Gymnasts rally but fall to Georgia

The 9.875 that Corey Hartung was awarded for what seemed to be a flawless routine on the parallel bars was her lowest score of the evening Friday at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center but it might have been the most important. After watching two teammates in the bars rotation fall, the number one ranked Florida Gators were in danger of being blown out by the number two ranked Georgia Gym Dogs, winners of the last three NCAA championships. Hartung’s cool, calm performance steadied the Gators when they needed it the most.

“It was huge,” said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn. “For her to come in and compete aggressively and for her to get that score helped the athletes we had in the rest of our lineup. She is a true competitor.”

Hartung’s solid performance on the bars helped get the Gators back on track and while they didn’t come all the way back, they certainly made the Gym Dogs sweat it out.

“I thought we had lost the meet,” said Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, surprised that the Gym Dogs came away with a 196.850-196.825 win over the Gators before a Florida record gymnastics crowd of 10,855. The final margin of .025 is the narrowest winning margin there can be in a dual gymnastics meet.

Following the second highest team vault total in Florida history (49.525), the Gators ran into immediate trouble on the parallel bars when seniors Nicola Willis and Ashley Reed uncharacteristically fell in mid-routine. Willis led off the Florida rotation and Reed was third. When they fell, it meant the Gators would be forced to count one of the lower scores (six gymnasts in each rotation, only five scores count). It was the first time in 28 meets that the Gators had to count a fall in their scores.

“They admitted that they got tight after Nic’s first mistake and that’s hard when you have the first athlete go up and miss,” said Faehn. “We were happy that they rebounded on beam and on floor to not carry that through the rest of the competition.”

After Reed’s fall, sophomore Amanda Castillo came through with a pressure-packed 9.80 and Hartung followed with her 9.875. Melanie Sinclair finished the rotation with a solid 9.90. Georgia won the bars competition, 49.350-48.500. Although the Gators were behind by .600 of a point in the overall score (96.625-96.025), the Gators had regained some semblance of momentum.

Hartung, who had won the vault competition with a 9.975, earned the top score in the beam rotation (9.950), and the Gators turned in a solid 49.350. While the Gators were competing on the beam, Georgia was turning in a solid 49.400 on the floor exercises, led by Courtney McCool’s finishing 9.950.

While the Gators worked the floor, Georgia had problems on the beam. Grace Taylor fell on dismount and McCool fell in mid-routine. Meanwhile, Hartung and Sinclair both turned in 9.900 on the floor exercise and Willis gave the Gators a 9.925 that allowed Florida to win the floor exercise by .050 points (49.450-49.400).

The Gators won three of the four rotations but it was the mistakes made on the parallel bars that ended up making the difference. While Faehn wanted to give the record-setting crowd a win, she knows that it’s what happens in April at the NCAA Championships that count, not what happens in the second meet of the year in January. Faehn thought the Gators peaked a bit too early last year.

“We showed tremendous brilliance in the three events and where we struggled was bars,” said Faehn. “It’s extremely early, we were trying different lineups and we’re looking at it like we have a long season to go. We made the mistake last season in having everyone prepared in every competition to be number one consistently. This is going to be good for our athletes. It’s going to continue to fuel them and make them hungry.”

Hartung ended up winning the all-around competition with a 39.700, the fifth highest all-around score in school history.

Faehn was excited and enthused that the O-Dome was packed. The Gators usually draw between 4,000-6,000 for a big gymnastics meet. This crowd exceeded her expectations.

“It was unbelievable,” said Faehn. “It was amazing. When I stepped out I saw that people were in the third level. It was just so wonderful and it really shows the support of Gainesville and the community but the entire surrounding area.”

Yoculan is accustomed to huge crowds in the 9,000-10,000 range when the Gym Dogs host a meet in Athens, and Georgia on the road usually means the largest crowd of the season for the host team. Yoculan, who has coached eight NCAA championship teams, is retiring after this year. She thinks big crowds and championships are something Florida fans need to get used to.

“Rhonda has made her mark in just a short period of time and people are starting to look at Florida that way, said Yoculan. “When they go into arenas they’re going to start turning out big crowds to see them, too. I think athletically, right now, they have the strongest team in the country.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.