Florida coach Rhonda Faehn believes competing in big meets early in the year makes a team better by season’s end.
It is a good thing she does, because they don’t come any bigger than tonight’s meet at Alabama, a program that has won six national titles including back-to-back championships in 2011 and 2012.
The top-ranked Gators (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the No. 7 Crimson Tide (1-1, 0-1 SEC) at 8 p.m.
The meet will be televised on the SEC Network.
The two powerhouses have met 43 consecutive times with both teams ranked in the top 10 — dating back to 2002.
But this is the first time since 2007 that they have faced off before the calendar reached February.
Faehn said she hopes the early meeting will help speed up the growth process.
"It is important that our athletes learn very early on in the season how to perform in that kind of environment," Faehn said.
That environment consisted of nearly 13,000 fans per home meet in 2014, the second-highest average in the nation and the highest average home attendance among all SEC women’s athletic programs.
For perspective, that number is almost twice that of Florida’s home crowd against Auburn last week.
And that number will likely be much larger tonight, as a visit from Florida often brings a sellout.
Since 2007, the series is even at 13-13-2, but winning in Tuscaloosa has been impossible for the Gators.
Florida lost in Tuscaloosa last season, falling 197.675-197.400, as so many teams have.
In fact, Alabama hasn’t lost a home meet since a 2009 defeat at the hands of LSU.
Breaking that streak will be a tall order for a Florida team minus Bridget Sloan with three freshmen likely to compete.
Faehn said her message to the team has been to focus on the task at hand and ignore the external factors.
"What we tell the athletes and what we really try and do is just to remain together as a group," she said, "and we cannot compete depending on the circumstances, things that we can’t control. We really just try and handle and control the things that we can do."
And she doesn’t want the team to worry about mistakes.
"I always say if we’re going to make a mistake, I want it by going 150 percent instead of holding back," she said.
Claire Boyce was a freshman when Florida faced Alabama last season, and she said she now knows what to expect going back for a second time. She’s looking forward to the hostile environment.
"Nobody’s gonna be on our side, nobody’s gonna be cheering for us, but that just means we need to be closer as a team and really focus on each other and what each of us needs," she said. "It definitely pushes me. I don’t know if everybody’s like that, but when somebody’s telling me I can’t do it, I just wanna do it more, so when they’re sitting over there and they’re like ‘boo!’ I’m like ‘I’m gonna show you something.’"
Faehn said she expected Florida’s event lineups to be largely similar to last week’s meet against Auburn.
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Claire Boyce competes on the balance beam during UF’s win against LSU on Feb. 21 in the O’Connell Center.