It was mid-February, and No. 4 Florida was hosting then-No. 7 Georgia, the five-time defending national champions.
The Gators hadn’t beaten the Bulldogs in Gainesville since 1990, and if that streak was to end, it was going to come down to the performance of a freshman.
Georgia had finished its last routine of the night and led 197.150-187.325 with just a floor exercise from Ashanée Dickerson remaining for Florida.
Dickerson needed a 9.85 or better for the Gators to win, and as she finished her routine, the crowd eagerly awaited the judges’ scores.
After a brief wait, her score was announced: 9.925.
The final tally read 197.250-197.150, and the crowd of 6,421 in the O’Connell Center erupted.
That performance was a lot to ask of a freshman in a high-pressure situation, but Dickerson and her classmates — the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class — are no ordinary freshmen.
“Once we got everyone in and got a few meets under our belt, we could really, as a coaching staff, start to see the potential for this class, and just how solid and aggressive and confident they were,” Faehn said.
Solid? The freshman class has accounted for 122 of the team’s 240 competitive routines in meets this season, just more than 50 percent of the Gators’ performances.
Aggressive? Not only are the freshmen filling the slots in the lineup, they’re earning them by competing at a high level. Thirty of Florida’s 52 individual event titles this season have been won by freshmen, including a whopping 18 from Dickerson.
Confident? That’s the one that really shows during competitions.
Dali Lemezan, who walked on to the team, has led off for the Gators on vault all season and set the pace for the meets, especially at home, where vault is the team’s first rotation.
“Everyone tells me I set the tone, but I didn’t realize it until people asked me about it,” Lemezan said. “It’s great to know everyone has the same confidence in me that I have in myself to be able to be put in that position going first on vault.”
But those characteristics, according to Faehn, aren’t the most unique thing about her freshmen. It’s their willingness to get on the same page.
“Everyone wants to win,” Faehn said. “And in the past, everyone wanted to win, but not every single one was willing to make all the sacrifices to make that happen. We feel that with the team this year, they are all on the same page, and they are all individually willing to make all the sacrifices and all the things they need to do inside and outside of the gym to put forth their best effort and win a Southeastern Conference and National Championship.”
That willingness is a sentiment echoed by all of the freshmen.
One of the things that has contributed to the freshmen jelling has been their relationship outside the gym.
“We all have our own personalities that we bring to the group, so I feel like we all click really well and we all get along so great,” Liz Green said. “We all just have different styles that come together to make a great combination.”
That mixture is a result of the gymnasts hailing from different areas.
Dickerson, from Jacksonville, dreamed of being a Florida gymnast for most of her life. She’s the shy one of the group, but she’s also the fiercest competitor in meets, having been named SEC Freshman of the Week four times and SEC Gymnast of the Week for her performance against Georgia.
Marissa King, another solid all-around competitor, is the confident and experienced member of the class who Faehn describes as the most outspoken and vivacious.
She hails from England, where she was an Olympian and competed in the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships last October.
She has earned the last two SEC Freshman of the Week honors, and three overall.
Green, a 17-year-old Texas native who Faehn describes as a “cherub,” is recognized as one of the team’s best beam workers despite being the youngest.
She has earned four beam titles, including three in a row.
Randy Stageberg is from Virginia and came in as the most coveted prospect of the class after three years on the U.S. National Team. But after injuring her shoulder in November 2008, she has been working to get back to the level she was before college.
All four of those gymnasts are capable of performing in the all-around, and Faehn expects them all to do so in their careers at Florida.
Then there’s Lemezan, the walk-on vault specialist from St. Petersburg who was born in Bosnia.
Faehn describes her as one of the most positive-thinking members of the class.
“For her to walk on, make the lineup and then to excel at that position, to be the leadoff where we expect a great stuck vault every time, she’s done that,” Faehn said. “She’s delivered that week in and week out, just very consistent, and she’s done it with a great big smile on her face.”
That melting pot of talent and personalities has panned out well for the Gators in meets this season, as they are ranked fourth in the nation and in the top 10 in every event.
Even though they’ve had this much success as freshmen, it hasn’t gone to their heads, and they still look up to the upperclassmen who have helped them along the way this year.
“The seniors have been a massive impact on the freshmen,” King said. “I know when I came out here, I didn’t know what to expect or what to do, so we looked up to the seniors a lot coming into this. We’ve looked upon them very highly and we’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience from them. We hope that will continue to grow and we’ll learn a lot more with ourselves, as well as having them there to support us.”
Along with support from their teammates, the way the freshmen have meshed and performed has brought in high praise from Faehn, who compared them to her 2004 recruiting class that included Savannah Evans, Samantha Lutz, Chantelle Tousek, Katie Rue and Breanne King, all of whom earned All-America honors as freshmen.
“This freshman class, there is no limit,” said Faehn, reverberating an opinion shared by all five of the freshmen. “They’re so talented, and they have so much potential that they all could be All-Americans up on the wall. They could be multiple time All-Americans. We told Ashaneé and Marissa they have the potential to be an NCAA all-around champion, as well, and an individual event finalist. So there’s just a lot of, a lot of potential. I can’t wait to have them for three more years.”