Top-ranked Gators dominate fifth annual Link to Pink meet

Florida's Maranda Smith performs the floor exercise during the Florida gymnastics meet against Penn State and NC State at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Friday, January 28, 2011.

Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 5:51 p.m.

Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn raised a few eyebrows before the season when she said that this year's freshman class may be every bit as good, and possibly even better, than last year's top-ranked class that led UF to an SEC Championship and fifth-place NCAA finish.

Friday night at the fifth annual Link to Pink meet in the O'Connell Center, those same freshmen did some eyebrow-raising of their own.

Led by newcomers Alaina Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto and spurred on by a crowd of 8,272 that ranks as the fifth-largest in school history, the top-ranked Gators dispatched No. 13 North Carolina State and No. 23 Penn State by posting a season-high score of 197.500 to improve to 5-0 on the season while cementing their spot as the nation's No. 1 team.

The Nittany Lions (2-4) were second with a season-best mark of 195.30, while the Wolfpack (1-3) took third with a score of 194.075.

The Gators were simply dominant in their annual meet to raise awareness about breast cancer, and the large and enthusiastic crowd loved every minute of it.

Nobody was more dominant than Johnson, who posted scores of 9.95 to win the vault and uneven bars titles, scored a 9.775 on the beam and then capped the evening by winning the floor exercise – an event she wasn't even originally supposed to compete in – with a 9.925, giving her the first all-around title of her brief collegiate career with a collegiate-best score of 39.60.

“I actually wasn't planning on doing all-around,” Johnson said. “(Assistant coach) Adrian (Burde) asked me after beam if I wanted to do floor since I had done so well on the other events, and so I was like ‘Well, might as well go for it.' I got my mind ready and got my body ready and went out there and gave it my best effort.”

Caquatto, meanwhile, wasn't far behind. Only recently given the green light after recovering from a stress injury to her knee, the 2010 U.S. World Championship Team member enjoyed her best meet yet as a Gator, scoring collegiate-best marks and recording runner-up finishes in all three events in which she competed. Her 9.925 on the bars tied Penn State's Natalie Ettl for second, and she claimed second place outright on both the beam and floor with identical marks of 9.90, with the floor appearance her first of the year.

“This week, I was definitely a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident,” Caquatto said. “I had more numbers under my belt for each routine, and getting out there on floor was just an amazing feeling. It's one of my favorite events.”

The 1-2 punch that powered last year's freshmen had their moments as well. Reigning SEC Gymnast of the Week Ashanee Dickerson brought the crowd to its feet with a near-perfect performance in winning the balance beam, and classmate Marissa King came through with season-best efforts on the vault (9.90) and floor (9.875) to share second place in the vault and third on the floor with Penn State's Sharaya Musser, who finished runner-up in the all-around with a season-high 39.475.

For a moment it looked like Dickerson may get the first perfect score of 10 by a Gator on the beam since 2004 (Kristen Stuckey) — and just the second in history — when she stuck her very tough dismount and landing.

The first judge gave her a 10, but the second gave her a 9.95, leaving her score for the event as 9.975, good enough to tie for the No. 2 all-time UF score in the event.

“My heart was beating really fast and I started jumping up and down,” Dickerson said when she saw the first 10 flashed. “Rhonda just told me to go out and wave to the crowd, so that's what I did.”

UF showed tremendous balance, with the Gators scoring variance in the four events a mere tenth of a point. Their best score was their season-high 49.425 on the vault, while their lowest was a 49.325 on the beam, which also happened to be a season-high. They scored a 49.375 on the bars and the floor.

“I just felt like everything tonight really came together as far as their energy,” Faehn said. “It started right from the start with the vault. Tonight, all four events were really well-balanced. They did a really great job everywhere. You can see they're more relaxed and trusting one another.

“There was so much energy, just in the arena tonight. You could feel it from the fans and the crowd. It was just really special. Great gymnastics, but more important was the unbelievable cause.”

The Gators return to SEC action Friday night when they entertain No. 6 Alabama at 7 in the O-Dome.

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