GatorZone.com Senior Writer
The confidence oozed and smiles beamed as the Gators entered the Gwinnett Center through a fog machine. If the Gators felt pressure, they sure weren't showing it.
Once Session II of the NCAA Championships began – three berths to Saturday's Super Six were at stake – the Gators pounced on their prey.
In this instance, they started on the vault and did so with two freshmen leading off: Rachel Spicer and Kiersten Wang.
Spicer and Wang each nailed their routines and the scores only got better from there as upperclassmen Ashanée Dickerson, Alaina Johnson, Marissa King, and freshman Kytra Hunter each scored 9.90 or higher on vault.
The Gators' final score (49.575) on the vault was a program-best for NCAA competition.
The tone was set.
Florida followed its stellar opening with a program-best score in NCAA competition on the uneven bars.
"They came out with such fight,'' Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said. "I loved the enthusiasm, the energy and the focus."
If what happened a year ago in Cleveland ever weighed on the Gators' minds, it weighed no more than a feather. The Gators finished with 197.650 points, a school record for an NCAA meet.
Florida maintained a slim lead throughout the first three events until Randy Stageberg and King drifted out of bounds on the floor.
"Other than that, the team competed really aggressively, had a lot of fun, started out strong on vault and just carried that momentum on through,'' Faehn said.
The out-of-bounds calls allowed Alabama to officially claim the Session II title by the slimmest of margins: 197.675 to 197.650.
Hunter said they were a little disappointed in the final outcome but not enough to lose any sleep over.
Still, both Florida and Alabama were better than Session I winner UCLA (197.400), which advanced to the Super Six along with Utah and Stanford. Arkansas was the final team from Session II, setting up an SEC vs. Pac-12 showdown for the national title.
More than anything, Friday was about redemption. The Gators struggled early in last year's NCAA semifinals and failed to advance to the Super Six for only the third time in Faehn's 10 seasons.
They talked all season about how this year was going to be different. They were healthier, more confident, more focused and had a deeper roster infused with the arrival of another No. 1 recruiting class.
They went out and proved it on Friday as Hunter won the individual all-around national title and each of the 10 athletes who saw the floor did their jobs.
And did them well.
"I just kind of stayed in my bubble and the team's bubble,'' Hunter said. "We had fun. We fed off each other."
Hunter said the Gators were so loose that they danced in the locker room during their bye but never took their eye off the prize.
That goal – advancing to Saturday and earning a shot at joining UCLA, Alabama, Georgia and Utah as the only schools to ever win an NCAA title – has been there since the day they started practice last fall.
They took a step they had to take Friday, missteps and all.
"We had a few mistakes, but tomorrow is the day to fix those mistakes,'' Hunter said. "This is the day for the mistakes."
Once her press conference was over and the lights started to go out in the arena, Faehn gave her final stamp of approval on Friday's performance.
The Gators weren't perfect, but they were about as good as they have been all season.
If they can duplicate their performance in the Super Six, that first national championship might become a reality.
"They don't get caught up thinking outside what's going on,'' Faehn said. "It's only about the Florida Gators. They are mentally on a different path and different page that we've ever had."
"It was a very good warm-up for [Saturday]."