No. 2 Florida (5-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) heads to Baton Rouge to take on No. 3 LSU (8-1, 5-0 SEC) tonight in one of the biggest meets of the season, but the meet is only one storyline for the Gators.
The other would be junior Bridget Sloan, who will make her much-anticipated return to the competition floor for Florida.
Sloan will compete on bars, her first event since suffering a sprained ankle on floor in Florida’s first competition of the season against Ball State.
The injury has sidelined the 2008 Olympian for the last five weeks.
"I am super stoked," Sloan said. "I’ve been looking forward to it for awhile, ‘cause this is the one meet we kinda figured that I’d be back.
"I know it’s just bars, but I was telling my mom, I was like ‘Mom, you don’t understand, I’m so pumped just to be out there, be in the leotard, be kind of amongst the team.’"
For Sloan, not being able to contribute to the team by performing was difficult to cope with, but the injury gave her an opportunity to learn how to affect the team in other ways.
"It’s definitely been a learning process," Sloan said. "This injury has obviously taught me a lot about what I am as a competitor, … it has taught me a lot about my role on the team.
"My role isn’t just always going out there and hitting a routine. Now my role is going out there and being the best cheerleader I can be, and making sure the team is as relaxed as possible and keeping the mood light, because that’s when we do our best."
But nothing replaces having an athlete of Sloan’s caliber competing alongside you, and her teammates are ready to have her back in the lineup.
"She’s only going to be on one event, but it’s going to be a huge difference," junior Bridgette Caquatto said. "It’s gonna be nice when we get up there to compete to have her chalking up at the chalk bowl with us."
Coach Rhonda Faehn said Sloan’s mere presence provides the team with a sense of assurance, and her performance on bars — the first event for Florida — will help set the tone for the night.
"It’s going to be a great boost, confidence-wise, energy-wise of course," Faehn said. "But it’s nice because we will be starting on bars (at LSU) and so it’ll be a great start, and to be able to get an awesome set in and be able to carry that momentum into the rest of the competition is important."
Florida will need it.
At home, LSU’s worst score of the season was a 197.125 in the team’s first meet of the year.
Florida’s best road score of the year was a 197.20 against Arkansas.
Caquatto’s first road meet of her collegiate career came at LSU, and she believes it’s the most difficult venue to compete in — even tougher than at Alabama.
"I think Alabama, when you’re up competing, it’s just quiet, no one’s really cheering for you," she said.
"But if I remember correctly from my freshman year, we got some boos (at LSU)."
That 2013 meet at LSU was Sloan’s first road meet as well, and the fans were rooting for Sloan to fall during her routines.
"They boo, they heckle, they yell mid-routine," Faehn said. "It’s definitely the most aggressive-natured meet that we encounter."
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