Gymnastics tops Oklahoma to open season

The No. 3 University of Florida gymnastics team (1-0) opened the 2009 season with a 196.50-195.075 dual meet win versus No. 10 Oklahoma (0-1) Friday evening in front of a Stephen C. O’Connell Center crowd of 4,856. It is the nation’s top total posted in this very young season and the total was the fourth-highest opening total in school history.

The Gators admitted the excitement of the season opener was elevated thanks to the Florida football team’s 24-14 win last night over Oklahoma in the FedEx BCS Championship game. It wasn’t a perfect performance for the Gator gymnasts, but no falls were counted toward the final team total. Six of Florida’s routines Friday were by gymnasts making their collegiate debut on an event.

“We were all really excited being out there. Feeding off of last night (football championship) really helped too. We had some highs and we had some low’s but it’s the first meet of the season and I think we did really well,” junior All-American Amanda Castillo said.

For the third season in a row, the season-opening all-around title went to junior All-American Melanie Sinclair. Her total of 39.425 gave her the fourth all-around title of her collegiate career. She opened the meet by winning the first two events. Sinclair used a 9.875 to claim the third vault title as a Gator and upped her career total of uneven bar wins to 17 with the evening’s top mark of 9.90. She also shared third on balance beam with teammate Corey Hartung at 9.85.

Sinclair said she was ready for tonight’s competition, thanks to the team’s repetitions in the practice gym. Friday’s performance was similar to practice, only with many more people watching.

“I feel like we prepared really, really well. We did a lot of mock meets and pressure sets. That helped a lot. It felt a lot like a practice with a little more adrenaline,” Sinclair said. “It helped a lot with our confidence being the first competition.”

Florida’s top event total of the evening (49.25) came on the balance beam. The event title was claimed by Castillo, whose stellar performance was punctuated by her stuck double-back dismount. She was rewarded with a 9.90, just a fraction off her collegiate beam best of 9.925. It was the sixth beam title of her Gator career.

The floor exercise title was shared by a pair of Gators at 9.90. For Hartung, it was her 17th floor title as a Gator, while it was the first floor win for junior Maranda Smith. The mark was a collegiate best for Smith.

Junior Rebekah Zaiser also matched her collegiate best on floor Friday, sharing third overall at 9.825 with Oklahoma’s Kristin Smith and Ashley Jackson.

Florida’s four freshmen all appeared in Friday’s meet, either as part of the competitive lineup or as an exhibition performer. Freshman Amy Ferguson opened her Florida career with a mark of 9.75 on floor and received the meet’s Ernestine Weaver Award for the most entertaining routine. But it was the experience of competing in front of the Gator fans that she will remember most.

“It was amazing. Words can’t even describe the feeling I had. I just loved showing off to the crowd. I had so much adrenaline,” Ferguson said. “It was awesome.”

There was at least one freshman in each of the four competitive lineups Friday and UF Head Coach Rhonda Faehn was pleased with their Gator premieres.

“I think they did a great job. It was great to see her face after Elizabeth (Mahlich) hit her beam routine. Nicole (Ellis) after her vault and Amy after her floor – it was wonderful to see their excitement. I think it was fun for them. They got their first taste of it tonight. This is where they are going to learn and grow from this point on.”

Faehn thought Friday’s performance was a good starting point for the season.

“I think it was a decent start. It’s always a big question mark, the first meet of the year. We have so many new faces. It’s a very young team. It’s really different from what we had in the past with so many freshman and we rested Amanda (Castillo) from floor,” Faehn said. “But overall, they did great and responded really well. We have some areas that we need to go back and work on – some skill choice and also some lineup orders. We’ll go back and evaluate and work on the little things. All and all, I think it’s a great start.”

Next week, No. 15 Auburn comes to the O’Connell Center for a dual meet. Gator Booster members receive 2-for-1 admission by showing their Gator Booster membership card and presenting a special admission coupon. Meet time is set for 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 16.

Final Team Standings

No. 3 Florida vs. No. 10 Oklahoma– Jan. 9, 2009 – Stephen C. O’Connell Center

Team Vault Bars Beam Floor Total

1. Florida 49.125 48.950 49.250 49.175 196.500

2. Oklahoma 48.925 48.725 48.925 48.500 195.075