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Monday April 21, 2014Gators gymnastics trainer Kelly Bridges ready to be Boston Strong

Updated: 10:28am, April 21

Kelly Bridges

Gators athletic trainer Kelly Bridges works on gymnast Rachel Spicer at the NCAA Finals.

Kelly Bridges spent the first part of her Easter Sunday assisting the UF gymnasts competing in the individual event finals in Birmingham, Ala.

The night before Bridges was at her usual post as the team’s athletic trainer, scraping feet, wrapping ankles and doing whatever else the Gators needed as they repeated as national champions.

By early Sunday afternoon, Bridges was on a plane from Birmingham to Philadelphia.

Final destination: Boston.

The 27-year-old Bridges is running in today’s Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon where tragedy struck a year ago when two bombs near the finish line spoiled a beautiful Patriots’ Day and sent a city scrambling. The bombs killed three spectators and injured more than 200, many losing limbs and suffering life-altering injuries.

Bridges remembers watching news coverage of the bombings in the UF gymnastics team’s training facility during practice. The bombings happened the weekend prior to the Gators' departure for Los Angeles where they won the first national title in school history in 2013.

“I was in awe. I never thought that could happen,’’ Bridges said Sunday night, shortly after picking up her bib number and checking into her Boston hotel. “Boston to me is one of the most influential, more worldly of all the marathons you have seen. I could never have seen anyone doing that to those in Boston. It’s Patriots’ Day. Everyone is so supportive of those running.”

A gymnast until she was 13, Bridges is in her third year as the Gators’ athletic trainer. She ran track in high school and later in college at Gardner-Webb University. She took up marathon training while working on her master’s degree at Alabama.

The Boston Marathon seemed an unrealistic expectation.

“It’s been one of my dreams to do Boston, but I thought it would definitely be when I’m much older,’’ she said. “With everything that happened last year with the bombing, I thought this was the best year to do it. It’s so great that it worked out.”

Bridges qualified for Boston in June at the Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota, an annual event that draws more than 17,000 participants.

To qualify Bridges needed a time under 3 hours, 35 minutes. She finished in 3:31.44.

That wasn’t the only special moment for Bridges that day. She talked her fiancée, Andrew Fleming, into running the race with her. He got the last word.

“I didn’t know he was going to propose at the end of the race,’’ she said. “I ran way ahead of him and by the time he was done I knew he was cramping. When he went down on one knee, I thought he was falling and cramping. Me being an athletic trainer, I went down to save him somehow and it ended up he pulled out a ring. It was definitely a great topping to making the Boston cut.”

With Boston in her sights, Bridges has maintained a hectic schedule training for today’s race. She often trains with 4:30 a.m. runs in Gainesville, and then gets to work around 8 a.m. for a long day. She said there were some difficult training weeks during the gymnastics season but all of it has been worth it, especially when she pushes off from the start line around 10:25 this morning.

Her goal is to run in under 3:30.

But that is only a small part of this experience for Bridges. Her mom, brother, and other relatives from Georgia are in Boston to support her. They plan to take in a Red Sox game and tour Harvard’s campus during their stay.

Beyond pounding the pavement of the 26.2 mile-course through one of America’s iconic cities, Bridges wants to collect memories and share in the Boston Strong experience that defined the city in the wake of the bombings.

“All the stories of how Boston Strong they are just amazing,’’ she said. “I’m so excited. It’s just incredible being here.”

Vernon Hargreaves III

Sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is expected to take on bigger leadership role in 2014.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Orange & Blue Debut spring game is Saturday afternoon and the Gators hold their final two practices today and Friday before fans get a final glimpse of the team before next season.

This year's spring game features a twist -- a selection show Thursday that you can watch live here starting at 7 p.m.

To get you caught up on some of the latest spring storylines, here is a list of fresh links from around the Internet:

--The broadcast details for the Orange & Blue Debut from FoxSportsFlorida.com.

--Gators working to extend streak of fielding a strong secondary writes Adam Lichtenstein via the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel website.

--Florida's offense embraces philosophical shift writes Andy Staples of SportsIllustrated.com.

--Receiver Andre Debose ready to finally show he has NFL potential writes Edgar Thompson of The Orlando Sentinel.

--Defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III focused on being a leader for Gators writes Antonya English of The Tampa Bay Times.

--Local product Chris Thompson (Gainesville High) vying to make impact writes Zach Abolverdi of The Gainesville Sun.

--Florida coach Will Muschamp wants to see better offensive line play writes Adam Pincus of The Florida Times-Union.

--UF running back Kelvin Taylor eager for more in second season writes Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com.

--Defensive back Keanu Neal begins spring with a bang writes Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports.com.

--Scrimmage notes and line play top this notebook by Nick De La Torre of GatorCountry.com.

VIDEO: Hargreaves, Dante Fowler Jr., Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries discuss spring camp...

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida men’s golf coach Buddy Alexander fulfilled a dream in 1987 when he played in the Masters for the first time as reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

Buddy Alexander

To make the experience even more memorable, Alexander's playing partner was defending champion Jack Nicklaus.

Alexander had another special day at Augusta on Wednesday.

He made a hole-in-one.

"It was the only good shot I hit all day,'' Alexander quipped Wednesday evening. "I butchered the first hole. That's OK. I didn't hurt anybody. And then I hit a 60-degree wedge from 73 yards out on the second hole and it trickles in. It was unexpected."

Alexander aced the second hole during the annual Par-3 Contest at the Masters to the delight of his playing partners: former UF golfers Billy Horschel and Matt Every.

Horschel and Every tee off in the Masters on Thursday morning but spent Wednesday hanging with their college coach.

"It was awesome,'' Alexander said. "Billy and Matt are two of my favorite guys. I think they were more excited than I was. That made it even more special. I knew I hit it solid. I hit it where I was aiming. It was perfect."

Alexander said it was the sixth hole-in-one of his career, and get this, not even the first one on No. 2 of Augusta's Par-3 course. He aced the hole when he was in college at Georgia Southern while playing a round with a member of Augusta National.

U.S. Amateur champs receive honorary invites to the Masters each year. Alexander has returned many times, including a year ago to watch UF senior T.J. Vogel play in the tournament.

After 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara recorded the 78th ace in the history of the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday, Alexander came along 90 minutes later to register No. 79. 

