in​ ​the​ ​SEC​ ​meet —​ ​Alabama​ ​and​ ​LSU​ ​—​ ​they​ ​are​ ​looking​ ​forward​ ​to​ ​the​ ​challenge​ ​and​ ​opportunity​ ​to​ ​redeem themselves.

“This​ ​team​ ​thrives​ ​on​ ​SEC​ ​weekend,”​ ​Rowland​ ​said.​ ​“It​ ​is​ ​one​ ​of,​ ​it​ ​not​ ​the​ ​most,​ ​exciting​ ​meets​ ​of the​ ​year.”

Contact Lauren Staff at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @lstaff27