By Corey Mitleider and Scott Barr – OGGOA Contributors
A devastating start to the NCAA Super Six made it look as if No. 1 Florida Gators gymnastics was going to fall short of its lofty goals yet again. Instead, an incredible rally by a tough and determined team led Florida to a come-from-behind victory and the 2013 NCAA Championship, the first in the history of the program.
The Gators became just the fifth team in NCAA history to win a national title in gymnastics, doing so Saturday at UCLA’s home gym, the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. UF joined Alabama, Georgia, UCLA and Utah as the only programs to win a national championship in the last 32 years.
Florida finished with a final score of 197.575, defeating Oklahoma (197.375), Alabama (197.350), UCLA (197.100), LSU (197.050) and Georgia (196.675) to claim the school’s second national title in gymnastics. UF previously won the AIWA title in 1982.
Despite emerging victorious on Saturday, the Gators trailed through the first five rotations of the meet due to a terrible start on balance beam to open the competition. Even though Florida was the top-ranked team heading into the Super Six, UF did not compete in the Olympic rotation order, instead beginning on beam, followed with a bye, then floor exercise, vault, a second bye, and finishing on uneven bars.
The Gators registered their third-lowest score of the season on beam; considering the stakes and the competition, it made an elusive national title appear completely out of reach just one rotation into the competition.
Two of Florida’s best performers – senior Ashanee Dickerson (9.075) and sophomore All-American Kytra Hunter (9.325) – fell off the beam, forcing UF to count one of their extremely low scores towards the team total in the event. The Gators finished with a 48.875, the program’s lowest score on any apparatus over the course of the season and the worst event score out of the entire Super Six field.
Fortunately, the team had a bye during the second rotation and was able to regroup after a disappointing start to the meet. UF began its steep climb back into contention when it moved to floor on the third rotation.
The Gators brushed off another bad score, the first of the floor rotation, to put together a school-record 49.725 in the event. The NCAA Super Six-record score included a huge 9.975 by Hunter and three 9.950s from freshman All-American Bridget Sloan, senior Marissa King and freshman Bridgette Caquatto.
Florida continued its historic comeback with a 49.500 on vault. Sloan registered her third 9.950 of the afternoon on the apparatus and saw three teammates – Hunter, King and junior Alaina Johnson – contribute 9.900s.
The incredibly impressive totals in those two events put the Gators right back in the competition. Florida had its second bye during the fifth rotation and watched as Alabama pulled slightly ahead by 0.025 with one rotation to go. UF, which lost the 2012 title to UA by 0.075, had a chance for redemption.
The Gators kept their heads on the bars but did not start with overly impressive scores. Each of the first three gymnasts to compete for Florida registered sub-9.900 scores. Fortunately for the Gators, the Crimson Tide struggled on the beam.
Alabama had Kayla Williams register a 9.625 on the apparatus, a score that otherwise would have been thrown out had Sarah DeMeo not fallen off of the beam. UA was forced to count the 9.625, putting UF one step closer to the title.
Florida’s final three gymnasts contributed big scores with Sloan and junior Mackenzie Caquatto turning in 9.900s and Johnson registering a huge 9.950.
The Gators had the leading scorer in each event with Hunter’s 9.975 on floor standing as the highest individual score in the entire meet. In fact, seven of the nine 9.950+ scored in the Super Six competition were achieved by UF, which explains how the team came back from an unexpected early deficit.
Florida on Saturday was competing in its seventh NCAA Super Six in the last eight seasons. Though Sloan already captured the 2013 NCAA Championship in the all-around, posting the best score in Friday’s competition, she and her teammates will go for individual event titles on Sunday.
Eleven different events will be performed by six Gators as the team hopes to close the season with even more hardware. On this night, however, the focus is on the championship trophy that Florida is bringing back to Gainesville, FL.
The Gators’ national-title winning performance will air on Tuesday, April 30 at 8 p.m. on ESPNU and again on Wednesday, May 1 at 2:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
* OGGOA contributors Corey Mitleider (@cormit123) and Scott Barr (@sbarruf) can be reached on Twitter. Feel free to leave comments and questions below.