Every nearly joined the club on the third hole when his shot came to rest about an inch from the hole.

It has been a good week for the 61-year-old Alexander, whose son Tyler Alexander, a former Gator golfer, won his second career NGA Pro Golf Tour event on Sunday in Ocala.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- I like North Texas and all, and the hospitality has been excellent during Florida's stay here this week, but I'm ready for some hoops.

Bet you are too.

The No. 1-ranked Gators tip off against UConn for a berth in Monday night's national championship game in about six hours.

Billy D and Jeremy Foley

To get you ready, here are some of the best links from around the Internet I could find:

--The Sports Illustrated crew in town picks their winners this weekend at Jerry World.

--SI.com's Pete Thamel profiles Billy Donovan's career and includes a hilarious Billy D/Donnie Jones anecdote during days at Marshall.

--More on Billy D from Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports, who writes about how Billy D works off the stress of his job.

--Dom Amore of The Hartford Courant takes a look at the job UConn coach Kevin Ollie has done since taking over for Jim Calhoun.

--Healthy Gators eye payback writes Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com.

--The matchup between Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin and UConn's Shabazz Napier takes center stage writes Edgar Thompson of The Orlando Sentinel.

--The Final Four has an SEC flavor writes C.L. Brown of ESPN.com.

--The story of 4-year-old cancer survivor Kaedyn Ballew and his friendship with Gators Patric Young and Will Yeguete never gets old as Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union pens latest piece.

--CBSSports.com's Jeff Borzello takes a look at the X-factors in today's Final Four games.

--Postseason run carries price for proud parents writes Pat Dooley of The Gainesville Sun.

--Billy Donovan's success unparalleled writes Eamonn Brennan of ESPN.com.

--Will Yeguete's twisted road leads him to Final Four writes Dana O'Neil of ESPN.com.

Mark Wise, left, and Mick Hubert

Gators radio analyst Mark Wise, left, is working a Florida "Teamcast" on TNT Saturday (photo: Tim Casey)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The tweets came fast and furious during Florida's Sweet 16 win over UCLA in Memphis a week ago.

Covering the game from the FedExForum, I was not watching or listening to TBS' broadcast of the game. Still, based on Twitter, it was obvious Florida fans were not too pleased by the commentary of analyst Reggie Miller, a former UCLA star and one of the greatest shooters the game has known.

In fairness to Miller, it probably would not have made a difference if Tyus Edney or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or any other former UCLA star had been analyzing the game.

Gator fans and Kentucky fans and UCLA fans and Duke fans -- college sports fans in general -- often prefer their local announcers over the "national" announcers that swoop in for big events.

The same scenario plays out during football season, too.

To capture those fans and perhaps create a future element to big-event coverage, Turner Sports has team-specific broadcasts planned at this weekend's Final Four.

Here is info on the Florida "Teamcast" on TNT at 6 p.m. Saturday:

David Steele, who has previously hosted University of Florida basketball and football television and radio coverage and is the current voice of the Orlando Magic, will provide play-by-play for the TNT telecast. Analyst Mark Wise, a 14-year veteran analyst for the Gator Basketball Network, and reporter James Bates, a former member of the Florida football team who played on four consecutive SEC title teams and a national championship team in 1996, will join Steele.

Wise is the regular radio partner of Florida play-by-play announcer Mick Hubert. Bill Koss will replace Wise on the Gator Radio Network broadcast Saturday.

Meanwhile, Wise hopes to bring his knowledge of the Florida program to a national broadcast that appeals to Florida fans while helping casual fans learn more about the No. 1-ranked Gators.

"The bottom line is I'm and old coach. I see the game as a coach sees it; I think it as a coach thinks it,'' Wise said Thursday at AT&T Stadium. "When I do a TV game, I would like to think I see the game as the two coaches and try to tell you what's happening, why it's happening, what needs to happen. When I'm working on the Gator broadcast with Mick, I basically do the same thing but I only see it from Billy Donovan's perspective, or I emphasize that part.

"So what I'm trying to do Saturday is bring a radio mentality to a television broadcast. Hopefully that will come through. Maybe I can go into a little bit more depth of why they're so good guarding the pick-and-roll, why they're so good in terms of rotations and closeouts and covering."

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Fifth Annual Florida Letterman Awards were held Monday evening, giving the Gators a chance to celebrate accomplishments of the 2013 calendar year.

Photo Gallery  |  Videos: Excuses  |  Bloopers

UF’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) hosted the awards show at the Phillips Center on campus. Think UF’s version of the ESPY Awards that ESPN puts on each year.

And the winners were …

Male Team of the Year:

  • Track & Field – 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Champions for second consecutive year

Female Team of the Year:

  • Gymnastics – won program’s first NCAA team title in 2013

The Athlete of the Year is awarded to the athlete who accomplished the most in their season.

  • Male Athlete of the Year: Marcin Cieslak, Swimming & Diving
    2013 SEC 100 and 200 fly champion. Collected first NCAA title as anchor of the 800 free relay that set a school record.
  • Female Athlete of the Year: Elizabeth Beisel, Swimming & Diving
    Claimed her second NCAA Championship after winning the 400 IM. Earned five All-America honors during the national meet and did not finish lower than fifth.

Comeback Athlete of the Year goes to the male and female athlete who showed tremendous fight and determination to recover after an injury.

  • Male Comeback Athlete: Ronald Powell, Football
    Returned to the field after over a year off and played in 11 games with eight starts. Led the team with four sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Second on the team with seven tackles-for-loss. Earned the team’s Chris Patrick Courage Award for battling back through injuries. Named a team captain for the Kentucky and Arkansas games.
  • Female Comeback Athlete: Alaina Johnson, Gymnastics
    Suffered two stress fractures in back, causing her to miss eight competitions during the season. Returned to the competitive lineup for vault and bars at NCAA Regionals, where she scored a 9.925 in the vault. First Gator to ever claim NCAA uneven bars championship.

The Male and Female Rookie of the Year Award is given to the freshman athlete that showed superior skills in their given sport in their first year of competition.

