Expectations high as season opens for UF gymnastics


Florida gymnast Kytra Hunter competes during a meet last season at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The third-ranked Gators open their schedule tonight against Ball State.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 9:15 p.m.

The Florida Gators open the 2013 gymnastics season with a spacious new practice facility, a star-studded roster and a plethora of motivation.

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Florida gymnast Kytra Hunter competes during a meet last season at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The third-ranked Gators open their schedule tonight against Ball State.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Facts

Today's meet

Who: Ball State at No. 3 Florida
When: 7 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center
Tickets: $4 for adults, while children 17 and under and UF students with Gator1 cards are admitted free.

UF, ranked No. 3 in the GymInfo preseason poll, moved into the program's new 18,000-square foot practice facility in the O'Connell Center on Dec. 27. While the Gators are getting accustomed to their new digs, which are still undergoing some last-minute touches, the initial response is a unanimous thumbs-up.

“It's a phenomenal facility,” senior All-American Marissa King said. “It means so much to our program to have this facility now. It's going to be a huge contribution to the future of this program, and it was so needed and I think it was so deserved.”

“Our new facility is amazing,” junior All-American Alaina Johnson said. “We're so excited to have such a nice place to train in. The previous facility wasn't that bad, but this is way better and we love it. It was definitely a great Christmas present.”

“We all love the facility,” added sophomore All-American Kytra Hunter. “We're just really thankful that we got the opportunity to get a new practice gym, and now we're ready to start the season.”

Ball State provides the season-opening competition tonight at 7 for a UF squad that won the 2012 SEC and NCAA Regional titles and finished as national runner-up in the closest finish in the 31-year history of the NCAA Championships.

Just a 10th of a point separated No. 1 from No. 3 in the NCAA Super Six team final, with Alabama (197.85) nipping UF (197.775) and third-place UCLA (197.75) in a finish that came down to the last competitor in the final event.

“As a team, I think we all went home on our own and were upset about coming in second at NCAAs,” Hunter said. “We all had a mindset at the end of the year banquet. I believe this year it's going to be a lot better, and I'm just excited. All of the girls came back in great shape. I think we were so anxious coming back that we were all ready to compete.

“The coaches have done a great job keeping our bodies in the shape they should be and just keeping us on the right path to be ready for the season.”

UF's 15-member roster includes five gymnasts with a total of 29 All-American honors, led by Hunter, who won a pair of individual NCAA titles (all-around and vault) last year as a true freshman, and Johnson. They were the only two performers at the NCAA Championships to earn the maximum of five All-America honors.

Rounding out the quintet are seniors King (2011 NCAA vault champion) and Ashanee Dickerson and junior Mackenzie Caquatto.

Add in another stellar freshman class led by former U. S. Olympian Bridget Sloan, who will be the first world all-around champion (2009) to compete as a collegian, and the ingredients are certainly there for a memorable season.

“This team is so unique and wonderful because of the variety of athletes that we have,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We have quite a bit of depth, which is wonderful and is always needed, and we have an incredible senior class. The experience we have there with Ashanee, Marissa, Randy (Stageberg) and Dali (Lemezan) and the overall excitement that they bring is wonderful. This is their fourth year here, so they really get it.”

Tonight is one of six regular-season home dates for UF, highlighted by an SEC dual meet with two-time defending national champ and top-ranked Alabama on Feb. 8. In addition, the Gators host NCAA Regionals (April 6) for the first time since 2008.

“It's really nice to get this season under way because the preseason is long and it gets a little bit tiring, so it's nice to get out there and kind of see what our athletes are going to do,” Faehn said. “We're going to take it slow again, but it's going to be fun to be back in the O'Dome competing in front of all of our fans.”

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