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Friday, September 29, 2023

Reaching the top of the college gymnastics world is a no easy feat. Only four teams have won the national title in the sport’s previous 28 years — Utah, Georgia, Alabama and UCLA.

Florida hasn’t been able to join that elite club, but the experienced gymnasts on this year’s team have come close, finishing fourth in the NCAA Super Six in 2008 and 2009 and third in 2007.

But this season, with the NCAA Championships in Gainesville, the second-seeded Gators (15-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) believe this is their year to finally get over that hump and take home the school’s first title.

And getting over that hump begins Thursday night at 7 when the Gators will compete in the second session of team qualifying for the Super Six competition Friday against Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Stanford and Michigan.

“We have to take it one day at a time, but if we are capable and do what we can do and hit to the best of our ability, I feel we genuinely have a chance to win the national championship,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said.

The team has had that mentality all year, dating back to the preseason. The gymnasts came into season with a set of goals, starting with improving each week and winning the SEC title.

They were able to check that one off the list last month in Jacksonville when they rallied from a slow start on vault to win the SEC title.

Next on the list of goals was winning their regional competition — another one they knocked out after rallying from a rough performance on floor in Salt Lake City to take home UF’s 11th regional title and sixth in a row.

After accomplishing those two goals, only one remains for the Gators: winning an NCAA title.

Staying Focus

This year’s team believes it will be able to do what the teams before it failed to, and it knows this season is different from years past.

One of the differences is a lack of complacency, something seniors Amanda Castillo and Rebekah Zaiser said set in after the team won the SEC title in 2007. As a result, the team faltered down the stretch of its postseason run.

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“Last time we won SECs, we had an easy regional and a lot of people went into it half-heartedly and we couldn’t pull it back together for nationals,” Zaiser said.

That year, Florida was ranked first most of the season, but mistakes on the bars and floor cost it in the Super Six and the Gators finished third.

But the focus is evident this season in practice and during competition. Since the SEC Championships, Faehn has said the team has been “pushing for perfection,” “not missing anything” and “kicking butt” in training.

Meanwhile, in competition, the team has scored above 197 in five of its last six meets, including a season-best 197.675 in regional competition. To put that into perspective, the team’s all-time high in NCAA Super Six meets is 197.225, which it scored in 2007.

The gymnasts all feel they are maturing at the right time and getting better each week. Faehn sees that too, but she and the gymnasts still think the team hasn’t reached its potential.

“That’s the crazy thing. We definitely haven’t had our best meet yet. We can still do better, absolutely,” Faehn said.

Fixing Their Flaws

Several factors have contributed to the growth and maturity as the season has progressed.

A large part of that is that the team is finally healthy this season. Last year, Gators had to cope with injuries that ended the season early for Castillo, Zaiser and sophomore Nicole Ellis and only eight Gators competed in the Super Six.

But now, the roster is at full strength, even with senior Maranda Smith battling pain in her shoulder and shin, and Faehn feels confident in her lineups from top to bottom, as 11 Gators have earned at least a share of an event title this season.

“You need at least four really good scores,” Faehn said. “You expect your last few girls to bring in the big numbers, but when you have your third, fourth, fifth and sixth girl — or even second — going up, that’s what the difference is in winning a title. Every team is going to have one or two great athletes, but it’s the team that has four, five and six great athletes that’s the one that’s going to win a title.”

With a lineup that combines youthful inexperience (more than 50 percent of routines coming from freshmen) and senior leadership — five seniors on the roster — Florida could have found the perfect recipe for a championship this season.

While some may think having a predominantly freshman lineup could hinder the team’s success, Faehn said that isn’t the case with this team.

“This freshman class hasn’t shown any concern or any nerves so far under any of the pressure situations they’ve been a part of in SEC Championships and regionals,” Faehn said. “They didn’t know what to expect in those situations and they did phenomenal. We’re expecting the same thing from them.”

Comforts of Home

But if the team hopes to stamp its membership to that elite group and win its first NCAA title, it will have to get past three members of that club — No. 1 seed UCLA, No. 3 seed Alabama and No. 5 seed Utah — and that will be no easy task.

It should help the freshmen that their first experiences at NCAA Championships will be in the confines of the O’Connell Center.

“It will ease their nerves a bit,” Smith said.

For Smith and the other seniors, it will be their last chance to compete in college and their final time in Gainesville

“It’s going to make us feel more comfortable just to be at home and not in a foreign place,” Castillo said. “You know every corner, and it makes it more comfortable to compete in.”

But the importance of having the NCAA Championships in Gainesville extends beyond the familiarity the athletes have with the O’Connell Center.

In a large meet where there are gymnasts on every apparatus, having a friendly crowd can be quite an advantage.

“It’s a very big factor because our athletes feed off of that energy, and if we see a sea of orange and blue when we look up in the stands, our athletes get so much energy and they want to perform,” Faehn said. “When the crowd roars, it just gets so exciting and it makes the whole atmosphere really special.”

With everything seeming to go in Florida’s favor leading up to the NCAA Championships, the Gators are confident this is their year to make it to the top of the college gymnastics world. However, Faehn said her team is smart enough to not let outside factors get in its head and to keep taking competitions one day at a time like it has all season.

“You can’t get complacent, you can’t trust success and you can’t get cocky,” Castillo said. “You can’t let anything get to your head, and it all comes back to the practice gym. We just need to keep on pushing and if we do what we’ve been doing all season, there’s no reason why we can’t bring home the national title.”

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