  • Male Rookie of the Year: Michael Frazier II, Basketball
    One of the most accurate 3-point shooters in country; Named to the 2013 SEC All Freshman Team; Two time SEC Freshman of the week
  • Female Rookie of the Year: Bridget Sloan, Gymnastics
    NCAA all-around and balance beam champion, earning all four All-America first team honors in NCAA Championships competition. 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year, winning the SEC all-around, uneven bar and floor exercise titles. Winner of the Honda Award as the top collegiate gymnast - only the fourth freshman to win honor in award’s 37-year history.

The Male and Female Performance of the Year Award is given to the male and female athlete who had an outstanding game, meet or match that should be recognized above all else.

  • Male Performance of the Year: 4x400 relay, Track & Field
    Clinched Florida’s second-consecutive NCAA Outdoor Championships team title with their NCAA Relay win
  • Female Performance of the Year: Taylor Burke, Soccer
    Season-high five saves versus Texas A&M helped Gators to shutout SEC leader Texas A&M 2-0 in a key win which helped the Gators win a share of its 13th overall SEC title.

Male/Female Scholar Athlete:

  • Jared Watkins: Men's Track and Field
  • Nora Barry: Lacrosse

Community Service Award is given to the male and female student-athlete who contributes their time to other people with the simple intention of impacting another person’s life in a positive way

  • Mike McNeely: Football
  • Brittany Koziara: Women's Track and Field

The Mr. and Miss Orange and Blue Award is given to the male and female athletes who inspire everyone around them.  They represent what it means to be a Gator which is all-around excellence in athletics, academics, character and service. 

  • Mr. Orange & Blue: Will Yeguete, Basketball
  • Miss Orange & Blue: Elizabeth Beisel, Swimming & Diving

The Florida Way award is given to an athlete from each team who most demonstrates what it means to do things the Florida Way. This award is given to male and female athletes who display qualities such as honesty, integrity, strong work ethic, and compassion. These traits make them nature leaders on and off their given field.

Florida Way Award Winners:

  • Baseball - Cody Dent
  • Basketball - Will Yeguete
  • Cross Country - Mark Mutz
  • Football - Max Garcia
  • Golf - Tyler McCumber
  • Swimming - Cameron Martin
  • Tennis - Michael Alford
  • Track & Field - Hugh Graham
  • Basketball - Lily Svete
  • Cross Country - Agata Strausa
  • Golf - Elcin Ulu
  • Gymnastics - Ashanée Dickerson
  • Lacrosse - Caroline Chesterman
  • Soccer - Haley Reeb
  • Softball - Kelsey Horton
  • Swimming & Diving - Elizabeth Beisel
  • Tennis - Lauren Embree
  • Track & Field - Ebony Eutsey
  • Volleyball - Madison Monserez
  • Cheer - Laura Warner
  • Cheer - Anthony DePiero
  • Dazzler - Amanda Rochford
  • Mascot - Suzanne Wilcox

VIDEO: Gators head coach Will Muschamp updates reporters on spring practice Friday afternoon.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The No. 1-ranked UF men's basketball team faces Dayton tonight (6:09 p.m. ET) for a trip to the Final Four.

Fortunately for the UF football team, its scrimmage is over and players and coaches can check out Billy Donovan's team.

As the Florida basketball team made its fourth consecutive run to the Elite Eight the past two weeks, Will Muschamp has been busy getting the Gators ready for the Orange & Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on April 12.

The Gators held a scrimmage this morning at The Swamp that was cut short due to inclement weather.

Muschamp met with reporters on Friday and provided updates on the team's progress. Here are some of the highlights:

--Gators receiver Andre Debose had been cleared medically and is back on the practice field. Debose missed all of last season due to a torn ACL suffered in fall camp.

Debose was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and adds experience and depth at receiver. He is currently working in non-contact drills but Muschamp is glad to have him back and hopes Debose can put it all together in his final season.

"He’s the leading kickoff returner in UF history,'' Muschamp said Friday. "Certainly we’re looking for a couple kickoff returns from him. That would be nice. I think that he can be really special with the ball in his hands, but I think his work ethic from last year was very good up to his injury. I was extremely pleased with where he was and to me, with Andre, it’s just the battle of consistently doing it well."

--With Debose's return boosting numbers at receiver, Muschamp has moved redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins to safety. Another redshirt freshman, safety Keanu Neal, is out with a hamstring injury.

"He played safety in high school,'' Muschamp said. "I thought he was a physical player in high school and did some nice things. We'll see how he does. To make that move mid-stream is tough on him, so we've been out getting him lined up and those sorts of things and just see how instinctively he plays the game. He wasn't making a whole lot of movement at receiver and we felt like it was the best move for him and us."

--Muschamp provided an injury update that included several players, the most notable regarding the uncertain status of tight end Colin Thompson and early enrollee offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher.

Thompson has been plagued by foot injuries since arriving at UF and has not practiced this spring. "Colin was asked to be totally off of any physical activity other than just lifting until after spring,'' Muschamp said.

Thompson is expected to see a specialist in mid-April to determine the next move. As for Kelleher, he is out with a back injury.

"Nolan will not go through spring. He’s going to see another specialist in the coming weeks,” Muschamp said.

Sophomore receiver Chris Thompson (head), offensive lineman Rod Johnson (knee) and defensive end Jordan Sherit (elbow) are also out but could be cleared by end of spring.

--First-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's up-tempo system often lines up in the shotgun.

Center Max Garcia, who has played guard and tackle in his college career, continues to adjust to his new position. There have been some growing pains on shotgun snaps but Roper is confident that Garcia has the tools to be a stellar snapper.

"I don't want the ball off-center or rolling on the ground,'' Roper said, referencing Denver's first snap in the recent Super Bowl as an example. "All that has to do with timing in the run game and exchanges and all that. But am I happy with the way Max is working and trying? Yeah. And do I think he can do it and be really good at it? I do.

"I think he's talented. I think he's got really fast hands, and that's not easy. He's got those skills, and you just keep working the snap."

LINKS ON GATORS

--Muschamp and Florida embrace high expectations writes Dan Wolken of USA Today.

--Florida improves offensive line depth writes Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun.

--Gorman relishes being Gators' only senior DB writes Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com.

ALL-ACCESS

Here is a well-done video from GatorVision.tv that gives fans an inside look at Florida's spring practice:


Billy Donovan

Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan during Saturday's NCAA win over Pittsburgh.

