No. 1 UF gymnastics rolls past No. 6 Alabama

By Eugenio Torrens, UF Communications

In front of 6,783 fans at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the University of Florida gymnastics team proved its ranking as the top team in the country.

The Gators (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) improved on their nation-best score from last week (197.5) while handing No. 6-ranked Alabama its first loss of the season, 197.55-195.425.

“As for the team, we showed up today on fire,” said sixth-year senior Maranda Smith. “From an hour and a half before the competition — in the locker room — we were so pumped and excited. That energy and drive definitely carried us to the end.”

The team was fueled by a motivation to set the bar higher than last week. Both teams were coming off season-high scores.

While sophomore Ashanée Dickerson and freshman Alaina Johnson have generally led Florida’s formidable lineup, this night another freshman shared the spotlight.

“We can’t expect all our all-arounders to be spectacular every night,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said.  “Each week it’s somebody different really stepping up.”

In her collegiate all-around debut, Mackenzie Caquatto simply shined. Claiming the all-around title in her first attempt, she nabbed two event titles in uneven bars (9.9) and balance beam (9.925) en route to an all-around total of 39.575 — the school record for an all-around debut score.

It is also the fourth-highest total ever by a Gator freshman, behind Dickerson’s 39.70 and 39.625 in 2010 and the 2011 national leading 39.60 posted by Johnson last Friday.

“I’m kind of shocked right now,” she said. “It went better than I expected. I didn’t know what my all-around (score) was.”

A Gator gymnast has received either the SEC Gymnast or the SEC Freshman Gymnast of the Week award every eligible week, and Caquatto is a viable candidate to continue the streak. Her all-around win also marks the first time since 2007 UF has had two freshmen win an all-around competition in a season.

Opening with the school’s sixth-best vault total, UF roared out of the gates with a 49.475. Smith tied a career best with her 9.95, while sophomore Marissa King set a personal best with a 9.925.

The Tide (6-1, 1-1 SEC) started off sluggish, comparatively, and was forced to count one of its two falls, resulting in a 48.075 — a precarious deficit after one event. Sophomore Becca Alexin’s bar routine was hit with a half point deduction when she started her routine prior to the judge’s signal. The result basically forced the Tide to count the equivalent of two falls toward its bar total.

UF took to bars for the second event and used safe, consistent scores ranging from 9.775 to Caquatto’s 9.9. The team was able to discount Johnson’s fall, uncharacteristic for the three-time SEC Freshman Gymnast of the Week, and post a 49.225.

“Whenever I finished my routine, I let it go and moved on and went to beam and did a good beam routine,” Johnson said. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Florida’s lowest-scoring event, balance beam, scored on par with Alabama’s highest event score on vault. Caquatto led UF with her collegiate-best 9.925 beam routine.

So as to leave not even the slightest room for doubt, UF ended the meet with a couple of exclamation points, matching its program-best floor exercise team total (49.65). Randy Stageberg moved into the floor lineup after pre-meet warm-up when floor regular Amy Ferguson wasn’t ready after battling the flu earlier in the week.

Even through improvisation, the Gators triumphed.

Stageberg led off with a season-best 9.85, and Florida never looked back. The rest of the eye-popping rotation posted seemed automatic — 9.925, 9.9 and 9.9.

Fans were kept busy at the end of the meet when Dickerson matched her collegiate-best of 9.95, and King nailed her routine for a 9.975. Both gymnasts had 6,000-plus fans chanting choruses of “10.”

Opting for a double layout in her floor routine versus the double Arabian, King was simply happy to stick her routine.

“It was a totally overwhelming feeling,” she said. She was left breathless for a second when she found out one of the judges gave her a 10. “When that one judge gave me a 10, I didn’t know what was going on and everyone was cheering. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I couldn’t breathe for a second. It was a great floor routine, and I loved it and enjoyed it just as I do every week.”

It was an impressive final total, but Faehn knows there were breaks here and there over the course of the competition. How the team handles those situations is something Faehn likes about this edition of the Gators.

“I’m really proud of the way the athletes performed. They were just really relaxed, but yet completely aggressive again. What was really nice to see was the overall balance of the team. Each time, it’s somebody different really stepping up, which is nice to see.

“I told the team at the end, ‘Yes, there were a few little mistakes here and there,’ but what was really great again was how they responded to those. That’s really what we’ve been working on so hard this season. Small mistakes will happen, it’s just how you respond to them that’s going to determine your success. Alaina had trouble on bars tonight. I told her after floor I was extremely proud of how she came back so strong on beam and floor. It’s wonderful to see each and every individual rising to the occasion. It was a lot of fun out there tonight.”

The Gators continue their competition against the nation’s top teams when they visit No. 4 Georgia Saturday, Feb. 12 in Athens, Ga. Meet time is set for 4 p.m. in the Stegeman Coliseum. The Florida-Georgia meet airs tape-delayed on ESPNU on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m.