By Jim Harvin
The fifth-ranked Florida gymnastics team is a confident and proud group heading into the 2018 NCAA Championships beginning today in St. Louis.
Led by senior 18-time All-American and returning NCAA all-around champion Alex McMurtry, UF will be one of six teams in Session II of the NCAA Championships beginning tonight at 7 in the Chaifetz Arena and airing live on ESPNU.
Florida will be joined by No. 1 and two-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma, No. 4 Utah, No. 8 Washington, No. 9 California and No. 12 Kentucky.
“The coaches have been coming down hard on us for the last couple of weeks because I know that they know we can win a championship,” McMurtry said. “It just comes down to the details and it comes down to us performing our best. I truly think this team has the best chance we’ve had in a couple of years.”
Session I, which begins at 1 p.m., will air live on ESPN2 and features No. 2 LSU, No. 3 UCLA, No. 6 Alabama, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 11 Nebraska and No. 18 Georgia.
The top three teams from each session move on to the NCAA Super Six at 7 p.m. Saturday to decide the national title.
UF has finished fourth and third, respectively, in coach Jenny Rowland’s first two seasons after winning three straight NCAA titles from 2013-15 under former coach Rhonda Faehn.
“It’s always such an honor to be able to get to this point in the season,” Rowland said. “This team is on a mission for sure. We took away a lot of confidence from our regional competition where we had a great meet. We’ve just been building on that here in the gym.”
UF is one of a record six SEC teams in the NCAA semifinals, topping the previous mark of five attained on several occasions.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Florida, which lost senior and 11-time All-American Kennedy Baker and sophomore Sierra Alexander to torn Achilles’ tendons during the season.
But coming off an NCAA regional win, where the Gators posted the second-highest team score in the nation behind top-ranked Oklahoma, UF is brimming with confidence.
“We’re really excited,” junior and 11-time All-American Alicia Boren said. “I’m not one to say things because I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think that if we are normal, good things will come. We have a lot of talent, and we have a lot that this team can show and can prove.”
Senior and three-time All-American Rachel Slocum agreed.
“This is the most positive that we’ve been this whole year,” Slocum said. “What we’ve been doing has been leading up to this weekend, and we’re all just going to go out and leave it all on the floor and do our best to put everything we’ve been working for towards this meet.”
Let the games begin.
“I can’t say anything negative,” Rowland said. “Lots of positive energy, positive vibes and really just having a lot of fun. That’s what this team is really good at doing.
“We have a lot of confidence and are looking to build on that momentum in St. Louis.”
What: 2018 NCAA Gymnastics Championships
Where: Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, Mo.
Semifinal I 1 p.m., ESPN2: LSU, UCLA, Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, Georgiaz
Semifinal II 7 p.m., ESPNU: Oklahoma, Utah, Florida, Washington, California, Kentucky
Note: To move ahead to Saturday’s NCAA Championships’ Super Six team final, the Gators need a top-three finish in Friday’s second semifinal.