MEMPHIS -- Will Muschamp has his own team to focus on in March.

The Gators are in the middle of spring practice and Muschamp is getting acclimated to nine early enrollees and three new assistant coaches -- including first-year-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper -- as he seeks to turn around the program.

Still, Muschamp will keep a close eye on Florida's No. 1-ranked basketball team. This is Muschamp's fourth spring practice as Florida's head football coach, and for the fourth consecutive year, Billy Donovan's team is in the Sweet 16.

The Gators face UCLA on Thursday night here at the FedExForum in quest of a fourth consecutive trip to the Elite Eight.

Will Muschamp

"I love March Madness,'' Muschamp said. "It's a fun time of the year. Other than the college football season, it's certainly one of my favorite times of year. Our team is fabulous. Billy does a great job. We've got a heck of a basketball team. The word 'team' is what comes to mind and that's what those guys are."

Muschamp had never met Donovan before he arrived at UF in December 2010. He quickly learned about Donovan as a coach and person.

"Control what you can control'' is perhaps the biggest takeaway Muschamp has learned from Donovan, he said.

The Gators are 34-2 entering Thursday's game against UCLA and have won a school-record 28 consecutive games. Donovan was named SEC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year -- the first back-to-back winner in more than 30 years -- and signed a contract extension last month that runs through the 2018-19 season.

The accolades and praise Donovan has received is well-deserved in Muschamp's eyes.

"As far as putting Florida basketball on the map, a lot of what Coach Spurrier did here in football, I would say is very similar,'' Muschamp said. "I've said it before: I think he's the best college coach, period, in the country. I'm not just talking about basketball. I'm talking overall for what he's done here."

Thursday March 20, 2014Beisel to cap decorated Gators career at NCAA Championships

Updated: 9:12am, March 20

Gators Alicia Mathieu, Hilda Luthersdottir and head coach Gregg Troy discuss the NCAA Finals.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The final lap is in clear sight.

Gators senior Elizabeth Beisel, a two-time Olympian and one of the most decorated swimmers in UF history, is in Minneapolis this week with her teammates for the NCAA Championships.

The final collegiate meet of Beisel's record-breaking career is here, and the vivacious swimmer from Kingstown, R.I., has mixed emotions.

She is excited. She is nervous. She is a little sad.

Most of all, Beisel is content.

Elizabeth Beisel

"I definitely want to win the 400 IM,'' she said Wednesday. "I won it last year so winning it back-to-back would be pretty cool. I think about this sometimes: I'm going to walk away from this meet, even if it's the most horrible meet I have ever had in my career, I'm still walking away from my collegiate career with so many great memories and accolades.

"I can't really put all the pressure of ending my career on just one meet. It's been a great four years. I'm not going to let just one meet sour it if it's not the best meet of my life."

Beisel has won two NCAA titles -- her first was the 200 backstroke in 2012 -- and won two medals at the London Games in 2012, bringing home a bronze in the 200 back and silver in the 400 IM.

Over the past four years Beisel has been a dominant force in SEC pools, claiming nine conference titles, tied with former UF great Dara Torres in the school record books.

The way Beisel has done it is equally impressive. While basketball players Patric Young and Will Yeguete have received a lot of attention for serving as great ambassadors for the UF athletic department during their careers, Beisel has done the same.

The outgoing Beisel has never met a stranger, fast with a smile and hello, which is not always the case with elite-level athletes, and make no mistake, that's what Beisel is.

She is one of the best in the world at what she does.

Her best event -- the 400 IM -- is considered perhaps the most challenging individual event in swimming.

The event consists of 100 meters each of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Beisel has the second-fastest 400 IM time in U.S. history.

She said the greatest lesson she has learned at UF under head coach Gregg Troy is how to listen to her body and manage her training.

In the past she did what her coaches told her and let her natural talent do the rest. The freedom at college forced her to develop a disciplined training approach that can include six hours in the pool on some days.

Elizabeth Beisel

"I've just learned a lot about myself and what I need to do in order to be the best that I need to be,'' Beisel said. "I had always wanted to go pro. That's the little-girl dream. You want to be in the commercials for Speedo and make all the money and that stuff.

"Then you grow up and realize that's probably not going to happen unless you are Michael Phelps. In high school I knew I was going to go the college route, and honestly, it's the best decision I ever made."

Once the Gators' stay in Minneapolis ends, Beisel will officially turn pro and turn her attention to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. She has no plans to leave Gainesville after her UF career is over.

"It's the best place on earth to train,'' she said. "I train with the best coach in the world and the best swimmers in the world. I don't see what I would change. The people I train with at UF are my family now."

At 21 -- Beisel doesn't turn 22 until August -- a third Olympics is her top priority following this week's NCAA Finals.

She has a bronze and silver, so a gold would be a nice addition to her collection of medals. And then she will listen to her body and decide if another shot at the Olympics is in her future or if the sport will become a way to stay in shape like the rest of us.

"Depending on how I do at 2016 -- hopefully I'll make it -- if I'm still swimming really well, I'll keep swimming past 2016 and if I feel like I'm ready to be done, I'll just retire after that,'' she said. "If I can get at least one more Olympics out of my swimming career I will be satisfied."

Whatever the future holds, Beisel's place in UF swimming history is secure. Simply put: she's one of the best female swimmers to ever step on campus.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For those sleeping on Florida’s baseball team, might be time to wake up.

The Gators appear to have.

This season was sort of a mystery from the first pitch. Most expected the young Gators to be better than a year ago, but how much, or how fast, no one really knew.

If you happened to be on Twitter late Tuesday night – around 9:44 to be precise – you probably noticed a few tweets darting through your timeline if you follow the #Gators closely.

Here’s one: 

That score seemed to catch people’s attention on social media. It should have.

The No. 1-ranked Seminoles pulled up to McKethan Stadium and unloaded their 17-2 record and Atlantic Coast Conference-leading .308 batting average with bad intentions. They also brought their hard-throwing closer if needed, the best quarterback-turned-pitcher in college baseball this spring, Jameis Winston.

Winston never left the dugout. The Seminoles had nothing to close.

There was a save recorded in Florida’s 3-1 win, and it belonged to Florida left-hander Bobby Poyner.

