A long road home for defending champion Gators
Published: Friday, January 24, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 11:04 p.m.
Hosting your first dual meet after back-to-back road wins to open the season? Exciting.
Having one of your biggest SEC rivals as the opponent? Motivating.
Competing for the first time at home as the defending NCAA champions? Priceless.
Such is the scenario for the No. 3 Florida Gators, who square off against No. 6 Georgia Saturday at 7 in the O'Connell Center.
The meet kicks off Pack the Dome weekend at UF, with the goal to draw a combined 25,000 fans to the four sporting events scheduled. The O'Dome also will play host to the Florida-Auburn swim meet Saturday at 11 a.m., the Florida-Tennessee men's basketball game Saturday at 4 p.m., and the Florida-Auburn women's basketball game Sunday at 3 p.m.
“I am incredibly stoked for this weekend,” said sophomore All-American and reigning SEC Gymnast of the Week Bridget Sloan. “I was thinking about it last week, like 'Oh my gosh, one more week and then we're home.' I really do hope we can pack the dome and have everyone come out and support us.”
Considering two of the top four all-time home gymnastics crowds — highlighted by a program-record 10,855 in 2008 — have been recorded at Florida-Georgia meets, Sloan may well get her wish.
The Gators (2-0, 1-0) are coming off a 197.075-196.225 win at No. 18 Auburn last Friday after traveling across the country and opening the season at No. 4 UCLA on Jan. 11, where they prevailed by the smallest of possible margins (0.025) in a 196.65-196.625 win.
That season-opening meet was on a Saturday, which coupled with the cross-country trip back from Los Angeles, left UF with only two days to practice before the long bus ride to Auburn last Thursday.
“I was thrilled with the way that we came out and performed at Auburn,” coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We were very energetic. Again, there were little mistakes here or there, but they didn't affect the overall result.
“Now we are looking forward to our home meet against Georgia. I know that our whole team feels they've gained some experience from their first two meets and are gaining more confidence, and I know they are just really excited to get out there.”
The Gym Dogs (2-2, 1-0) competed twice each of the first two weekends, suffering road losses to then-No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 9 Stanford before posting home wins over No. 2 LSU last Friday and Iowa on Monday. Their winning score of 197.40 against the Hawkeyes is the nation's second-highest team mark this year.
“It's going to be very exciting to get back in the O'Dome in front of our fans,” senior All-American Mackenzie Caquatto said. “It's hard starting out on the road, especially two meets in a row against very good teams. We've got another very good SEC team coming in here in Georgia, so it will be nice for everyone to be back in our element and have our home crowd with us.”
Georgia, which won 10 NCAA titles under former coach Suzanne Yoculan including five straight from 2005-09, slipped a bit from 2010-12 following her retirement, but returned to the NCAA Super Six last year under first-year coach Danna Durante, now in her second season.
“I would just encourage everyone to come out because it's going to be a phenomenal show,” Faehn said. “We're really excited because we just want to pack the dome. The team is so looking forward to running out of the tunnel and being in front of our fans and our home crowd. We just love competing at home, and I think it's going to be a great time and some great gymnastics.”