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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Gator aid

By Tony Pizza

The University of Florida has had an interesting string of success on the national level as of late. The school’s basketball team has won back-to-back national titles and the football team has also joined in on the fun as it captured a NCAA National Championship of its own in January.

This year, Florida’s gymnastics team is the favorite to capture its first national championship when Nationals gets underway tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.

After starting the preseason ranked No. 3 in the coaches’ poll, the Gators quickly sprinted to the top spot after a 196.700 in their first meet of the season, and they didn’t look back.

Also lending itself to Florida’s confidence is the fact that the Gators are undefeated on the year so far, with their only record blemish coming by way of a tie with No. 2 Georgia on Jan. 27. Since then, Florida has gone on to beat any and all challengers, including Alabama at home and LSU and Utah on the road.

Florida also took first in the SEC Championships, which was more like a super meet this year with the top four teams in the country congregating in Little Rock, Ark., for conference bragging rights.

Despite coming off a high after posting a 197.325, Florida did not let down in its Regional, either, as the Gators duplicated their SEC score at the Northeast Regional in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“It’s virtually impossible to be able to stay up at this extremely high level for a month straight,” said Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn. “It was a little bit difficult, as well, coming off of SECs. There were the top four teams in the country there. Instantly, when you’re in that environment, you feel the necessity and the energy and the pressure.”

But if Florida hopes to become only the third SEC school and the fifth school overall to capture a gymnastic national championship, it is going to have to go through a lot of familiar foes with proven success on the highest stage.

Georgia, which has won back-to-back national titles and has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 all season long, figured to be Florida’s stiffest competition until two postseason injuries sent those hopes into a tailspin.

Gym Dog senior Ashley Kupets went down with a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury in her left foot during Georgia’s 197.275 first-place finish at its Regional meet in Denver, Colo.

Five days later, Georgia lost its second All-American when Kelsey Ericksen went down with an ACL tear in her left knee.

“Ashley (Kupets) and Kelsey (Ericksen) both fought all year to be able to compete and go for our third straight national title,” said Georgia head coach Suzanne Yoculan. “They both fought, but in the end this is just the worst part of the sport.”

Perennial SEC powerhouse and four-time National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide also figure to play a role in making things difficult for Florida’s first title hopes.

Salt Lake City has been kind to Alabama in the past, as the Tide’s first NCAA title came at the Huntsman Center, and Alabama hasn’t won a title outside its own arena since.

Even though Alabama hasn’t had much success against the other two SEC juggernauts this season, it still rolls into Nationals with the third-highest Regional qualifying score in the country. And if the Tide attend to business, the team’s head coach, Sarah Patterson, still likes her odds.

“I feel that we have seen the best teams in the country and we just have to go out the first day and focus on our own performance and not on anyone else,” Patterson said. “I think that will be key.”

Also figuring to make some noise at Nationals this year are the hosting Utes.

Although the Utes struggled throughout the season, they still had top-ranked Florida on their heels until a late-Ute meltdown March 9. The Utes also seem to be peaking at the right time, and their 197.325 score at the West Regional in Berkeley, Calif., was tied with Florida for the highest Regional in the country.

But realistically, any of the 12 participating teams have a shot at winning Nationals. All it takes is two solid nights, coupled with a few stumbles from the favorites, and teams such as Nebraska, Oregon State, Oklahoma, Stanford, Denver, Michigan and LSU could be the ones hoisting a gymnastics National Championship trophy for the first time.

“It’s everybody’s game at this point. You see surprises at every Nationals — who gets there and who gets left out,” said U gymnast Nicolle Ford. “It’s anybody’s game.”

The first session of the preliminary round featuring Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Oregon State will begin at 1 p.m. tomorrow. The second round with host Utah, Stanford, Michigan, UCLA, LSU and Denver will begin at 7 p.m.

The top three teams from each preliminary round will advance to the Super Six on Friday, with individual event finals taking place Saturday night at 7 p.m.

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