UF gymnastics begins SEC title defense


Florida coach Rhonda Faehn was named the SEC Coach of the Year last Friday for the sixth time in her 11 seasons with the Gators.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 7:55 p.m.

It's the start of prime time for the top-ranked Florida Gators.

With the regular season complete, UF is in North Little Rock, Ark., today for the 2013 Southeastern Conference Championships, where the Gators will look to defend their conference crown.

“I know right after we finished the last meet (at Utah), the athletes were already jumping up and down saying how excited they were for SECs,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. “It's going to be a great competition.”

Despite losing their last regular-season dual meet to the No. 7 Utes before almost 15,000 fans (14,903) at Salt Lake City's Huntsman Center last Saturday, UF posted the nation's highest road score of the season (197.875).

That mark moved the Gators' average regional qualifying score to 197.700, good enough to move UF from No. 2 to No. 1 in the national rankings heading into the all-important postseason.

“We had the highest road score of any team in the nation, and that's really tough to do when you're in an environment that you're not comfortable with,” said Faehn, who on Friday was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the sixth time in her 11 seasons at UF.

As the SEC's No. 1 seed, the Gators will have the same Olympic rotation (vault, bars, beam and floor) they enjoyed at home meets.

They will be joined by third-ranked Alabama (197.260), fifth-ranked Georgia (197.160) and sixth-ranked LSU (197.065) in the evening session beginning at 7 p.m.

The fifth through eighth seeds — No. 12 Auburn, No. 16 Arkansas, No. 19 Kentucky and Missouri — will compete in the afternoon session at 3 p.m.

The addition of an eighth team (Missouri) to the SEC led to the two-session format this year.

“I'm actually really excited about postseason,” said sophomore Kytra Hunter, the defending SEC and NCAA all-around and vault champion. “It was a lot of fun from my first experience, just the competing, the training, seeing your old teammates and everything like that.

“But at the same time, you also have to stay in your bubble and the team bubble, and the preparation this year is no different than it was last year. We had a great outcome last year, and we're aiming for better things to come.”

It's already been a record-setting year for UF, which has twice topped the 198 plateau as a team, highlighted by a school-record score of 198.475 in a home win over Minnesota three weeks ago that is the highest mark in the nation in nine years.

“Our team has just stayed incredibly focused on what our team goals are this year,” Faehn said. “I was impressed that we had the highest road score in the nation knowing that we missed a lot of landings. I really genuinely feel that we're a 198 team every time we step out if we do our job, so we just need to go in there and stay focused on quality gymnastics.”

Two-time defending NCAA champ Alabama and Florida, the 2012 NCAA runner-up, have combined to win the last four SEC titles.

“It's an incredible field,” Faehn said. “The SEC is the strongest and most challenging conference in the country. This competition is sometimes even more difficult than the NCAA Championship, and it's the perfect opportunity for our athletes to prepare.

“It's where we won the SEC Championship in 2007 (UF's first under Faehn), and it's a good place for us. The girls are pumped and ready to move on to what they call the most fun and exciting time of the season.”

UF will host one of six NCAA regionals April 6, with the top two teams from each advancing to the NCAA Championships in Los Angeles on April 19-21.

Note: UF's Bridget Sloan was named the SEC Freshman of the Year. She has posted two of the top three all-around scores in the nation this season.

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