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Friday, June 21, 2024

The bejeweled blue leotards that hugged the Gators gymnastics squad weren’t the only things that shined on the Stephen C. O’Connell Center mats.

No. 3 Florida squashed No. 10 Nebraska on Friday night in the second-highest season opener in history with a final score of 196.925 to 194.950.

After being granted a sixth year of eligibility this summer from NCAA, senior Maranda Smith returned to pop off the meet as the first competitor in the opening event of the evening.

“Monday, Adrian [Burde, Gators assistant coach] came up to me during practice and was like ‘You’re going to go first this weekend on vault just to kind of be a face that the judges are used to seeing,’” Smith said. “I’m used to competing and wanted to start out with a solid vault score, so it felt pretty good that my coaches had that confidence in me and that I could go out there — first up, first meet, first time in 2011 — and be the one to hit a vault.”

Smith got the job done, bringing in a 9.825. While Smith is one of the team’s two seniors, fresh faces also debuted at the Nebraska meet, including freshmen all-around competitor Alaina Johnson.

Johnson had an impressive start for the Gators, scoring first in uneven parallel bars with a 9.925, second in vault (9.850) and tied for second in floor with Smith at a 9.900.

“She knows she can do far greater. This was just a starting point for her,” head coach Rhonda Faehn said. “I was really pleased with her first competition. I’m really excited to see what her future holds throughout the rest of the season.”

Fellow freshmen Mackenzie Caquatto and Brittney Noble also got their first taste of college competition. Noble three-way tied for third in bars while Caquatto tied for second. Noble also competed in the floor exercise.

“We do have the depth this year that we can play with the lineups which is going to be beneficial for us in the long run,” Faehn said. “We’re going to be able to rest quite a few of the athletes, especially Alaina — she’s not going to be able to handle doing all around every single competition. We’re definitely going to be juggling the lineups a bit this year.”

While freshmen shined in Friday’s competition, returning sophomore Ashanée Dickerson snagged her eighth all-around title, winning the vault, balance beam and floor exercise.

“She just is so solid and I knew it was going to be amazing when she went out and stuck that vault,” Faehn said. “She was going to carry that momentum on the [rest of the] competition. She works so hard and has the best attitude and work out, so it’s nice to see her be able to be rewarded for that.”

Faehn also said that this season’s approach will be slightly different than last’s, taking the season in steps.

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“We just want to take it one day at a time and improve every single weekend and do some unbelievable gymnastics,” she said. “And I think that we’re going to have a real positive outcome.”

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