Sky's their limit

Florida uses early success as its springboard

Last week, Florida junior Kristen Stucky used a 9.925 to claim her second consecutive balance beam crown.

LARA NEEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 12:30 a.m.

The afternoon began innocently enough. Florida gymnasts Kristen Stucky and Erin Pendleton were driving about town, running errands. On this Friday in Gainesville, the sky was blue, the air pleasantly warm.

Touched by it all, Stucky turned to Pendleton and offered up a prediction.

"I said, 'It feels like a 197-day, Erin'," Stucky said. "I just felt it. I felt the vibe."

That night - last Friday in the O'Connell Center - it became a 197-day. The Gators posted a season-high score of 197.10 in a victory over LSU as Stucky's prediction held true. Florida scored a 195.95 the previous week at the Super Six Challenge in Alabama.

"When they announced the score I was jumping up and down," Stucky said. "I looked at Erin and she said, 'We did it.'

"So for (tonight), I have to predict we'll score a 197.5. That way, we can get it."

The Gators' newest prognosticator thus far is more accurate than Punxsutawney Phil, Pennsylvania's famed groundhog. Who knows if Stucky will see her shadow this morning when she rises.

But the Gators are all in agreement. They are set to push their season-best score up another notch.

Tonight, the Gators (5-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) will try to do that when they host the Florida Quad Meet at 7 p.m. in the O'Connell Center. Competing alongside the third-ranked Gators will be Illinois-Chicago, Michigan State and North Carolina State.

The Gators' expectations for this season are suddenly soaring after a promising second-place showing at the Super Six Challenge two weeks ago followed by last week's win over LSU, which marked the earliest point in a season the Gators broke 197.

Coach Rhonda Faehn said her team is focusing on fine-tuning a few mistakes and is using theirits early season success to push them harder.

"That is a motivator for them," Faehn said. "We're third in the country. We scored a 197 in our second competition of the year shows we have potential of fine-tuning all the little things - hitting the landings everywhere, showing everything off more and then going from there. Our goals are now a little bit higher."

The all-around performances of junior Orley Szmuch and freshman Breanne King have been a big factor in the Gators' week-to-week improvement. Szmuch - the reigning SEC gymnast of the week - won her eighth career all-around title last week with a 39.55 against LSU while King finished second with a 39.475. King's total was the second-highest all-around total ever recorded by a Florida freshman.

"We just want to build from last weekend," Szmuch said. "We want to gain a little more experience. I still think we can up our score. There's still a lot of room for improvement."

You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at zimmerb@gvillesun.com

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