2014 Florida Gators gymnastics primer: Repeat?

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.

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Top 13 for 2013: Florida’s best moments of the year

For as bad as things went for the Florida Gators at times in 2013 (see the Not Top 13 for 2013), there were more than a fair share of bright spots. From breathtaking moments and game-winning plays to earning championships and setting records, the Gators had plenty to be proud of in 2013. Check out OnlyGators.com‘s Top 13 for 2013.

13 » A NEW TRADITION
Florida’s football program did not get much right in 2013, but instituting a new pre-game tradition – a “celebrity” serving as Mr. Two Bits in honor of the original, George Edmondson – was absolutely a bright spot. The Gators also picked the perfect person to kick off the new tradition with former running back Errict Rhett performing as if he was made for the role. Others had trouble stepping up to the high benchmark set by Rhett, but the honorary Mr. Two Bits was nevertheless a great sight for fans all season long…even if the team was not. OnlyGators.com sat down with Rhett after his appearance for an extensive interview about the experience and his career.

12 » 15-INNING MARATHON
In the fourth-longest game ever played at the Women’s College Series (longest since 1992), Florida softball prevailed 9-8 over Nebraska in a night game that lasted 15 innings and more than five hours, spanning into the early morning of the next day. The Gators lost two separate leads in the contest before rallying to score two runs in the top of the 15th; UF conceded a run in the latter half of the inning but held on for the victory. Unfortunately for Florida, it had to suit up just hours later for an elimination game against Texas at 1 p.m., one it lost 3-0. The Gators were ranked No. 2 entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament but fell short of a title.

11 » ALL HE WANTED WAS A CHANCE


Redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy waited patiently as he got overlooked time and time again, most recently by head coach Will Muschamp and his offensive coordinators in favor of younger players with higher ratings coming out of high school. When junior QB Jeff Driskel went down with a fractured fibula against Tennessee, Murphy finally got his shot and made the most of it. Over a three-game stretch including games on Sept. 21, Sept. 28 (at Kentucky) and Oct. 5 (vs. Arkansas), Murphy completed 39-of-54 passes (72.2 percent) for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception. (He also gained 135 yards and picked up two more scores with his legs.) Unfortunately for him, Murphy injured his shoulder on Oct. 12 against LSU and was simply not the same player as he took the field in more pain than he or the coaching staff decided to admit publicly. Murphy missed the final three games of the season due to that injury and ultimately transferred, feeling Muschamp would not give him a fair chance to win the starting job in 2014.

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FOUR BITS: Muschamp, volleyball, Sloan, Driskel

1 » Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp apparently provided Pat Dooley, columnist for The Gainesville Sun, with a few minutes of his time at some point over the last week and dropped a couple tidbits of information about the program and where it is headed. Below are some of the most notable nuggets from the 2,000-word column, much of which makes excuses provides reasoning and perspective for Florida’s tough 2013 campaign. You can check out in full by clicking here.

* Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, who just last year saw his team get ravaged by injuries before finishing the 2012 season 5-7 (2-6 SEC), called Muschamp personally to provide support. “He said he couldn’t imagine what we were going through. I got a lot of calls like that. Everyone has injuries, but I had guys in this league who called and said, ‘I don’t know how I would have handled it.’”

* Out of all the injured Gators, only sophomore running back Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and freshmen linebackers Matt Rolin (torn ACL) and Alex Anzalone (shoulder surgery) are expected to miss spring practice. Dooley reports: “Muschamp told me he plans to bump the start of spring practice to later in the year to make sure [junior quarterback Jeff] Driskel is completely rehabilitated after his leg injury.”

* Muschamp said he tried to be more easy-going this season in order to combat much of the negativity the players had to face each week. He regrets that decision. “I tried to make it fun for them and they were used to me being an [expletive] for two years.”

Check out four more BITS of Florida Gators news…after the break!
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Brewer: “One decision made everybody happy.”

The only player in Florida Gators basketball history to win an NCAA Championship and NBA title, forward Corey Brewer signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason and will return to the team that selected him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

After a three-year career at Florida that included the first triple-double in school history, two NCAA titles and the 2007 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, Brewer began playing as a professional with Minnesota but struggled after a torn ACL forced him to miss the majority of the 2008-09 season.

