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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

If Florida hopes to advance to the NCAA Championships for the 28th time in the event’s 29-year history, the Gators will have to get past a couple of familiar foes Saturday.

The team travels to Salt Lake City for the NCAA North Central Regional, where it will take on five teams vying for two spots at the NCAA Championships in Gainesville on April 22-24.

Among the teams No. 4 Florida (15-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) will face are No. 10 Utah and No. 16 Auburn, both of which the Gators have already competed against — and defeated — this season and are the top two teams behind UF.

The familiarity with its opponents could help Florida if it hopes to return home for NCAAs.

“When you start competing against them so much, you know their strengths and weaknesses and that will play a factor in boosting our confidence because we know we have the potential to beat them,” senior Amanda Castillo said.

Florida closed out its regular season with a 197.55-196.5 victory over Utah in the O’Connell Center on March 19 and traveled to Auburn on Feb. 26, where the Gators won 196.8-195.7.

UF also competed against Auburn at the SEC Championships in Jacksonville.

Castillo said knowing the team has the ability to beat its biggest competition could be particularly helpful for the freshmen, who, unlike the rest of the Gators, have never competed in a regional or in the Huntsman Center, where Utah draws large home crowds.

“They’re used to going into places they’ve never been before,” senior Maranda Smith said. “They’ve done that pretty much all season.”

The Gators will have practice day on Friday to familiarize themselves with the layout of the arena floor and adjust to the surroundings.

However, UF coach Rhonda Faehn said she doesn’t expect the gym to faze her team because it is too focused.

“We know we have the talent, we have the difficulty, we have the capability to win, but we have to do our job and go out there and execute,” Faehn said.

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Even though they know they have the ability to beat their opponents, the Gators won’t go into Saturday’s competition thinking the event will be handed to them because they’ve already defeated Utah and Auburn this season.

“We can’t get the mindset of ‘OK, we’ve beaten them before, so we can do it again,’” Smith said. “We have to treat it as if we haven’t competed against them and have the same attitude — that we want to crush them.”

The team will go into regional competition treating it like any other meet, but the gymnasts know they will have a target on their back because they won the SEC title two weeks ago.

Both Castillo and fellow senior Rebekah Zaiser said the Gators can’t get complacent just because they took home the SEC crown, something they felt happened  after the last time they won it in 2007.

“We know that everyone’s going to be out to get us, and that’s just fueling us to work harder and continue to improve,” Castillo said. “We know we can’t back down.

“Now, we know after learning from our mistakes that it’s not over until it’s over.”

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