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Rhonda Faehn's first recruiting class helped UF win the 2007 SEC title. Since then, UF added 2010, 2012 & 2013 SEC wins.

Friday April 5, 2013Faehn Has Gators Gymnastics Program Built to Last

Rhonda Faehn's first recruiting class helped UF win the 2007 SEC title. Since then, UF added 2010, 2012 & 2013 SEC wins.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Standing inside the Florida gymnastic team's glistening new practice studio this week, Gators coach Rhonda Faehn reflected for a moment on how they got here.

NCAA Gymnastics Regional Info:

Teams: Florida, Auburn, Bridgeport, Maryland, Minnesota, Pittsburgh

 

Date & Time: Saturday, April 6 at 6 p.m. ET

Site: Stephen C. O’Connell Center (10,126). Gates open at 4:30 p.m.

 

Television: none

 

UF NCAA Region Titles (all-time): UF has won 12 NCAA region titles (1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1997, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012)  

 

Internet: live streaming video (free) available on NCAA.com; live stats available on GatorZone.com

 

Tickets: range in price from $10 to $5. UF students with Gator1 identification are admitted free. Visit the Gainesville Regional Ticket site for further information or call 352-375-4683 x6800

 

Parking Shuttle: A complimentary parking shuttle transports fans from the UF Commuter Lot on Gale Lemerand Drive to the O’Connell Center. Info at Florida NCAA Regional site.

 

Here being the start of another NCAA postseason and the Gators in the conversation once more as a potential national champion.

The Gators gymnastics program and success are old friends. If the host Gators advance out of the Gainesville Regional on Saturday, it will be their 31st trip to the NCAA Championships in the event's 32 years.

The only time they failed to do so was in 2000.

In some of those years, the Gators were good but not great, a long shot to win the program's first title. Other years they were really good but not good enough. And then last year they were better than they have ever been, narrowly missing a national championship by the oh-so-slim margin of 0.075 to Alabama.

When Faehn was hired in May 2002, the program had slipped under former coach Judi Markell. In the four seasons after Florida finished national runner-up in 1998, the Gators were only 56-46 from 1999-2002.

When Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley hired Faehn, the goal was to remake the program into one that could compete regularly for SEC titles the way it did in the 1980s. In Faehn's first season the Gators went 27-5 and beat national powers Alabama and Utah.

As the program's record improved, so did interest. In Faehn's first season the Gators averaged 2,791 fans at the O'Connell Center. That total has more than doubled during Faehn's 11-year tenure.

In women's gymnastics, if you can win SEC titles, you can win national titles. Two SEC programs -- Alabama and Georgia -- are part of the Big Four along with UCLA and Utah as the only schools to win a national title since the NCAA started governing the sport's national championship in 1982.

Florida continues to knock on the door, each year a little louder than before.

The rebuilding of the program didn't happen overnight or nearly as fast as it took for the team's new practice facility to be built after last season. This project required convincing recruits to buy into the program’s vision.

“I look at it kind of in stages,’’ Faehn said. “My first three or four years here, it was just a matter of really trying to recruit the athletes who were going to have that right mindset. At that point we had to prove ourselves. They came in and they wanted to put Florida on the map. That was their goal and along with our goal.

“That first stage was a matter of getting people in the country to wake up and go, ‘hey, they are actually pretty good, they are contenders, they could be in a Super Six.’ And then with the strength of recruiting, it kind of gradually grew from there.”

The influx of new talent began with gymnasts such as Samantha Lutz, Corey Hartung, Breanne King, Katie Rue and Savannah Evans, a group that slowly helped Faehn build the Gators back into an SEC title contender.

The Gators won their first SEC title in 18 years in 2007 as Faehn won National Coach of the Year honors. They won another league title in 2010 and two weeks ago in Little Rock, Ark., the Gators captured their first back-to-back SEC crowns in 28 years.

The Gators enter the postseason as the nation's top-ranked team and the only team in the country to post three scores of 198 (out of a possible 200) or higher this season. The talent pipeline is wide open with Florida owning the top recruiting class for four consecutive years in the view of CollegeGymFans.com, a service that follows gymnastics recruiting year-round.

The program added Kytra Hunter in 2012, and all she did was become the first UF gymnast to win the NCAA's all-around national title. The Gators added 2009 World Champion Bridget Sloan this season and Sloan delivered big, sharing the SEC all-around title with LSU's Rheagen Courville two weeks ago.

When Faehn fills out her lineup, she has seniors Marissa King (2011 NCAA vault champion) and Ashanée Dickerson (67 career wins) as the veterans of a group that is deeper than any of her previous teams.

They know they have the talent to capture that first national title. It's all about performing at this stage. The top two teams in Saturday's Gainesville Regional -- Minnesota, Bridgeport, Auburn, Pittsburgh and Maryland join Florida -- advance to the NCAA Championships in Los Angeles later this month.

"We’re going to stay positive,'' Hunter said. "We do expect to be in those top two teams but we don’t want to get cocky about it. We just want to do our usual prep and compete. When we go into NCAAs, we’re not going to be focusing on [other teams]. We are going to be focusing on what we need to do. That’s the only way we can win.”

Sophomore Kiersten Wang likes the team's demeanor heading into the regional meet after coming so close to a national title last year.

The fun factor is high, Wang said.

"Everyone knows subconsciously that it's crunch time,'' she said. "You can’t have that added pressure of, ‘oh my gosh, it’s regionals, you have to do good.’ It’s just another day in the gym, another practice. Going into regionals we know that we can do our best floor routines, we can hit our best beam routines."

Faehn's message to her team is the same as it was all season: One step at a time.

That was the way she rebuilt the program and it's the way she knows the Gators must approach the postseason to accomplish their ultimate goal, which is to add a national title trophy to that shiny new practice studio.

"In the last few years when we were knocking on the door and almost wining, it has gone through stages,'' Faehn said. "It just comes down to hard work and great character and tough minds. All year long I felt like anyone that we asked to step up in the lineup can go out and hit a great routine and get a great score.

"That's nice to know."

 

 

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