More title talk


Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn watches a 2003 practice.

Rob C. Witzel / The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Florida's gymnastics team is making no secret about its' goal for the 2007 season. The Gators feel this is their best chance to win a national championship under head coach Rhonda Faehn.

"This team has every opportunity and every chance to contend for the national title," said Faehn, who is in her fifth season at UF. "We feel it more this year than ever."

Florida fans will get their first chance to see this year's team when the third-ranked Gators host Oregon State tonight at 7 p.m. in the O'Connell Center in Florida's home opener.

The Gators return 23 of the 24 competitive routines that they performed at the 2006 NCAA Championships where the Gators finished fourth. It was their best finish in eight years and third-highest in program history.

Florida's deep and talented roster is a balanced mix that includes five seniors and five freshman, including highly-touted Orlando native Melanie Sinclair, whom Faehn calls the best athlete she's recruited at Florida.

Together, this year's unit has the potential to be a special one.

"We want to win the national championship, but we can't get our hopes up yet," two-time All-American senior Samantha Lutz said. "We know we can do it, but we can't say we're going to get it and that's it. We have to work hard and be consistent and work together as a team."

The Gators showed flashes of their potential last week when they opened their season by winning the Super Six Challenge in Fayetteville, Ark. with a score of 196.55, the Gators' second-highest season-opening score ever.

Interestingly, the Gators aren't shying away from title talk, even this early in the season.

"It's absolutely something we talk about," Faehn said. "We bring it up quite a bit. We don't want it to take the focus away from what it takes to get there."

One certainty is that this is Faehn's deepest team at UF. It starts at the top with five senior All-Americans; Lutz, Breanne King, Savannah Evans, Katie Rue, Chantelle Tousek. The veteran group seems to carry a source of pride with them having come to UF as Faehn's first recruiting class.

"Being Rhonda's first recruiting class, we wanted to turn this program into an NCAA Championship competitor," Lutz said. "We knew when we were recruited that was the direction we were headed."

The group made their presence felt right away, competing as freshmen and leading Florida to a fifth-place finish at the 2004 NCAA Championships.

"It was a big signal we sent out to everyone else, that even though we were young, we were going to make a difference and by the time we were seniors, look out," Lutz said. "And now we are seniors so I think everyone is excited for this."

Florida's top gymnast, as it turns out, may not be a senior or a freshman. It may be sophomore Corey Hartung. As a freshman, Hartung was a three-time All-American and advanced to the NCAA Event Finals in beam and floor at the NCAA Championships. Hartung led UF with 15 event titles last season.

Freshmen Sinclair, Amanda Castillo and Rebekah Zaiser also will contribute. Sinclair, a five-time U.S. National Team member sat out the 2006 season while recovering from a tear in her right anterior cruciate ligament suffered in October of 2005.

Sinclair opened her Gators career by winning the all-around title last week. Faehn said Sinclair is still not 100 percent and will brought along slowly this season.

"Melanie is about 90 percent, which is tremendous," Faehn said. "She has spent quite a bit of time being injured in her career. We're trying to take it slow with her."

Contact Brandon Zimmerman at 374-5051 or zimmerb@gvillesun.com.

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