Baseball team

Poyner faced nine batters and threw 31 pitches, 24 for strikes. All nine of those FSU batters walked back to the dugout after making an out.

Poyner’s perfect outing was just one of several clutch efforts from the Gators in Tuesday night’s win, one witnessed by 5,657 fans – or more than some of those Braves games I attended in the late 1980s.

In the top of the third the Seminoles loaded the bases with no outs against Gators starter Danny Young. Up stepped DJ Stewart, FSU’s most dangerous hitter. Stewart fouled out to third for the first out. Young then struck out cleanup hitter Brett Knief before facing John Nogowski.

Nogowski hit a sharp grounder deep into the hole that Gators third baseman Josh Tobias fielded. Tobias momentarily slipped as he contemplated making a play at third. Instead, he regained his footing and threw a strike across the diamond to retire Nogowski for the final out of the inning.

“That’s a long throw,’’ Poyner said afterward. “The guy hitting was a pretty good runner. Any mishap and that play doesn’t get made.”

It got made, though, and when Tobias stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the inning, he drilled a pitch from FSU starter Peter Miller into the left-field bleachers for his first home run of the season.

That’s what they call a momentum swing.

“It felt really good,’’ Tobias said.

When Young gave up a leadoff single in the fourth, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan went to the bullpen and inserted Aaron Rhodes. Rhodes struck out four in three innings, the only mistake a home run by FSU’s Jose Brizuela.

With the momentum back on FSU’s side, rather than wilt, the Gators quickly responded with a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth. Richie Martin’s leadoff double started the rally and Harrison Bader, facing reliever Bryant Holtmann following a sacrifice bunt by Casey Turgeon, greeted the left-hander with a double to right field that scored Bader with the go-ahead run.

Taylor Gushue added an insurance run with a RBI sacrifice fly, and Poyner did the rest.

After a 5-5 February, the Gators are 9-2 in March, with seven of those victories coming in games Florida scored four runs or less. The pitching has been superb overall, and if the offense can catch up, the Gators could be onto something.

“Moving forward it gives us a lot of confidence,’’ Bader said of the victory. “Our hitters are coming around more and more every game. Those key hits in those key situations are really, really important.”

At 14-7, the Gators need one more win to surpass half their total during last year’s 29-30 season. They have 35 regular-season games remaining as they head to Texas A&M this weekend for a three-game Southeastern Conference series.

And when they get back home the Gators have a rematch with the Seminoles in Jacksonville on Tuesday.

In other words, there is a lot of baseball left. But O’Sullivan is refreshed by the way his team has played of late.

“We played really good baseball since the UConn weekend [March 7-9],” he said. “We’ve been playing better. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think this team is confident. I think they are having fun right now.

“It’s very, very early in the year, but I do like the way we’re playing. I don’t want to get too far ahead … the next bunch of games are not going to be easy.”

More than anything, the win over the top-ranked Seminoles serves as the highlight of the young season. The Gators’ goal over the next two months is to make sure it’s not the highlight of 2014.

Poyner hopes there are more games -- and more wins in which everyone contributes -- like Tuesday's.

“I’m very happy with how the entire game went,’’ he said. “Offensively, timely hitting was great. Bader came up big. Tobias hit one in the bleachers. Danny did a great job [getting out of that jam]. We did a heckuva job as a club.”

Twitter seemed to think so.

Tuesday March 18, 2014Bo, Jameis, and Heisman winners at McKethan Stadium

Updated: 3:04pm, March 18

McKethan Stadium

McKethan Stadium is expected to be crowded tonight when No. 1-ranked FSU visits Florida.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida baseball team is celebrating its 100th season in 2014 and welcomes No. 1-ranked Florida State to town Tuesday night.

The Seminoles are not only good, but they are a big story wherever they go because of their closer and part-time outfielder, a guy named Jameis Winston.

Yup, the same guy who led FSU to the national title last fall and is in his second season with FSU’s baseball team.

Winston is FSU’s closer and has pitched in seven games. He has three saves, 13 strikeouts and a 0.84 ERA over 10 2/3 innings. At the plate, Winston is 3-for-16 (.088) with a double and RBI.

Winston

There’s no guarantee Winston will make an appearance tonight against the Gators, who have heated up to win seven of their last eight games.

What is certain is that a big crowd is expected at McKethan Stadium. As of this morning, only general admission tickets remained for purchase.

The potential of Winston playing tonight got me wondering if a Heisman Trophy winner has ever played at McKethan Stadium.

My initial thought was that Winston would be only the second, joining former Auburn slugger and star running back Bo Jackson.

So, I started to search the Google newspaper archives and the Auburn baseball media guide to confirm my suspicion.

Turns out that Winston, to my knowledge, would be the first Heisman winner, certainly in the modern era – here is a complete list of winners – to play in a baseball game at McKethan Stadium. Of course, if Tim Tebow, Danny Wuerffel or Steve Spurrier ever played for recreation at Florida’s home field, that does not count.

Jackson almost made it to McKethan.

The Gators did not face Auburn during Jackson’s freshman season in 1983 or his junior year in ’85. Jackson did not play baseball in 1984 after suffering a hip injury during the football season.

However, as a senior in 1986 and four months after Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, Auburn came to Gainesville for a three-game series from April 4-6.

Bo Jackson

If the series had been scheduled two weeks earlier, Jackson (photo: JoeMcNally.com) would have played.

However, about 10 days before the Tigers arrived, Jackson was declared ineligible for further intercollegiate play by the Southeastern Conference when he accepted a plane ride to Tampa to undergo a physical examination by the Tampa Bay Bucs, who owned the first overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft.

His college career was over. It was big news at the time.

“If there’s a superstar, he’s it,’’ former UF coach Joe Arnold told reporters.

“I don’t think his not being in the lineup will hurt us that badly [in attendance],’’ then-UF Associate Athletic Director Jeremy Foley told The Gainesville Sun. “Our baseball team is on a roll now, with six straight victories, and I think that will bring out our fans. We may lose a few, but I don’t think Jackson’s not being in the lineup will hurt us that much.”

The Gators won the first game of the series before dropping the last two.

Jackson went on to become an American icon as a dual-sport star with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and MLB’s Kansas City Royals.

No word if Bo Knows Jameis.