A trade resulted in Brewer being waived, but a subsequent contract signing brought him all the way to the 2011 NBA Finals with Dallas. He has spent the last three years with Denver following a second trade and raised his value by playing in George Karl’s up-tempo system. One of the most coveted free agents on the open market (after the top-tier players got snatched up this offseason), Brewer chose to reunite with Minnesota. But before that season can begin, he will return to Gainesville, FL, to host the fourth annual Corey Brewer Back-to-Back Basketball Camp benefiting the Corey Brewer Fight Diabetes Fund at Shands Hospital.

OnlyGators.com sat down with Brewer on Sunday to discuss his college legacy, NBA career and his charitable endeavors.

ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Growing up in Tennessee, what was it about Florida and head coach Billy Donovan that made you decide that playing for the Gators was the right choice for your future as a basketball player?
COREY BREWER: “First of all, when I came on my official visit and I saw the campus, I was like, man, this is so wonderful. The campus was beautiful. It was just amazing. Everybody was so nice. Coach Donovan and his style of play, playing up-and-down the court, it was perfect for me. Even though I wanted to stay close to home, Tennessee was playing slow at the time and I just did not feel like I fit into Vanderbilt’s system. Florida was definitely the place for me.”

AS: Did you know any of the other guys in your recruiting class before committing?
CB:Al [Horford] from Nike camps a little bit, and I knew Taurean [Green]. He was trying to get me to commit hard when we were at camps together over the summer. Taurean committed first and he was like, ‘Come on, we need you, we need you, you need to go ahead and commit.’ I heard that for a week straight and got to know him well. I didn’t know Jo[akim Noah] too well though.”

AS: What did you think about Jo the first time you met him?
CB: “This guy is just a free spirit, a good guy. When we first met, we were playing in the gym and he came in and started working hard. You could just tell he was a good guy.”

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6 BITS: Bonner, Miller, Johnson, Simpson, Beisel

1 » In South Florida for about a week while his team participated in the first two games of the 2013 NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner told ProBasketballTalk that he was getting a lot of support from Florida Gators fans in the area. “I’ve been getting ‘Go Gators’ everywhere,” Bonner said. “Even people with Miami Heat jerseys, walking down the street will yell at everyone else then see me, wait for no one to look and [whisper] ‘Go Gators.’ It’s the whole spectrum, older Gators, younger Gators. You know, it’s six degrees of separation, except here it’s like two or three degrees of Gator separation.” Bonner, who OGGOA noted last week is a big fan of sandwiches, also said that he enjoyed a few Cuban sandwiches while in town.

2 » Miami guard Mike Miller looks every bit of 33 years old most of the time, but his ability to drain threes in the playoffs has made him a hot name for the second-straight postseason. On Sunday during Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Miller went 3-for-3 from downtown, scoring nine points on the evening as his team pulled off a victory. Though he still looks old, Miller feels young for the first time in a while; during the 2012 playoffs, he could not run without limping. “I’ve got a lot of basketball left. It’s the best I’ve felt in five years,” Miller told ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez. “Sometimes, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even when you’re frustrated. I feel great. Knock on wood it stays that way.”

Check out four more BITS of Florida Gators news…after the break!
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FOUR BITS: women’s tennis, Tebow, Purifoy

1 » After falling short of a third-straight team national title, Florida Gators women’s tennis felt confident that its three singles competitors would make some noise in the 2013 NCAA Singles Championship, which began on Wednesday. Instead, all three Florida women lost their first-round matches and were eliminated from the competition. No. 1 senior Lauren Embree continued her tough week by being upset 3-6, 2-6. Just two days earlier, Embree suffered the first NCAA dual match singles loss of her career when she was similarly beaten in straight sets. For one of the greatest tennis players in school history, both results are shocking. No. 17 junior Sofie Oyen (3-6, 4-6) and No. 51 junior Alex Cercone (3-6, 7-6, 4-6) also dropped their matches; all three lost to lower-ranked competitors. The No. 11 duo of Embree/Oyen will participate in the 2013 NCAA Doubles Championship beginning on Thursday.

