GatorZone.com Senior Writer
Duluth, Ga. – They're back.
The Gators are back in the NCAA Gymnastics Championships. They are back as the No. 1 overall seed for the first time in five years and only second time in school history. They are back here a half-hour from downtown Atlanta, where less than a month ago the Gators won the SEC Tournament in the same building – The Arena at Gwinnett Center – that they will compete in Friday night.
Now that they have made it this far, there's one place the Gators really hope to get back to: the Super Six.
Florida failed to advance past the 12-team first round a year ago in Cleveland, a disappointing finish to another season that many expected the Gators to seriously challenge for their first national title.
Instead, Florida was left singing the blues a few blocks from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as SEC foe Alabama won the national title.
Alabama's win kept alive a peculiar streak in the 30-year history of the NCAA Gymnastics Finals. Only four schools have ever claimed the title, with UCLA, Georgia and Utah joining Alabama on the title stand since 1982.
The Gators are ready to take their turn. Ranked No. 1 for much of the season, the Gators are considered the favorite along with No. 2-seed UCLA.
"It would mean everything to be part of the first team to ever win a national championship for Florida,'' junior Ashanee Dickerson said. "That's our goal. That's been our goal the whole year."
Fellow junior Marissa King won't even contemplate the thought of a repeat of last year.
Too gruesome. She is painting a totally different picture in her head, a scene that includes tears of joy rather than tears of anguish.
"The funny thing is, I can already see it happening,'' King said of a Florida national title.
King's confidence is rooted in recent history – Florida's SEC win on March 24 in the same building and on the same equipment.
"We couldn't even imagine walking into that arena and not being winners,'' King said. "We want to have the same mindset. It would be unbelievable if we could hold that trophy up."
The Gators have advanced to the Super Six in six of the past eight years. Their best finish was as runner-up in 1998.
Since Faehn arrived on the scene in 2002, the former UCLA All-American has steadily built the program into a perennial national title contender, not a pretender.
She has signed some of the top gymnasts in the country such as Mackenzie Caquatto and Kytra Hunter. Meanwhile, King is the defending NCAA vault champion and Dickerson is one of the most athletic and top all-around NCAA gymnasts competing today.
While the stars shine bright, this year's Gators team is deeper and talented from top to bottom as perhaps any during Faehn's tenure.
There is also something else that makes this team different. They talk about it all the time. Faehn said it's not an act. They live it once the cameras and microphones go away.
"It's genuine chemistry,'' Faehn said. "This year, this team, everyone is on the same page. Whatever their role is, they are thriving on it.
"Also, this team is not afraid to fail. They don't get out there and compete to not lose."
She couldn't say the same a year ago. By the time the Gators arrived in Cleveland, they were beaten and battered. Nagging injuries had stripped strip away confidence.
It showed in performance and body language.
The Gators are much healthier this year thanks in part to a revamped training schedule. They have won 17 of 18 dual meets and in winning the NCAA Raleigh (N.C.) Regional two weeks ago Florida posted the best team score in any of the six regionals.
That's how they earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Finals.
Their goal now is to show everyone why.
What will that take to avoid another early exit?
"For everyone to be on,'' Dickerson said. "Just have a lot of fun, no worries about what could happen or what's going to happen. I think with the team we have now we can do it. It's the most talented and family-like team I've been on since I've been here."
Sounds like all the ingredients are in place.
So, what if they do finally win that elusive national title? What would that be like?
"It would be unbelievable," King said. "For starters, we would be making history."
The kind of history they would never forget.