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Saturday April 21, 2012Gators' Runner-Up Finish Filled with More Pride Than Disappointment

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

DULUTH, Ga. – The Gators were finished as soon as Kytra Hunter thrust her arms into the air to complete her floor routine.

At that point, there was nothing to do but wait.

"It was a tense moment,'' Florida junior Marissa King said. "I didn't know if we had it. I didn't know what was going on."

As they waited, the Gators gathered to watch Alabama's Ashley Priess finish on the beam. Hope was alive. The Gators could be moments away from winning their first national title if Priess faltered.

That's how uncertain the final outcome of Saturday's NCAA Gymnastics Championship was at the end.

"She killed that beam routine,'' a bummed King said shortly afterward.

Priess erased any doubt with a superb 9.95 score, lifting Alabama to a second consecutive national title. Meanwhile, the No. 1-seed Gators had to settle for No. 2 in the closest final margin since 1994 and third closest all-time.

How close was it? Close as in .075 points.

That elusive national title was so close yet seemed so far as the Crimson Tide celebrated to the cheers of their fans. The Gators huddled to listen to head coach Rhonda Faehn, a gamut of emotions circling through the group.

A year ago the Gators failed to make the Super Six in Cleveland, a crushing end to one of the best seasons in school history. The mission since that day was to return to the Super Six and challenge for the national title.

The Gators did that, winning the SEC Championship over the same Crimson Tide last month. They then won the NCAA Raleigh Regional before advancing to the Super Six with a second-place performance in Session II on Friday night, once again topped by Alabama by the closest of margins: .025 points.

In the wake of Saturday's runner-up finish, once some of the tears dried and reality began to set in, there was more pride than disappointment.

The Gators made it back to the Super Six but still crave to join the Big Four – Alabama, Georgia, UCLA and Utah – and win a national title.

That remains the ultimate goal, but in a year when Faehn re-evaluated the program and developed a new practice pace, the reboot has set the program on the right track.

"Of course we want to win the national championship, but every year there is only one,'' Faehn said. "We were this close. It gives us so much positive promise, because this team did the best any Florida team has ever done."

In the Gators' 10th trip to the Super Six, Saturday's runner-up finish matched the best NCAA performance in school history. The only other time Florida finished second was 1998.

They fell short against an Alabama program that won its sixth national title, prompting reporters to ask Crimson Tide coach Sarah Patterson about comparisons to Bear Bryant, who also won six national titles in Tuscaloosa.

The Gators hope their first national championship is near. Their score of 197.775 points would have won the last two national titles, so there is a sense that it's only a matter of time considering the team returns the core of its lineup and is adding another top-ranked recruiting class.

"It's such an extreme improvement from last year,'' junior Randy Stageberg said. "We went from not even making the Super Six to almost winning it, so there's really nothing to be that upset about. We had an amazing meet."

King shared a similar sentiment. Also a junior, King's glossy eyes gave away her disappointment. However, she refused to believe the Gators could have done any better on Saturday.

"I think every single one of us came off that floor thinking that we did the best we could,'' she said. "There are always going to be 'what ifs?' The result is what it is. It stinks to be so close but we can always look at the positives from it and move forward. We had a great season.

"I think the most disappointing thing is that it was so close."

The Gators got big performances on Saturday from Stageberg on beam and floor, from Alaina Johnson on bars and beam, from Amy Ferguson on floor, Ashanee Dickerson and King on vault, and from Hunter in the final floor routine of the meet.

They performed the way Faehn envisioned other than for a fall by Dickerson on bars.

Even then they responded the right way.

"Nobody let it affect them,'' Faehn said. "We didn't really get rattled by that."

The Gators continued to fight, continued to challenge Alabama and third-place UCLA to be champion.

In the end, they had to wait and watch the scoreboard flash 1. Alabama; 2. Florida.

They missed out on that national championship they crave so much, but the Gators took another step toward eventually winning one of their own someday.

That day can't come soon enough.

"It's painful and it's hard, but at the same time I look at just what our athletes did accomplish,'' Faehn said. "This is incredible motivation for next season."


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