2 » The “Chuck Norris wears Tim Tebow pajamas” joke that was so often mentioned during former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow’s college days got the actor’s attention at the time. The two wound up meeting and becoming friendly. Now Norris (via the conservative-slanted website NewsBusters) is campaigning on Tebow’s behalf, questioning why he is not currently employed by an NFL team despite proving to be a clutch player. In this 1,075-word rant, Norris calls Tebow “a winner – plain and simple” while arguing that the two are very similar as people and that is why the Jacksonville Jaguars should be signing the controversial player.

I’ve heard the critics say Tebow has poor technical skills, but the truth is that Tim is a natural leader, an amazingly gifted football player, an inspiration to his team and the possessor of intense determination and strategy to bring any team to victory — no matter what the odds. One can improve technique, but leadership is innate. That is why I believe that Tebow could be a superstar and legend in the NFL.

Tebow is a player who rises to the occasion and delivers big in critical moments. He reminds me of myself when I used to compete in martial arts. I would spar with my black belts in class, and sometimes they would outscore me. Yet in the tournaments, I would defeat them. My students used to ask me, “Why is it that we can contend equally against you in class but can’t beat you in the tournaments?” My answer was always the same: “When it counts, I rise to the occasion.”

3 » Florida junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy is receiving a ton of praise heading into the 2013 season, especially from ESPN’s draft analysts. Mel Kiper, Jr. has Purifoy ranked as his No. 10 overall prospect, and Todd McShay believes he is approaching “top-tier” cornerback status. “FLA CB Purifoy (#15) needs strength and to improve [his] ‘off’ cover skills, but [he] has feet, balance, hips, instincts to become [a] top-tier NFL corner,” he tweeted on Wednesday. McShay has Purifoy ranked as his No. 19 overall prospect and also sees him making an impact as a punt return specialist in the NFL.

4 » If you have find yourself wondering what Florida’s sports nutrition program is like, check out this feature by Scott Carter, the senior writer on Florida’s official website, which profiles the program and Sarah Snyder, the Gators’ director of nutrition. “What can give you that upper edge if everyone is doing the same amount of practice time, the same amount of intensity?” Snyder asked rhetorically. “Hydration and nutrition come into play, and recovery comes into play.”

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Lauren Embree named National Player of the Year

Florida Gators senior tennis player Lauren Embree was named the 2013 ITA National Senior Player of the Year on Tuesday.

Just the third player in school history to receive the honor (Nicole Arendt in 1991, Jessica Lehnhoff in 2002), Embree is the reigning 2012 ITA/Rivera Women’s All-American Singles Champion. She is currently ranked No. 1 by the ITA and was announced on Tuesday as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2013 NCAA Singles Tournament, which opens play on Wednesday.

Embree is also a three-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year (2010-12).

She has led Florida to four-straight Southeastern Conference regular-season titles (2009-12), four consecutive SEC Tournament crowns (2009-12) and back-to-back NCAA National Championships (2011-12) with her singles victories clinching both national titles for the Gators.

In NCAA dual match play, Embree is Florida’s career leader in singles wins (15-1), doubles wins (19-3), combined wins (34-4) and combined winning percentage (.895). She usually played her best when it meant the most for the Gators.

Photo Credit: Ron Irby/Tampa Bay Times

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SEC Storied film to feature UF’s Abby Wambach

Former Florida Gators striker Abby Wambach will be the subject of ESPNU‘s eighth SEC Storied documentary, OGGOA has learned.

Abby Head On, which is set to premiere on May 15 at 8 p.m. on ESPNU, will be officially announced by the network later Monday. The film chronicles Wambach’s collegiate career with the Gators, international accomplishments with the U.S. Women’s National Team and quest to break Mia Hamm’s international scoring record.

After surprising the soccer community by choosing to attend Florida over powerhouse North Carolina, Wambach led the Gators to four-straight SEC Championships (1998-2001), two Final Fours (1998, 2001) and an NCAA Championship (1998), which remains the soccer program’s only national title to this day.

Individually while playing for UF, she was a two-time SEC Player of the Year (2000-01) and SEC Freshman of the Year (1998) who was also a four-time All-SEC First Team selection and three-time first-team All-American.

Wambach left Florida upon graduation as the school record holder in goals (96), game-winning goals (24), points (242), assists (49) and hat tricks (10); she maintains the No. 1 spot in each of those categories to this day.

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