Hartung, Gators ready for No. 1 Bulldogs

It was at a practice two weeks ago that the Florida Gators gymnastics team decided to turn its season around. Three days earlier, the Gators had lost their second Southeastern Conference meet in three weeks to Louisiana State, and their season seemed to be in a perpetual spiral downward.

The Gators had struggled every week on the balance beam and it had cost them two victories. The team was struggling with injuries and All-American Amanda Castillo had yet to compete in all four events.

The Gators needed a spark. So senior Corey Hartung and junior Maranda Smith gathered their teammates and told them, essentially, “No mas.”

“I basically told them there’s no way we’re going another week ranked No.  9,” Hartung said. “I was tired of all the mistakes and falls so I challenged them to do better. They needed to know that I needed my team to get behind me and start performing better. I told them that this was my last year of gymnastics ever and that I didn’t want to go out a failure.”

At the time, Hartung had been the most consistent performer for the Gators and had won two all-around titles. While it wasn’t a Tim Tebow type of emotional moment at the podium, her words have propelled the Gators to two consecutive victories, including one against SEC powerhouse Alabama last week with a season-high score of 196.875.

“Corey and Maranda said this is not how our season is going to go and that we’re not going down without a fight,” coach Rhonda Faehn said. “I told them last week after our win at Michigan State that that was really the start of our season and that’s how we’re going to carry on.”

Hartung said the key to the turnaround was harder practices and more pressure put on by Faehn. Faehn has made her athletes perform more balance beam routines in the weeks since the LSU loss, utilizing “pressure sets.”

“Pressure sets” are those during which a gymnast has to perform five perfect routines in a row without a mistake. If they mess up at any point of the five routines, they have to start over at routine number one.

The tougher practices have paid off as the Gators have put together stellar rotations on the beam during victories against Michigan State and Alabama. The key now will be to maintain those kind of performances this Saturday when the Gators head to Athens to take on No. 1 Georgia.

Georgia is the four-time defending NCAA champion and a perfect 9-0 (5-0 SEC) this season. They are led by two- time NCAA all-around champion and Olympic medalist Courtney Kupets. She is currently the top-ranked individual gymnast in the nation, averaging 39.509 points per meet. Kupets also has scored perfect 10s on three different events this year, and it’s going to be tough for Hartung to beat her.

“I’ve really looked up to her as a strong, determined athlete,” said Hartung, who trained with Kupets for five years at Hill’s Gymnastics in Maryland. “It was a thrill beating her here in Gainesville last season. I’m sure she’s thinking ‘I want to beat Corey’ just like I want to beat her.”

Once again, it all comes down to the beam. The last two meets, the Gators have scored their two highest team performances (196.85 and 196.875, respectively) because of strong showings on the beam. Before those two performances, they averaged 196.05 and only 48.4 points on the beam.

Compare that to Georgia’s 196.594 average in the team total and 49.097 on the balance beam, and if the Gators can continue to succeed on the beam, they have a chance to knock off the top Dawgs.

“We know we can win, we’ve always known we can do gymnastics better than anyone,” Hartung said. “It’s just a matter of executing. We have to stay relaxed and be loose. We’re a better team when we’re loose.”

Hartung said she doesn’t have any dramatic speeches planned for this Saturday’s meet. She doesn’t want to put any added pressure on her teammates.

“I’m going to tell them Friday night that as soon as we wake up Saturday, we have to be giddy and happy and carry that attitude into the meet,” she said. “If we go into the meet like no one can beat us and just have a good time, then we’re going to win.”

The Gators still are bitter about their .005 loss to Georgia in Gainesville last season. But the bitterness will go away if they can win Saturday. Castillo is expected back to perform in the floor exercise. It will be the first time since the Oklahoma meet that Castillo, who has suffered from ankle bursitis, will be a go in the event, which would be a boost for Florida, already the second best team in the nation in floor exercise.