The roles, shall we say, have been reversed. Last winter, the Florida gymnastics squad spent much of the regular season ranked No. 1 only to finish third at the NCAA championships. This year, the second-ranked Gators find themselves looking up — at three-time defending national champ Georgia.
Lest any of the Florida gymnasts forget their place in the preseason pecking order, the rankings are listed at the squad’s practice facility, a reminder of sorts.
“Who’s above us and what are we going to do to change that — when it’s most important — at the end of the season,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We do talk about it. This is where we were placed, and what are going to do to get to number one? We don’t put a lot of emphasis on the rankings week to week, because we learned last year you can be ranked (high) and still not win. What matters is at the end. It’s a starting point.”
A new season starts at 7 tonight when the Gators host Illinois-Chicago at the O’Connell Center. Florida has 10 regular-season matches this season, down from 11 last year, a scheduling cutback that should keep the squad fresh down the stretch.
“We can’t wait,” said Faehn, 36, who gave birth to a son, Noah, Tuesday and may miss the season opener. “When we came back from Christmas and had our intra-squad (meet). We had that (last weekend) and it was wonderful to get a test of not only the new routines and new skills, but also to see the new faces and get our freshmen under pressure situations to replicate — or duplicate — as closely as possible what’s going to happen during the season. We’re excited. Our squad was grateful for the intra-squad. You want to be able to feel those butterflies mentally, move on and be ready for the meet this weekend.”
Florida, which finished 21-0-1 last season, returns five All-Americas — Amanda Castillo (All-around, vault and beam), Corey Hartung (beam, floor), Tiffany Murry (floor), Ashley Reed (floor) and Melanie Sinclair (bars and beam). All had good seasons last year. All expect more this season.
“They trained so hard over the summer,” Faehn said. “Melanie Sinclair, Corey, Amanda — all of the athletes — really pushed themselves hard this summer. Ashley (Reed) went out and learned a couple new skills. Hopefully, we’re going to debut those on Friday. Same thing with Corey. Same thing with Melanie. It’s really exciting to see that they were not as satisfied as well with where they finished last year. Their goal is not to let that happen again.
“We’re taking it one meet at a time. Our focus is to be the strongest, fittest and healthiest at the end of the year as opposed to keeping that the whole entire season.”
Hartung and Sinclair are the Gator captains. Each will provide leadership, but in a different way. One is vocal; the other is not.
“Melanie is the ultimate positive in the gym and cheers everyone no matter what is going on,” Faehn said. “Overall, she has the best attitude, the best spirit of anyone on the team and it shows. Corey is quieter. She leads by her work ethic, but by her demeanor. She’s very calm, very empathetic to girls on the team and very supportive. They’re beautiful combination to help out this team.”
Florida will welcome four newcomers. The best of the bunch may be Maranda Smith, a transfer from UCLA and a two-time Junior Olympic national champion, who arrived in Gainesville almost two weeks ago.
“So many new faces, that’s going to be the difference,” Faehn said. “We have more talent potential than we did last year. It’s a matter of keeping everyone healthy. We have to get them on the same page. When you have new faces, it’s a matter of getting used to what’s going with college gymnastics and getting used to competitions. That’s what’s wonderful about the meet Friday. It gives them a chance to see what it’s like.”
The competition stiffens considerably next week. Friday, Florida hosts top-ranked Georgia, which returns seven All-Americas, the most of any Division I team. Admission for home matches is $4.