By Scott Barr – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Coming off last season’s historic performance, which included the first NCAA Championship in program history and its second overall national championship (1982 – NAIA), No. 4 Florida Gators gymnastics team opens the 2014 season seeking to defend the title they and head coach Rhonda Faehn worked so hard to achieve.
Florida, which became just the fifth team in NCAA history to win the national title in 31 years, opened its 2014 schedule last Saturday with a tight 196.650-196.625 victory on the road against then-No. 4 UCLA, a perennial power in the sport. UF will travel to Auburn this Friday for its first Southeastern Conference meet of the season.
The Gators schedule is always supremely challenging and 2014 is no different with home meets against three teams that competed at in the 2013 NCAA Championship: Oklahoma (second), Georgia (sixth) and Arkansas (10th). Road meets include the win over UCLA and a meet against rival and 2012 national title-winner Alabama (third in 2013).
This challenging schedule provides Florida with an excellent opportunity to measure itself against top-notch competition as it prepares to defend its crown.
Unlike last year when there were no major departures, this year’s squad lost a lot of talent in two All-Americans, though one still has a role in Gainesville, FL.
Ashanée Dickerson: An 11-time All-American, SEC Freshman of the Year and member of the All-SEC team in 2010 and 2011, Dickerson’s 68 event titles rank fourth all-time on UF’s career list. Her nine titles in NCAA regional competition, including the 2013 vault title, are second all-time for the Gators. In addition to the loss of Dickerson’s consistent routines each meet, the team will miss her energy and competitive fire.
Marissa King: Also an 11-time All-American, King was the 2011 NCAA Champion in the vault and finished tied for third in the 2013 NCAA Championship all-around competition. A representative for Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, King is not just talented but also supremely experienced. Though she will not be on the mats in competition, King remains with the program as a student coach, which is a big coup for the program.
KEY GYMNASTS RETURNING
Sophomore Bridget Sloan: The first World Champion in the all-around (2009) to compete as a collegiate athlete, Sloan came in with high expectations and delivered in every way. A member of the United States’ Olympic silver medal team in Beijing, Sloan ended her freshman season with 2013 NCAA titles in the all-around and balance beam. She also won the Honda Award as top collegiate gymnast, becoming the fourth freshman to win the honor in 37 years. Sloan’s only goal her sophomore season is to do exactly what she did for Florida as a freshman.
Junior Kytra Hunter: Taking the gymnastics world by storm as a freshman in 2012, Hunter won the NCAA titles in the all-around and vault, becoming the first all-around champion in program history while taking home the Honda Sports Award (feats Sloan replicated last year). During her sophomore season, Hunter added four All-American honors at the NCAA Championships and is now a 13-time All-American. She matched a UF record that stood since 1996 with a 39.80 in the all-around on March 1, 2013, and picked up 18 event titles on the season.
Senior Mackenzie Caquatto: A serious injury to both ankles, experienced during the final portion of camp for the 2011 U.S. World Team, forced Caquatto to compete only seven times on the uneven bars in 2012 after her stellar freshman season as an all-around competitor in 2011. Regaining her health in 2013, she returned to vault and balance beam, competing in three events the majority of the season but never on floor exercise. Caquatto captured first-team All-American honors last season on beam and bars. She is expected to compete on all four apparatuses in 2014 as long as her health issues remain in the rear-view mirror.
Senior Alaina Johnson: In 2012, Johnson won two first-team All-American honors (all-around and bars) and three second-team All-American honors (vault, beam, floor). Her 39.60 at nationals placed her fourth in the country. However, Johnson’s junior campaign in 2013 was derailed by a stress fracture in her back, causing her to go from being an all-arounder to missing the majority of the season. She returned on a limited basis at the NCAA Regionals and remarkably became the first gymnast in Gators history to win the NCAA title in the uneven bars. Her return as a full-time competitor in 2014 will help offset the losses of Dickerson and King.
Freshman Claire Boyce: Arriving on campus with a strong resume including gold medal-caliber amateur coaching, Boyce was a member of the 2012 Junior Olympics National Team and was the 2012 Junior Olympic Level 10 Senior A all-around champion.
Freshman Silvia Coulussi-Pelaez: Extensive international experience gives Coulussi-Pelaez a pedigree and early edge at competition time. With dual citizenship in Spain and Canada, she has competed and succeeded at both world and national championships for each country, usually finishing in the top five of her events.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2013
Can Florida avoid complacency after its hard work finally paid off with a national title?
The goal remains the same though the circumstances have obviously changed. Gators gymnastics enthusiasts can rest assured that Faehn will have the team primed, trained and motivated to defend its title. As failures in past seasons have proven, the difference between champion and runner-up in this sport can be as slight as one balance check on the beam or one small step landing on vault. The coaches and student-athletes know that Florida must stay focused in order to repeat. With a battle-tested group of core competitors and plenty of tough opponents throughout the regular season, complacency should not be an issue for this squad.
How will the Gators fill all of the lost routines caused by losing three seniors?
Unlike last season, when Florida had an embarrassment of riches to fill the lineup, the losses of Dickerson, King and Randy Stageberg leave plenty of spots open in 2014. The good news for the Gators is that Johnson returning and Caquatto coming back into her own will close many of those gaps. There will still be some routines that need competitors, and if the UCLA meet is any indication, sophomore Bridgette Caquatto and junior Rachel Spicer will get first the first opportunities. Expect to see plenty from junior Kirsten Wang on vault and floor exercise as well.
Photo Credit: NCAA