This season, the Florida Gators’ gymnastics team is operating under a new theme: designed to go far.
Coined by first-year head coach Jenny Rowland, this mantra reflects the squad’s ultimate goal of clinching gold in Fort Worth, Texas, at the NCAA Championships for the fourth consecutive year.
The next step toward reaching that goal begins tonight against the No. 8 Auburn Tigers.
Opening Southeastern Conference competition, the Gators are set to trek 318 miles northwest to compete at Auburn Arena.
Facing off for the first time since their 197.850-195.625 victory over the Tigers at the 2015 NCAA Super Six, the No. 1-ranked Gators will look to extend their commanding 69-11 all-time series lead over Auburn.
History aside, competing at Auburn produces a certain type of atmosphere, one that Florida gymnasts are eager to feed off of.
"I think this will honestly be an incredible opportunity for every class to kind of shine in their own way," senior Bridget Sloan said Wednesday.
"Auburn is one of my favorite places to compete. Their arena is so nice, their fans are great — their fans are so funny, they get so into it."
However, for one member of Florida’s team, Friday’s 8:30 p.m. meet serves as a homecoming.
Rowland — a former assistant coach for the Tigers from 2010-15 — returns to face her former club for the first time since joining the Gators, and with UF staring down the barrel of its second consecutive contest against a national top-10 opponent, this showdown carries some extra weight.
"I think it’s going to be a great meet for her, just coming back to her home," sophomore Kennedy Baker said.
"And, being a coach for us, I think it’s going to be awesome for her just to see her old team, and then us, and just how we do against each other."
Heading into the contest, both squads boast similar records.
Having already begun SEC competition, Auburn holds a 2-1 record (1-1 SEC), following up a season-opening two-win burst against Oregon State and Kentucky followed by a 196.875-196.075 loss to then-No. 6 Alabama.
Florida (2-0, 0-0 SEC) looks to sustain a winning streak of its own, bringing reigning SEC Freshman of the Week Alicia Boren and Gymnast of the Week Sloan into the fray.
The pairing of Boren and Sloan gives the Gators a solid one-two punch in the all-around, as the duo tops Road to Nationals’ all-around leaderboards in average score.
In spite of their stranglehold on the national charts — Florida gymnasts place in the top-two nationally in four of five rankable categories (all-around, vault, bars, beam) and top-four in all of them — the athletes recognize what skills they need to sharpen in order to be at their best.
Heading into the thick of a remaining regular season schedule that features dates against seven top-20 opponents, every fraction of a point matters.
"My main thing is my landings," Boren said.
"I’m constantly taking steps back or taking hops forward trying to stick, so I need to figure out how to just do the skill the right way and wait for the landing to come.
"I definitely have a lot of things to improve to get better, but I think it’s a good start."