Thursday March 13, 2014Missouri playing for its NCAA Tournament life vs. Gators

Updated: 6:14pm, March 13

ATLANTA -- It's understandable why Missouri coach Frank Haith and Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy viewed Missouri's 91-83 win in double overtime here differently Thursday.

Haith's Tigers advanced to face the No. 1-ranked Gators on Friday (1 p.m./ESPNU) while the Aggies' were sent packing from the SEC Tournament.

Two huge differences jumped out immediately on the stat sheet: Missouri outrebounded Texas A&M 48-28, and the Tigers shot 53 free throws.

"I'm all for the new rules, but you've got to be kidding me,'' Kennedy said of Missouri's 53 trips to the line. "Their guys get into the lane and they make it hard for you. Your post guys have to rotate. Missouri is a dangerous team because they can score."

By the end of Thursday's loss, Kennedy had four players, including three starters, on the bench because they fouled out. 

Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson is a player the Gators will keep a close eye on Friday.

Meanwhile, Haith was optimistic after his team spread the floor and drove to the basket when they had scoring lanes. That's the way the Tigers play when at their best like during a 10-game win streak to open the season.

"It was great to see. We spent a lot of time talking about that,'' Haith said. "I thought we were back on track offensively."

In Missouri's first meeting against Florida -- a 68-58 loss at the O'Dome on Feb. 4 -- the Tigers got it done for a while. The game was tied 12 times, the last at 45-45 with a little over nine minutes left.

Then Florida's defense clamped down.

Missouri led 28-25 at halftime before the Gators exploded for 43 second-half points. The Gators won behind their disruptive defense, four 3-pointers from Michael Frazier and 19 points from Scottie Wilbekin (13 of 16 free throws).

"If we continue to score, we could have made it interesting,'' Haith said Thursday. "We've got to have a 40-minute game plan against them. They are the best team in the country. We are the only team in the country that has this opportunity tomorrow, so we've got to look forward to it."

If concerned about needing two overtimes to knock off the Aggies, Haith wasn't going there. Asked how that might impact his team Friday, Haith used the well-worn "nobody is going to feel sorry for us."

He's right. The Gators are fresh off becoming the only SEC team in history to finish 18-0 in the conference and are chasing their first SEC Tournament title in seven years.

The biggest challenge the Tigers present is the guard trio of Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross. Brown scored 26 points Thursday, Ross scored 24 and Clarkson added 12.

If the Tigers are going to pull an upset and get off the NCAA bubble -- most project Missouri as one of the first teams out of the NCAA Tournament if they don't beat the Gators -- Brown, Clarkson and Ross will need to produce points.

"That's why Missouri is a tough out,'' Kennedy said. "They've got three guys who can get you 20 any time."

Ross is the only senior in Missouri's starting lineup. He had a miserable game in Gainesville, shooting 1-for-8 with four points and two turnovers.

He wants to make the NCAA Tournament his final season and understands how a win over the nation's No. 1 team would provide a huge push in the right direction.

"I think we gave everything we had in the first half [in our first meeting],'' Ross said. "In the second half we came out a little slower than normal, but for us to be able to get a second chance at them in the SEC Tournament, at a neutral site, is a good chance for us to showcase what we do."

Added Brown: "Everybody is playing for their lives,'' he said.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Record: 22-10, 9-9 SEC regular season

Player to watch: Junior G Jabari Brown, a first-team All-SEC selection. Brown averaged 19.7 points and 4.5 rebounds and failed to score in double-figures just once all season -- a 72-45 loss at Tennessee in the regular-season finale Saturday.

Worth noting: Brown, G Jordan Clarkson (18.1) and G Earnest Ross (13.5) are the nation's second-leading trio behind VMI's QJ Peterson (19.4), D.J. Covington (18.7) and Rodney Glasgow (18.4).

History: Missouri has won 20 or more games for six consecutive seasons, a school record.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – March Madness has arrived.

The No. 1-ranked Gators head to Atlanta later this week for the SEC Tournament and will learn their NCAA Tournament destination on Sunday night.

The Gators capped a memorable regular season with Saturday’s 84-65 win over Kentucky, becoming the first SEC team in history to go 18-0 on SEC play. 

Let’s take at some of the buzz generated by Billy Donovan’s team and other stories of interest to Florida fans:

--The New York Times paid a visit to the O’Connell Center on Saturday for Florida’s historic win over Kentucky. Click here for a story by Tom Spousta.

Gators pumped up

--Tampa Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly asks ‘Why not the Gators?

--Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi is probably not a popular person on Kentucky message boards after writing this column on Billy Donovan off Florida’s win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

--John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader writes that Kentucky is on wrong side of history as postseason beckons.

--Florida seniors Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete were featured in Sports Illustrated last week. SI writer Andy Staples wrote a longer version for SI.com than appeared in the magazine.

--Gators icon Steve Spurrier is no fan of columnist Ron Morris of The State newspaper in South Carolina, but Morris is a fan of the Gators basketball team. 

--Florida’s four seniors have sparked a lot of debate this year in college basketball about the importance of experience over hyped youth. Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy throws out an interesting question: In a game pitting the top freshmen against the top seniors this season, which team would you go with?

--Gators freshman point guard Kasey Hill played like a veteran Saturday writes Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun.

--GatorCountry.com writer Richard Johnson braved the cool night to camp with the Rowdy Reptiles prior to Saturday’s game.

--ESPN.com’s college basketball writers hand out some awards, with Gators coach Billy Donovan getting tabbed as National Coach of the Year by more than one panelist.

--The NCAA Tournament schedule via ESPN.com.

--How does Gators vs. Wright State in first round in Orlando sound? That is latest forecast from Bracketology with Joe Lunardi.

Vernon Hargreaves III

--Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III doesn’t need to be pushed to be motivated writes Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com.

--UF spring predictions: Whole new attitude via Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com.

--The Sporting News looks at its top 25 players to watch in spring football and two Gators make the grade.

--Former UF standout Joakim Noah continues to play the best of his career – had dad approved of Sunday’s win over the Bulls writes K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune.

--The Florida baseball team pulled off three extra-inning wins over UConn and CollegeBaseballCentral.com’s Josh Vadeboncoeur steps up with a series review. 

--AlligatorArmy.com’s Andy Hutchins writes about the UF gymnastics team’s memorable Senior Night on Friday at the O’Dome.

