Recruits lift gym team to new heights
Six freshmen will be introduced at the season-opening Super Six Challenge.
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 1:36 a.m.
The latest edition of International Gymnast Magazine sits on the desk of Rhonda Faehn in her O'Connell Center office. In it, the magazine highlights several teams with a legitimate chance at winning the NCAA Championship this season, Florida included.
But deeper inside, the magazine lists the selling points each of the top programs has in recruiting. Under Florida it says, "palm trees and sun."
But there's certainly more to it than that. Palm trees and sun have
always been here. But Faehn hasn't.
Since Faehn's arrival at Florida two seasons ago, a flood of experienced and talented freshmen gymnasts have swelled the Gators' roster. And with it has come unprecedented success for the Gators.
The top 10 scores in Florida history have all been turned in since Faehn's arrival, including the school's best team total ever - a 198.225 in the regular season finale last year.
Additionally, her first recruiting class included five freshmen who earned All-American honors last season - the most of any school in the nation. Those freshmen, who accounted for half of Florida's routines, helped the Gators to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
To complement last year's talented class, the Gators welcome six more highly regarded freshmen this season, a class to be unveiled at Friday's season-opening Super Six Challenge at 7 p.m. in the O'Connell Center.
"I think Rhonda has shown year after year, by bringing in strong recruiting classes, that we're recruiting the best athletes in the country," said Samantha Lutz, a Faehn recruit who was an All-American on the beam as a freshman last season. "And a lot of (the freshmen) have had experience and they're ready when they come in. I think that's why we've had so much success with a young team because we're bringing in athletes who are ready to handle everything they have to take on."
That's been the philosophy of Faehn and assistants Randy Lane and Louis Robinson Jr. The Gators want gymnasts who have performed before big crowds on big stages coming in.
Take this year's freshmen, for instance. Nicola Willis represented her native Great Britain in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Tracey Rai was a member of the 2003 Canadian National team. Ashley Reed and Tiffany Murry participated in the Junior Olympic National Champions. And the list goes on and on.
"As a coaching staff, we were trying to find the right athletes who could come in here with a higher skill level than what was on the team," Faehn said. "When you attract those athletes, it makes those who are on the team work harder in order to win a spot in the lineup."
And Faehn has gone all over North American - and the world - to do it. But she insists her first priority is to recruit in Florida, then venture outward. Two of this year's freshmen are from Florida - Murry from Orlando and Reed from Davie. But others are from the far reaches of the globe, like Willis, from Hadleigh, England and Rai, from Delta, British Columbia.
"I really honestly stress to looking close to home, especially in the state of Florida," Faehn said. "I don't want to jump to anything after I've checked here first."
But Faehn has not been afraid to make big leaps. Two other Canadians made a huge splash as freshmen last year - Vancouver's Breanne King and Cambridge, Ontario's Chantelle Tousek. But last year's freshmen class also had a local mix with Destin native Savannah Evans.
"We had a very talented freshmen class last year," Evans said. "And now that we've added to that it's going to be incredible."
While youth can sometimes be used as an excuse, Faehn credited her freshmen last year for its memorable season in 2004.
This year, Florida enters the season with a No. 6 preseason ranking despite 11 of its 16 gymnasts being freshmen and sophomores. If former coach Judi Markell left the cupboard empty, Faehn quickly stocked it up.
And with promises of even better recruiting classes to come, the 33-year-old Faehn seems to be making a large imprint at UF.
"It's going to make this program skyrocket, really," senior Erinn Dooley said. "When you have a great season, you get great recruits. This program is just going to get better and better. It's a really neat thing and it's exciting to see."
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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