Top-ranked Florida opens title defense at UCLA

Florida coach Rhonda Faehn returns to UCLA, her alma mater, Saturday at 10 p.m. as the top-ranked Gators take on the No. 4 Bruins in both team's season opener.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer/File
Published: Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 12:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 10, 2014 at 8:19 p.m.

You can definitely sense a different vibe with the Florida gymnastics team this year.


Tonight's meet

Who: No. 1 Florida (0-0) at No. 4 UCLA (0-0)
When: 10 p.m. today
TV: Pac-12 Network, Cox channel 704 (1704 HD for Cox Contour subscribers)
Note: Free preview of Pac-12 Networks to Cox subscribers this weekend.

Such is the case when you open the season as the defending NCAA champions for the first time in program history.

“I think that this team has definitely gained a lot of confidence from their experience last season,” coach Rhonda Faehn said. “They're super excited. It's always a very long preseason, so just to get started is a huge lift in the athlete's minds, and they feel ready. It's just a matter of getting them out there and having a starting place.”

That starting place happens to be the same Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles where UF captured the 2013 NCAA crown last April.

Florida, the No. 1-ranked team in the GymInfo Preseason poll for the first time, will take on No. 4 UCLA, Faehn's alma mater, tonight at 10 in the season opener for both squads.

The meet can be viewed live locally on Cox channel 704 (1704 HD for Cox Contour subscribers) as part of this weekend's Pac-12 Network free preview. It will be re-aired Sunday at 1 p.m.

“It's a great experience to go back with the wonderful memories that we have of winning there,” Faehn said. “The athletes know that this is a new team and a new chapter, so they want to start out on the right foot in the first meet.”

A new team, yes, but a 13-member squad that is loaded with talent, experience and leadership at all levels, beginning with returning senior All-Americans Alaina Johnson, the 2013 NCAA uneven bars champion, and Mackenzie Caquatto, who placed fourth on the bars and balance beam at NCAAs.

Joining them to form a strong four-person core of all-arounders are junior All-American Kytra Hunter, the 2012 Honda Award winner as the nation's top gymnast who was the NCAA all-around and vault champion as a freshman, and sophomore All-American Bridget Sloan, the 2013 Honda Award winner who was last year's NCAA all-around and beam champ and runner-up to Johnson on the bars.

Sophomores Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto and Bridgette (Bridgey) Caquatto, Mackenzie's younger sister, also return after impressive freshman campaigns, and the Gators have added a pair of highly touted newcomers in freshmen Claire Boyce and Silvia Colussi-Pelaez.

Rounding out the squad are senior Lauren Rose, juniors Rachel Spicer, Kiersten Wang and Jamie Shisler and sophomore Morgan Frazier.

“It's great. We have a tremendous senior class, and they have a lot of experience,” Faehn said. “But also we have Kytra in the junior class and Bridget in the sophomore class, and then we have other sophomores like Bianca and Bridgey coming into their own. And Claire, as a freshman, has such a tremendous work ethic, but also is a very strong mental competitor.

“It's wonderful to see all the classes stepping up in the leadership role, and they have a great dynamic together. It's going to be fun to be on the road and get that part started, too.”

Faehn noted that Shisler, who had a pin inserted in her foot, is about a month away from competing, but that Wang recently re-aggravated a groin injury and may be sidelined for some time.

Otherwise, the Gators, who open SEC action at Auburn on Jan. 17 before hosting Georgia on Jan. 24 in the O'Connell Center in their home opener, are primed and ready.

The SEC Championships, where UF is the two-time defending champion, will be held in Birmingham, Ala., on March 22, with NCAA Regionals set for April 5.

The 2014 NCAA Championships (April 18-20) are in Birmingham.

“I think it's going to be another awesome year for the team,” Sloan said. “I have high hopes that we'll be able to kick it in during postseason. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and our routines, which is great to see.”

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