--Five months ago a couple of former Gators – Walter Pitchford and Cody Larson – squared off in a preseason scrimmage. Pitchford moved a step closer to an NCAA Tourney bid with the Huskers’ win over Wisconsin Sunday. 

--Speaking of Larson, his South Dakota State team that beat Nebraska in that scrimmage is also knocking at the NCAA Tournament’s door.

BONUS LINK

--Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith’s memory has faded and ESPN.com writer Tommy Tomlinson captures the mood around Chapel Hill masterfully. This is definitely worth a read if you like good storytelling.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In his four seasons with the Gators baseball team, Mike Stanley came through time and time again in one of the program’s most distinguished careers.

Stanley is back in town this weekend to be inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame.

A three-time All-SEC selection, Stanley is one of just six players in school history to accomplish that feat. Stanley’s versatility and his bat set him apart. 

He also made the All-SEC Tournament three times: at three different positions – catcher, third base and first base.

Stanley did all this while battling various nagging injuries during his college career.

“You want to talk about a fighter, a guy who plays in pain and gives it everything he has every time he steps on the field, you’re talking about Mike,’’ former Gators assistant coach Dusty Rhodes once said. “He’s the kind of player others follow.”

Florida State coach Mike Martin was even a fan of Stanley’s no-nonsense approach to the game and his obvious talent.

“When he’s on he can dominate a game with his bat,’’ Martin told the Gainesville Sun in 1985. “Stanley’s the kind of player a successful team needs.”

Stanley was also known for as one of the Gators’ most superstitious players.

“I’m the absolute worst,” he once said.

Stanley would hang is uniform in his locker the same way every day. He would swing his bat the same number of times before each trip to the plate. Each time he got a hit, he would put in a fresh chew.

Stanley hit .350 in 217 career games at UF with 45 doubles, 22 home runs and 153 RBIs. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1985 and spent 15 years in the major leagues, the longest professional career of any UF player in history.

Stanley’s reputation as a gamer followed him into the big leagues, where he had some of his best seasons in the limelight of New York. As starting catcher for the Yankees (photo above is Stanley and late Yankees great Joe DiMaggio in 1994), Stanley won an American League Silver Slugger Award in 1993 and was named an American League All-Star in 1995.

One of Stanley’s most memorable moments came early in his career when he was with Texas and caught the final of Nolan Ryan’s record seven no-hitters. He also shined in an ALDS game for Boston against Cleveland in 1999, becoming just the fourth player in major league history to get five hits in a postseason game.

Stanley retired in 2000 after playing in 1,467 games in the majors with five different organizations.

Former Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan, who once hired Stanley as Boston’s bench coach, had this to say: “He’s a man that comes with a lot of respect and integrity not only as a player but a person.”

They said the same thing about Stanley during his time at UF, where he returns to join the Gators Athletics Hall of Fame.

Thursday March 6, 2014Former Gators LB McCullough is keeping fit

Updated: 1:02pm, March 6

It’s always interesting to hear about what former Gators no longer in the spotlight are doing these days.

Todd McCullough

I got an email recently with an update on former Gators linebacker Todd McCullough.

A quick glance at McCullough’s Instagram page tells you he probably doesn’t order a cheeseburger and fries very often.

The 6-foot-5 McCullough has been a fitness fanatic for years and played in 41 games – starting 18 – at UF from 2001-2005. McCullough spent time in Europe playing professionally after his UF career ended.

McCullough grew up in Baker County and was an all-state linebacker at The Bolles School in Jacksonville prior to coming to UF.

McCullough now lives in Southern California and is the proprietor of TMAC Fitness.

There was a 20-minute total body workout attached in the email. You can see what McCullough is up to for yourself – and get a workout in, too:

O'Connell Center

The O'Connell Center will be rocking when the Gators host Kentucky on Saturday in regular-season finale.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Hey folks, here are some Gator-related links for your perusal to start the day:

--Saturday's Florida-Kentucky game is a hot ticket writes Garry Smits of the Florida Times-Union.

--Gators guard Michael Frazier's breakout game was a long time in making writes Antonya English of The Tampa Bay Times.

--CBSSports.com ponders Billy D's legacy among the greatest coaches in college hoops history.

--New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's contract (3-year deal, $590,000 annually) was released to the media Wednesday writes Edgar Thompson of The Orlando Sentinel.

--Gator fans hope this ESPN poll turns out to be correct in predicting the biggest turnaround teams in 2014.

--ICYMI, Muschamp recently told the Orlando Sentinel that an indoor practice facility is not a pressing need.

--The No. 1-ranked Gators softball team is 22-0 and now atop espnW.com writer Graham Hays' power rankings.

--Former Gator tight end A.C. Leonard, whose off-field issues led to his departure from UF, has resurfaced as an intriguing NFL prospect writes Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union.

--A look at the groundbreaking deal between the Walt Disney Company and DISH Network that should interest SEC Network fans, via The Wall Street Journal.

Thursday February 27, 2014Young Gators to be tested with four games in four days

Updated: 4:03pm, February 27

Logan Shore

Freshman Logan Shore is one of the young pitchers Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan will rely on this season.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They were competitive in the first two games of last weekend’s series at Miami, but all the Gators had to show for it was two L’s.

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan wasn’t interested in a third.

“We told the players before the game, ‘the mark of a gritty team is to get out with a win, no matter how we do it,’ ” O’Sullivan said.

Three hours and seven pitchers later, the Gators had a W.

Kevin O'Sullivan

O’Sullivan wore sunglasses and a grin underneath the warm afternoon sun at Alex Rodriguez Park as he talked to reporters following Florida’s 6-4 win Sunday.

“You don’t want to put too much stock in any one game,’’ he said. “But it’s a good win. There’s a lot of things to build on.”

The Gators (5-3) will try to do exactly that over the next four days in a round-robin tournament at McKethan Stadium. The event marks the first regular-season home tournament for the Gators since O’Sullivan took over the program in 2008.

The Gators host Florida Gulf Coast and Illinois. Each team will play one another twice. The Gators face FGCU on Thursday and Saturday, and Illinois on Friday and Sunday.

