By Corey Mitleider and Scott Barr – OGGOA Contributors
Coming off narrowly missing out on the program’s first national championship since 1982 (AIAW) at the 2012 NCAA Super Six last season, No. 3 Florida Gators gymnastics opens the 2013 season seeking to become just the fifth team in NCAA history to win the national title (Georgia, Alabama, UCLA, Utah). Florida came within 0.075 points of Alabama at the Super Six last April and has added significant talent while not being forced to replace many routines from their second-place finish. Head coach Rhonda Faehn, coming off the Gators’ eighth conference title, hopes to have her team peak at the right time when the postseason begins.
Florida opened the 2013 schedule last week with a home victory against Ball State and travels to LSU on Friday for its first Southeastern Conference meet of the season.
The Gators schedule is always supremely challenging and 2013 is no different with a home meet against reigning national champion Alabama and road meets against four teams that went to nationals last year: LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Utah. UF will have an excellent opportunity to scope out the competition it will face leading up to the national championship throughout the regular season, at the SEC Championships and at the NCAA Southeast Regionals, which will be hosted in Gainesville, FL in March.
There are no major departures from last year’s lineup, as 22 of the 24 routines which competed at the Super Six return for 2013. The graduation of senior leaders like Nicole Ellis, Amy Ferguson and Elizabeth Mahlich may be felt within the team, but the Gators are stacked with talent and lost very few routines from a team which was excruciatingly close to winning it all a year ago.
KEY GYMNASTS RETURNING
Sophomore Kytra Hunter: Hunter took the collegiate gymnastics world by storm as a freshman, winning the NCAA all-around (39.725) and vault (9.875) national titles as a freshman last year. She became the first all-around winner in program history and took home additional hardware as she was named the Honda Award winner for gymnastics (nation’s top collegiate gymnast) as well as the 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year. She is one of five All-Americans returning to Florida for the 2013 campaign and will compete in the all-around (all four events) as she recorded at least a 9.90 in each last season including a career high of 9.975 on vault and floor exercise, the closest possible score to a perfect 10.
Senior Ashanée Dickerson: Dickerson is fifth all-time at UF with 58 event titles in her illustrious Gators career, and she is looking to add to that in her senior campaign. She picked up three All-American honors (first team on floor, second team on vault and all-around) and scored at least a 9.90 on all four events (reaching 9.95 on three) last year to help pace Florida. She will be looked upon once again as an all-arounder to help bring home a title.
Junior Alaina Johnson: A member of the U.S. Senior National Team, Johnson won two first-team All-American honors (all-around and bars) and three second-team All-American honors (vault, beam, floor) to join Hunter in winning the maximum five All-American honors in a season. Only one previous UF gymnast, Kristen Guise, had achieved that honor previously. Her 39.60 at nationals in 2012 placed her fourth in the country, and her all-around 39.65 in the team finals led the Gators. She will once again be counted on to compete in all four events and deliver 9.9s as she did a year ago.
Senior Marissa King: The 2011 NCAA Champion in the vault and a six-time All American, King competed for Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and will be counted on once again by Faehn due to her experience. She earned first-team All-American honors on vault last year and looks to add to her accomplishments in 2013 by utilizing her experience on beam. King scored eight 9.9s or better last season including at both the NCAA Regionals and Super Six. She also scored at least a 9.925 on each apparatus in 2012 (9.95s on three); that kind of performance is exactly what Florida needs to compete for a championship this season.
Junior Mackenzie Caquatto: A serious injury to both ankles, experienced during the final portion of camp for the 2011 U.S. World Team, caused Caquatto to compete only seven times on the uneven bars a year ago after her stellar freshman season as an all-around competitor. She still captured four-straight uneven bars titles during the regular season with a 9.90 or better each time. Caquatto won first-team All-American honors last season in the event. This year, she is expected to compete more as long as her health issues remain in the rear view mirror. In order to maintain her health – and due to the great depth the Gators possess – she may work primarily on uneven bars and balance beam early in the season as she progresses and gets back to performing in the all-around.
