Gymnastics set to open season vs. Nebraska


Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 12:13 a.m.

Seldom are the terms “young” and “experienced” used in the same breath when describing an athletic team, but they paint an accurate picture of the 2011 University of Florida gymnastics squad that makes its debut against Nebraska in the O’Connell Center at 7 tonight.

Facts

Open season for UF

Who: No. 10 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Florida.
When: 7 tonight
Where: O’Connell Center
Tickets: $4 for adults, while children 17 and under plus UF students with Gator1 cards are admitted free.

While all but five members of UF’s 14-athlete squad are freshmen or sophomores, a closer look reveals 10 returnees from last year’s SEC Championship team that finished fifth at the NCAA Championships, including five who have 13 All-America honors among them. Add in another elite freshman class as well as the return of emotional leader Maranda Smith, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and there’s little wonder why everyone involved has been counting down the minutes to tonight’s opening performance.

“I’m really excited to get it going,” said head coach Rhonda Faehn, who has guided UF to five consecutive top-five NCAA finishes and six straight regional titles. “You spend so much time in the fall preparing and our athletes worked extremely hard, so it’s nice to be able to finally get out on the competition floor.

“It’s not only a chance to show what they’ve been training for in the fall but also to solidify them as a team, from coming out of the Gator tunnel to performing for the fans and all the excitement that comes along with that. It’s just wonderful to get it under way and get it all going.”

UF, which returns 19 of the 24 routines recorded during last year’s NCAA Championships at the O-Dome, opens the season ranked No. 3 in the nation. Nebraska, seventh at the 2010 NCAAs, is ranked No. 10.

“This team is probably the strongest one we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said senior and two-time All-America Alicia Goodwin. “There’s a lot of depth in all the events, so not only getting in the lineup, but just staying in the lineup, is going to be a challenge for everyone.

“Now that the season is here, everybody is just pumped and ready to go out there and compete. We’re all just so focused and excited about what this season can bring. Our team is really strong.”

The return of Smith, a four-time All-American, gives UF two valuable and experienced senior leaders.

“Having Maranda back is just wonderful, not only because of her talent, but also because of her leadership and her enthusiasm,” said Faehn. “We’re super-excited about that.”

Juniors Elizabeth Mahlich, Nicole Ellis and Amy Ferguson also return, all with solid experience. Mahlich was a 2009 All-American on the beam.

Meanwhile, last year’s fantastic group of newcomers led by SEC Freshman of the Year Ashanee Dickerson and British Olympian Marissa King returns intact. Dickerson, whose seven all-around titles in 2010 were the most by a UF freshman since Elfi Schlegel won nine in 1983, earned two All-America honors, while King, who recorded top-five finishes in both the vault and floor during the individual portion of last year’s NCAA Championships, garnered a team-high four, tying a UF freshman mark.

They are joined by classmates Liz Green, Dali Lemezan and Randy Stageberg. As true freshmen, the quintet accounted for more than half of last year’s scoring routines.

Faehn said this year’s freshmen quartet of Mackenzie Caquatto, Alaina Johnson, Brittney Noble and Lauren Rose could be every bit as good. Caquatto, who just joined the program for the spring semester, was a three-time member of the U.S. Senior National Team who helped lead the U.S. to a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, while Johnson was a two-time member who won the 2010 Junior Olympic Level 10 Senior D all-around title. Noble and Rose are both high-profile recruits from Orlando.

”All in all, I’m just really pleased with how they’ve all been doing and am looking forward to seeing the competitiveness come out and how they perform at the first meet,” Faehn said. “Then we can start taking each competition as a step in improving. But first we need somewhere to start.”

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