Florida’s rotation during the four-game stretch is right-hander Logan Shore on Thursday, lefty Bobby Poyner on Friday, right-hander Karsten Whitson on Saturday, and lefty A.J. Puk is tabbed to make his first career start on Sunday. Puk got the first win of his career Sunday at Miami.

The Gators responded to O’Sullivan’s pregame challenge by scoring four runs in the first inning Sunday against the Hurricanes.

Making his second start since missing all of last season due to shoulder issues, Whitson allowed three hits and two runs in three innings. He walked one and struck out one, throwing 54 pitches.

“I felt pretty good,’’ said Whitson, a freshman All-American in 2011. “I think every time I’m able to get out on the mound, I feel a little more comfortable. I’m saying I felt better than I did last week, and this is a big win for us. The big thing is I have to command my fastball, first and foremost.”

In his first start of the season, Whitson threw 48 pitches over two innings in Florida’s 8-5 win over Maryland on Feb. 16.

O’Sullivan saw progress.

“He was OK,” O’Sullivan said. “His stuff was better. He’s still got to find the strike zone a little more. But as we said before the season, this is a work in progress. It’s been almost two years since he’s been out there. So we’ll continue to run him out there, and he’ll get better each time out.

“Obviously he needs to be good for us to be good, and he will. But to expect him to come out and throw seven shutout innings his second start after missing almost two years is unrealistic.”

Once Whitson was finished Sunday, Puk, Shore, Kirby Snead, Ryan Harris, Danny Young and Eric Hanhold all took turns on the mound.

Snead threw only two pitches to record an out, and Harris’ 31 pitches were the most by any of the relievers.

O’Sullivan said it was important to get the pitchers work early in the season.

“Our depth is our strength,’’ he said. “We’re young. We’re not nearly a finished product yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I do like the fight we showed. Hopefully we look back down the road and say that’s what got us going.”

The Gators should know more about themselves after four games in four days.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Seven months ago former Gators All-American safety Matt Elam inked a four-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens that included a $3.3 million signing bonus, plenty of money to clear the shoe department at a sporting goods store.

A first-round pick, Elam returned to UF in January after his rookie season to continue working toward his degree.

Elam

However, Elam is doing more than going to school. He is working at a Finish Line store in the Oaks Mall.

BaltimoreRavens.com writer Garrett Downing caught up with Elam. You can read his story here.

Elam -- with former Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn (left) and UF secondary coach Travaris Robinson (right) in photo -- said he has wanted to own a sporting good store since he was a kid and saw this as an opportunity to gain some valuable experience while back in Gainesville taking classes.

He works at the store as a part-time sales associate and puts in about 20 hours per week.

“I just need to get retail knowledge,” Elam said. “That’s basically what I’m doing. I’m getting that knowledge for when it’s time. Everybody was surprised when I started. They were like, ‘Why? You got enough money.’ But it’s not about the money. It’s just me building.”

To read more about Elam and his quest for a better future, you can click here to read a story from GatorZone.com prior to his senior season.

Jadeveon Clowney talks about combine and impact Gators assistant Brad Lawing had on college career.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney did what many suspected he might do at the NFL Combine on Monday: Clowney stole the show.

Clowney weighed in at 266 pounds and then posted an official time of 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Not too shabby for a human wrecking ball.

On Sunday Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s best unofficial time was 4.56 seconds, and was later adjusted to an official 4.68. Manziel weighed in at 207 pounds, 59 less than the 6-foot-5 Clowney.

A two-time member of the first-team All-SEC squad, Clowney is considered a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the draft to the Houston Texans. If he does, Clowney would become the first player to be ranked the No. 1 overall player coming out of high school to go first overall in the NFL Draft.

Brad Lawing

During his stop in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine, Clowney spoke to NFL.com about Lawing’s impact on his development.In Clowney’s first two seasons at South Carolina – as a sophomore in 2012 he finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting behind winner Manziel – his position coach was current Gators defensive line coach Brad Lawing (photo).

“He was on me so hard my first two years before he left,’’ Clowney said. “So hard, I would say, 'Coach, why are you always on me so hard?' He'd say 'I get on guys that (aren't) doing anything. Do you want to be great?' I'd say 'You know I want to be great.' He'd say, 'Well I'm here to help you be great, but I've got to push you.' "

As the draft approaches, Clowney has faced criticism from skeptics who have questioned if Clowney prepares as hard as he should off the field.

Clowney said that was never a question when Lawing was around.

“When he left, going into that next [junior] season, I was like, 'Well, Coach Lawing is gone. I've got nobody to push me now.' So I pushed myself to be great,’’ Clowney said. “I had to learn to push myself for the first time. When he was there, I hated him for it, but when he left, I missed it. And I appreciate every bit of it."

Monday February 24, 2014Gator gymnastics fans packing O'Connell Center at record pace

Updated: 5:21pm, February 24

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – An hour before the doors of the O’Connell Center opened Friday night, a line snaked from the front entrance and down the sidewalk along Gale Lemerand Drive.

It was Florida’s annual “Link to Pink” meet to benefit breast cancer awareness. The first 2,000 fans received free T-shirts, always an extra incentive to arrive early.

But after the initial rush of fans, a steady stream continued to pour into the O’Dome for Florida’s victory over SEC rival LSU. The announced crowd of 9,197 was the fifth-largest in school history.

Gators gymnastics chart

“It was everything we were looking for,’’ Gators head coach Rhonda Faehn said. “It was an incredible crowd, first of all. Our athletes just feed off that. Our fans are unbelievable week in and week out.”

They certainly have been this season.

The defending national-champion Gators are averaging 8,148 fans per home meet. They have drawn 32,594 fans total in four meets at the O’Dome. The last chance for fans to catch the Gators at home is on March 7 when UF hosts West Virginia on Senior Night.

How big of a draw has Faehn’s program become? Consider that if no one shows up on Senior Night – repeat, no one -- UF will still set the school record for average season attendance (6,518).

The current record of 6,455 was set in 1989.

Sophomore Bridget Sloan made it a point to give the fans a shout out after Friday’s victory over LSU.

“We were competing for them. We won for them,’’ Sloan said. “It’s awesome to not only compete for Florida, but to compete for a cause. The fans were outstanding.”

A look at what the Gators’ 2014 average attendance will be "if more than zero" people show up on Senior Night:

Gators gymnastics chart

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