Freshman Bridget Sloan: The first World Champion in the all-around (2009) to compete as a collegiate athlete, Sloan comes in with high expectations, to put it mildly. She also participated as a member of the United States’ silver medal team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and should be thrust into Florida’s all-around lineup right away. At almost any other school, Sloan would step in day one as the best performer on the squad; however, for the Gators, she adds to the team’s embarrassment of riches. She will need to score high to remain in the lineup with so many proven returners (as noted above), but Faehn expects the freshman to have a breakout year, just like Hunter did one year ago.
Freshman Bridgette Caquatto: Caquatto joins her sister, Mackenzie, on the 2013 Florida gymnastics team and hopes to help the Gators when needed. She has competed in numerous international competitions, including the Pan-American Games, where she helped the U.S. win the gold medal. She also competed on the U.S. Senior National Team each the last two years. The Caquatto sisters are the first pair of sisters on the team since 1983-84. Like her sister, Bridgette has battled injuries that have reportedly limited her at the start of the 2013 season.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2013
Does Faehn need to win a national title to prove she is the right person for the job?
Quite simply, no. From a recruiting standpoint, every women’s gymnastics coach in this country would trade places with Faehn in a heartbeat. She will have gymnasts sitting out events who would compete in the anchor (top) position at most schools. That said, her greatest gift is being able to keep her gymnasts motivated, performing at their individual peaks and working together as a team.
In a somewhat subjectively scored sport such as gymnastics, it’s important for the coach to carry the respect of the judges, as coaches at the championship-winning schools all have. Faehn has earned that over the years, and her ability to motivate the athletes and achieve the best possible scores for her gymnasts is well-documented.
How can Florida get over the hump and finally win that elusive national title?
Staying healthy will be critical to competing with the likes of Alabama, UCLA and others in 2013. Faehn has already discussed resting her athletes and giving her younger or less-experienced athletes more “game-time” conditions early in the schedule. This will help keep Florida’s returning All-Americans fresh for the postseason.
The wealth of talent the Gators possess will create friendly competition within the team as they push each other to be great. Florida’s gymnasts will have to exhibit consistency in practice and score well in meets to remain in the lineup. The ladies will constantly push each other for the right to remain in the lineup, and in doing so will help the Gators reach their potential.
The team will need to avoid some of the pitfalls they’ve faced in previous years. Falls on balance beam and landing errors in the floor exercise have caused Florida to experience heartbreak in years past. In a sport where the national championship last season was lost by less than a tenth of a point, stepping out of bounds on floor or coming up short on a handstand on bars is all it takes to decide which team is the best in the nation.
Is this the year that the heartbreak ends and the Gators finally put it all together?
If ever there was a time for a team to conquer the “big four” teams that have won every single championship to date, this is the year. If there was ever a team to do it, this is the team. As stated earlier, Faehn has an embarrassment of riches with so much talent and depth on each apparatus and no real cracks in the team. A couple of minor scoring deductions on the floor exercise at the Super Six last season allowed Alabama to come back and win the title. With minimal departures this year and the addition of a stellar freshmen class, the Gators should be at or near the top all season long.
Additionally, hosting an NCAA Regional at the O’Connell Center in March will help to ensure Florida makes it to UCLA, where this year’s Super Six will be contested.
The difficulty for Faehn may be in selecting which gymnasts sit out each event, as there is so much depth on the squad, especially on bars and vault. To ensure the team is peaking at the right time, it would be wise to give some early-season opportunities to newcomers, as well as consistently good-scoring “role-players” like seniors Randy Stageberg (vault, beam, floor) and Dali Lemezan (vault, beam) and sophomore Rachel Spicer (all-around). However, when the post-season arrives, expect to see a healthy dose of the All-American talent posting big numbers for the Gators.
All that said, the No. 3 preseason ranking should not last long as Florida will likely be in the top spot as they were last year coming into the postseason. UF should be expecting to compete at the Super Six as a team and for individual event titles. This is the best chance in Gators history to break through and gain the championship – even better than the opportunity that eluded them a year ago.
Photo Credit: Southeastern Conference