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Thursday, June 13, 2024

UF will need a little help from overseas to get a win at Alabama.

Senior Nicola Willis, a native of Hadleigh, England, has been one of the strongest performers for the Gators in recent weeks, and she and No. 3 UF (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) will face No. 5 Alabama (5-1, 4-1 SEC) in Tuscaloosa on Friday.

Coming into the season, Willis, who competed in the 2004 Olympics for Great Britain, was expected to perform on the balance beam and floor exercise and lead off for the Gators on the uneven bars.

In the first meet of the season, Willis got off to a solid start by finishing in the top three in three of four events and placing third in the all-around competition.

After the opening competition, she began to have some problems on the bars.

Willis fell on the bars in the second meet against Georgia and again two weeks later versus Arkansas, though she wasn't feeling well in during that meet. In between the two falls, she put up her only other sub-9.8 performance in the event.

"It was really frustrating, because I do a lot of bar routines every day (in practice) and every week, and it's not a hard thing for me," Willis said. "To be able to do so easy in practice, then go out into the meet and let myself down, let my team down and let my coaches down, it was really hard for me."

Coach Rhonda Faehn decided to move Willis to second in the bars rotation, and the switch paid off immediately.

Willis took second place with her best bars total of the season in the first meet after the change at Kentucky.

"It is really nice for me to see someone go before me," Willis said. "I get confidence from them."

Since the meet against the Wildcats, she has continued to put up high marks and has topped the season-high score with her new collegiate best bar score of 9.95 - she finished in a tie for first with teammates Melanie Sinclair and Amanda Castillo.

Faehn said Willis responded to her early problems by training harder and didn't allow them to affect her mentally. She will look for Willis to continue to improve and finish out her senior year at the top of her game.

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"We hope she continues to get better and compete better, so she can leave Florida with such a great feeling," Faehn said.

The Gators will need another strong performance from Willis and the other gymnasts Friday as they head into a hostile environment against the Crimson Tide.

Alabama leads the all-time series 56-27, and UF has only one dual-meet victory in Tuscaloosa - the Gators won at Alabama in 1979.

Faehn expects the competition to help her team get ready for postseason meets and will try her team mentally.

"We are going to use this as an opportunity to prepare ourselves for what it's going to be like at SECs or nationals, where there are 15,000 fans in the crowd not cheering for us," Faehn said. "It will keep us tough mentally and see if we can stay focused on the job we have to do."

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