By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Florida Gators gymnastics continued breaking through ceilings on Saturday when it captured the program’s third straight NCAA National Championship by edging the competition with a final score of 197.850.
Despite failing to earn its league crown or win its semifinal outright, Florida – led by head coach Rhonda Faehn – took down its top-notch competition Saturday to obtain sole possession of the national title after splitting the honor one year ago.
The Gators’ path to the title was not easy with the program facing potential disappointment late in the contest while on bars. However, junior Bridget Sloan and freshman Alex McMurty came through in the clutch for Florida with consecutive 9.950s on the discipline, earning their team a 0.050 lead that it used to edge Utah and pull out the victory.
The performances of Sloan and McMurty were only equaled by senior Kytra Hunter, who on Friday captured an individual national title in the all-around, cementing her Gators legacy.
UF opened with a 49.300, its lowest team score of the event, on the balance beam in the first rotation. Hunter led the squad with a 9.900.
Florida’s first bye came in the second rotation, and the third event placed UF on the floor exercise. The Gators’ strong floor performance (49.650) earned them the top spot at the halfway mark, and Hunter led all participants on the floor with a season-high 9.975.
The pressure was on for the vault in the fourth rotation after junior Bridgette Caquatto fell to her knees during her landing and received a 9.325 to open the set. Five Gators answered with vaults of 9.825 or better to notch a 49.450 for the event, which was led by Hunter’s 9.925, and a 148.400 through the fourth rotation of the meet.
Florida was on the bye again for the fifth rotation and needed at least 48.850 to catch Stanford’s 197.250 entering the sixth and final rotation. That’s when Sloan and McMurty carried the Gators to a 49.450 on the bars and propelled the team to the overall 197.850 that secure them the national title.
Only four programs – Utah, Georgia, Alabama and UCLA – had won the NCAA title in gymnastics in the 31 years it was awarded (starting in 1982) before Florida captured its first crown in 2013. At the time, UF was the first “new” title winner since UCLA captured its first crown in 1997. Only Utah (1982-86) and Georgia (2005-09) had ever won three straight titles before UF accomplished the feat Saturday.
With three championships now on the mantle – all coming in consecutive seasons – the Gators can now be considered one of the five most dominant gymnastics programs in the sport’s modern history.