UF outshines UIC in home opener

Earlier this week, mats hadn’t been laid on the center stage of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center’s floor. Excitement for the No. 3 Florida gymnastics team was building, shining through in anticipation for Friday’s first home matchup of the year against the women of University of Illinois-Chicago. One thing about the home meets held a special place of anticipation for freshman Kytra Hunter — running through the Gator head before the meet.

Hunter expressed her excitement to the media and one of her fellow gymnasts was listening. So from that point, junior Marissa King decided to make Hunter’s first experience through the tunnel one for the books.

She approached Hunter before they went out of the head.

“Do you want to carry the flag with me?” King asked Hunter.

The Gators carry out large orange and blue flags while running out of the tunnel. Though King said Hunter was “super nervous,” she obliged.

“Just follow me,” King said.

King told her not to lift it too high to avoid getting the flag stuck and they burst into the spotlight of a crowd of about 4,800 that flowed in the O’Connell Center’s stands. 

King had the same experience her freshman year.

“It’s definitely something you’ll look back on as being a great memory,” King said. “It was a lot of fun. I think she enjoyed that.”

That was just the beginning of the night for Hunter. While UF swept UIC in vault, bars, beam and floor exercise with a final total of 196.175 to 191.875, Hunter picked up her second all-around win of the season to match her victory against North Carolina State Jan. 6.

It was a meet of young face debuts for the Gators, as freshman Jamie Shisler was the first competitor of the meet, opening up for Florida on vault.

“For the last three months, I visualized the first home meet,” Shisler said. “Never did I imagine that I’d be the first one up the first meet – the freshman, the new kid on the block. I was just hoping to exhibition.”

But Shisler opened and proved strong for the lineup, nailing a 9.75.

“It was pressure-packed, but it was the best feeling ever once I finished and knew I had a successful vault,” she said. “I keep replaying it over and over again in my head.”

The freshman joined the squad this month and still set the tone for the meet.

Though coach Rhonda Faehn is opting for a bit of a preservation approach this season to rest her all stars and allow others experience, the Gators’ new lineup approach deemed successful.

Despite the fact Hunter was the only all-around performer for the Gators for the meet, the usual knockout all-arounders, including juniors Ashanée Dickerson and Marissa King, as well as sophomore Alaina Johnson, shined in their select events.

Dickerson secured the vault victory with a 9.9, Johnson swept bars with a 9.9 and King secured the balance beam with a 9.925.

King’s win was especially impressive, because she followed Hunter in the lineup. Hunter had what Fahen described as an “uncharacteristic mistake” that dropped her to a disappointing 9.275.

However, Hunter redeemed herself in the last event of the evening, dishing out a 9.925 to win the floor exercise.

Because she fell on beam, Hunter said she knew she couldn’t let her team down.

“I just had to get myself refocused and I did an incredible floor routine,” Hunter said. “It’s just a great way to show the audience that I am mentally tough and I can put things behind me.”

With the approach Faehn said she and the coaching staff are looking for this season, pacing the athletes rather than stacking the lineups early on, she said Hunter is likely to rest from floor in next week’s away meet against Kentucky. While four out of the five freshman on the roster got the opportunity to either compete in the lineup in the UIC meet or compete exhibition, Faehn said she hopes to continue to expose as many athletes as she can to competition in preparation for later on in the season.

“We’re really trying to put everybody out there so we can sit back and evaluate, ‘Who do we think can score and who’s going to capitalize on the best and who’s going to be able to stick the landings?’” Faehn said.  “That’s what it’s going to come down to at the end of the season. We want to give everyone enough opportunity out there so we can really sit back and say, ‘This is the line up we want to go with.’”

The Gators’ next competition is against Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 20.

Gator Country reporter Allison Banko can be reached at allisonbanko@GatorCountry.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @allisonbanko.

(Click here to view a photo gallery of more than 170 GC-exclusive images from the meet)