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The UF gymnastics team will try to win its second consecutive national title this weekend in Crimson Tide territory.

Wednesday April 16, 2014Gators are Back in Bama in Bid to Repeat as National Champs

The UF gymnastics team will try to win its second consecutive national title this weekend in Crimson Tide territory.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The road to back-to-back national titles goes straight through the Heart of Dixie for the UF gymnastics team.

The Gators won their first national title a year ago in Los Angeles at Pauley Pavilion, home of six-time national champion UCLA. If they are to repeat, they must do so in the backyard of six-time national champion and SEC rival Alabama.

The NCAA Championships open Friday night at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which is located adjacent to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Inside the Yellowhammer State’s athletic museum, there are exhibits that celebrate natives such as Bo Jackson, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

One of the largest exhibits honors former University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who in 1979 hired Sarah Patterson to take over the Crimson Tide’s gymnastics program. Thirty-five years later Patterson is still going strong and has built Alabama into one of the nation’s premier programs.

Rhonda Faehn has done the same in 12 seasons at Florida, leading the Gators into an exclusive club last season. Florida became only the fifth program to win a national title, joining Georgia (10), Utah (nine), UCLA and Alabama.

To repeat in hostile territory is a challenge the top-seed Gators are ready for starting Friday night. The Gators compete in Semifinal II with Alabama, Utah, UCLA, Nebraska and Penn State. The top three teams advance – along with the top three from Semifinal I on Friday afternoon – to the Super Six on Saturday.

Alaina Johnson

“I’m going to go out there, my team is going to go out there, we’re going to leave it all out on the floor, and hopefully we’re going to come back with a national championship,’’ Gators sophomore Bridget Sloan said. “It’ll just be one of those things that when we get out there we won’t be thinking about the crowd. It’ll just be us in our little bubble doing our routines.”

This is the fourth trip to the state of Alabama for the Gators (15-2) in three months. In January they won at Auburn, and then in late February suffered their first loss of the season to Alabama in Tuscaloosa before more than 12,000 fans. The Gators were in Birmingham four weeks ago for the SEC Championships, finishing second to the Crimson Tide.

While the Gators will have their own rooting section, they know a large partisan crowd awaits them and the other 10 teams in the event.

“The atmosphere there was electric at SECs, and it’s only going to get better when all these schools come to the championship,” Patterson said on a conference call this week. “

Senior Alaina Johnson (photo, left) said the Gators have practiced high-pressure routines since winning the regional title at Penn State two weeks ago.

She is not concerned about the Gators being distracted or overwhelmed by the not-so-friendly surroundings.

“We know it’s Alabama’s territory,’’ Johnson said. “We aren’t going to let that affect us. We’re going to go out there and do our job, and if we do that, I think we will like the results.”

The Gators were cruising along until their loss at Alabama on Feb. 28. The teams were tied after three rotations but struggles on the balance beam spoiled UF’s perfect season in its first loss in nearly a year. The Gators rebounded with a home win over West Virginia and road win at Missouri before a runner-up finish to the Crimson Tide at the SEC Championships.

Sloan won the SEC all-around title and teammate Kytra Hunter claimed SEC titles on floor exercise and beam.

Florida enters Friday’s meet coming off a bye week following its regional title at Penn State. During the time off, the Gators refined their routines and mental approach as they try to defend their crown.

However, Faehn isn’t selling the mission as a repeat job.

“Last year was an incredible accomplishment but this team has to work for everything they have received so far, and work for everything that they want in the postseason,’’ Faehn said. “At the NCAA Championship … it’s not going to be a result of what happened last year.”

Faehn called this season perhaps her most challenging in regards to managing the team’s health. The Gators lack the depth of last year’s team but when healthy, this is a very talented group led by Hunter and Sloan. The duo matches up favorably to any tandem in the country.

Hunter leads the nation with six perfect 10s and hopes to add another one or two this weekend. If so, a song other than “Yea Alabama” could be playing over the arena’s loudspeakers come Saturday night.

“I have a lot of confidence in this team,’’ Hunter said. “I think there’s a lot that our fans and audience and other people don’t see on this team. Hopefully we can put everything together.”

 

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