Anxiety level dips for UF


Published: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 12:44 a.m.
Samantha Lutz remembers walking into her first collegiate gymnastics meet last year, the buzz of 11,000 fans resonating through Alabama's Coleman Coliseum at the Super Six Challenge. She nearly froze.
"I remember walking into the arena and almost feeling numb," Lutz, now a sophomore, said. "I had never experienced anything like that before."
The anxiety level will be lowered a notch when sixth-ranked Florida opens its 2005 season by hosting the Super Six tonight at 7 in the O'Connell Center. The Gators come into the biggest meet of the regular season with many more comfort factors this time. They are more experienced, will be performing on their own equipment and will be supported by a home crowd.
"I think the team is much more confident than last year," Lutz said. "And I think we're going to show that (tonight)."
Florida is hoping to better last year's fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships. Tonight's Super Six, which also includes No. 2 Georgia, No. 4 Alabama, No. 13 Arizona, No. 17 Iowa and No. 19 Penn State, will be an early barometer for the Gators.
Florida has a healthy mix of young and old. Five freshmen who earned All-American honors last year are now experienced sophomores. Meanwhile, seniors Orley Szmuch and Erinn Dooley, who own a combined 10 All-America honors, will lead a team with 11 underclassmen. Five sophomores, who each earned All-American honors as freshmen, will join a new six-member freshmen class.
"I think we're going to be even better than last year," Dooley said. "We had such a talented freshmen group last year. Now they're sophomores with a year under them and they're going to do great. It's a talented group and it's going to show."
And there's nothing like starting the season in the comfort of the O'Dome, a far more hospitable place for Florida than opening at Alabama a season ago. Third-year coach Rhonda Faehn has already noticed the difference from last year's opener.
"Even though they are excited for the season to start, there's a calm confidence," Faehn said. "They want to go out and be aggressive and hit like they've been training, but they don't seem nervous or panicked at all, which is a good feeling."
Perhaps the Gators are taking a cue from Dooley, a fifth-year senior who was a four-time All-American (all-around, vault, beam, floor) last year.
"The last thing Erinn said before we left practice (Tuesday) was, 'It's finally here, what we've been preparing for for so long,' " Lutz said. "I think we're ready for it."
If there are any jitters for Florida, they may be reserved to several freshmen who will make their UF debuts tonight. Faehn said freshman Ashley Reed, from Davie, will participate in the all-around. Freshmen Tiffany Murray, from Orlando, and Tracey Rai, from British Columbia, are also expected to compete. Meanwhile, highly regarded freshman Nicola Willis, from England, will be held out of the early portion of the season due to an ankle injury.
The Gators seemed to benefit last season by allowing their freshmen to gain valuable experience early in the season. The same plan seems to be in effect this year.
"What I'm definitely hoping for is to put them (the freshmen) out there the same as we did last year," Faehn said. "We want to get them prepared for the end of the season and pressure situations."
For tonight, at least, the comforts of home may ease that pressure.
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or at zimmerb@gvillesun.com.

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