Florida gymnastics finished second at SEC Championships

Trouble on its middle two events kept the No. 1 University of Florida gymnastics team (17-2, 5-1 SEC) from defending its Southeastern Conference title Saturday evening in front of a Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center crowd of 8,025. No. 2 Alabama took the 2011 SEC crown with a final total of 197.225. Florida was second at 196.975.

No. 8 Georgia took third (196.625), followed by No. 12 Arkansas (195.80), No. 19 LSU (195.475), No. 22 Auburn (195.325) and Kentucky (193.95).

“I was happy with the way they came out, the energy that they showed and they way that they finished,” UF’s Rhonda Faehn said. “It was the middle two events that we obviously didn’t do what we are capable of doing.”

Florida opened the competition with a solid uneven bars set of 49.25, which ended as the meet’s high total on the event Saturday. The freshmen at the end of the lineup led the Gators Saturday. Mackenzie Caquatto, making her only appearance of the meet as she rolled her right ankle in Monday’s conditioning session, posted a 9.875 to tie for fourth overall. Johnson earned a 9.90 to share second overall in the final standings.

Although no falls were recorded by the Gators, several balance checks and wobbles were computed into the Gators’ balance beam total of 48.95. Senior Alicia Goodwin anchored the lineup with a collegiate-best 9.90, tying for second overall.

For Goodwin, it was her first performance on the event at the league championships. Some words of confidence from her teammates, including a few things to keep in mind from Caquatto, helped Goodwin set her collegiate-best mark.

“I knew we hadn’t had the best rotation so far. I was pretty nervous before I went up there. The team was telling me to take one thing at a time and Macko (Mackenzie Caquatto) gave me some pointers about competing on a podium since this would be my first beam routine on podium,” Goodwin said. “While waiting for the judges to signal me, Rhonda was really encouraging. I just took it one thing at a time and I was really pleased with how it turned out.”

Stumbles on landings and a missed start value dinged the scores of Florida’s opening three floor performers. The later portion of Florida’s lineup scored well, with the final three performers posting marks of 9.90 or better. Maranda Smith and Johnson each turned in marks of 9.90 to tie for third overall. Ashanée Dickerson, who was battling the onset of the flu in Saturday’s meet, pushed through to claim a share of the SEC floor title with her mark of 9.925. Florida led all teams with its floor event total of 49.375.

The SEC win is the first of Dickerson’s career and gives the Gators their first SEC floor title since Amanda Castillo claimed back-to-back wins in 2007 and 2008.

With Alabama on bye for the final rotation, a little math showed that the Gators would need a Herculean effort on vault to retain the SEC title. Florida needed to pass its 2004 school vault record total of 49.65 for the win. The Gators did post a 49.40 on vault, just 0.075 off its season best. Three Gators shared a team-high 9.90 Saturday – Nicole Ellis, Marissa King and Dickerson. The mark placed them in an eight-way tie for second in the final vault standings.

Johnson was edged by the slenderest of margins, 0.025, for the all-around title. Georgia senior Cassidy McComb claimed the title at 39.40, while Johnson was runner-up at 39.375. Dickerson shared sixth at 39.25.

In the post-meet award ceremony, Johnson picked up the SEC Freshman of the Year honor. It is the second consecutive for the Gator program, as Dickerson was the 2010 recipient. Faehn also was selected as the SEC Coach of the Year – the fourth of her career and second consecutive.

Other event winners Saturday included Alabama’s Kayla Hoffman (vault/9.95) and Geralen Stack-Eaton (beam/9.925) and Georgia’s Kat Ding (bars/9.925). Hoffman also was named the SEC Gymnast of the Year.

Faehn wants this meet to be a motivator for the Gators in the important upcoming meets.

“Alabama did a great job tonight. They had a great competition,” Faehn said. “Last year, we won the SEC Championship, but didn’t do so well at nationals. So we are hoping that this fires our athletes up and gives them that extra push to ensure that we are focused and on point for the national championships this year.

“We need to get our rhythm back with our people who are normally in the lineup,” she continued. “We need to work toward refocusing and peaking at nationals.”

Next up, the Gators await Monday’s announcement by the NCAA of team assignments for the six NCAA Regional sites. The NCAA Regional Championships are set for April 2. The top two teams at each of the six sites will advance to the NCAA Championships, set for April 15-17 in Cleveland’s Wolstein Center.