Gator Gymnasts Rally Past Nebraska

In a sport where even the smallest bobble can cause critical point deductions and meets are won and lost by hundredths, even thousandths of a point, there is no doubt that attention to detail and all the little things that make up a routine matter the most. Never was that more evident than Friday night when the University of Florida gymnastics team rallied past Nebraska, 196.950-196.675, at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center before a crowd of 3,748.

The tenth-ranked Gators of Coach Rhonda Faehn (5-2 overall, 0-1 SEC) came up with a marvelous performance by Samantha Lutz (three-way tie for first in both the balance beam and floor exercise) and a second place all-around finish by Katie Rue (39.350). Up and down the lineup there were sometimes spectacular performances (9.950 by Breanne King on the beam) and a steadiness that had been missing in the Super Six season opening event as well as last week's road loss at LSU.

The Gators' sound performances were necessary to offset a brilliant performance by Nebraska All-America Richelle Simpson, the 2003 NCAA All-Around champion who has scored six perfect tens in her career. Simpson won the all-around Friday night (39.650) with a standout performance that included a 9.975 on the vault and 9.9s in the beam and floor exercises.

With Simpson hitting nearly every routine for Nebraska, the Gators had to counter with all the little things that make the big scoring differences. As they stuck one landing after another, especially on the parallel bars, a weak event at both the Super Six and last week at LSU, it was evident where Faehn had kept the practice focus in the past week.

"I said before that our goal is to increase the difficulty in our routines and skill levels," said Faehn. "However, if those skills are not performed as perfectly as possible the little things like not making any steps on our landings and sticking our landings and keeping legs together … all those little things that add up that bring the score down."

To get past those small problem details, Faehn had the team spend hours watching the video of the previous meet, pointing out the little mistakes that had provided once costly deduction after another. In practice, the intensity was ratcheted up a bit each day with the emphasis on staying focused and fending off scoring deductions by taking care of the little things that are part of every routine.

"I thought that they did a tremendous job of staying focused and that was our goal coming into the meet," said Faehn. "[we wanted to] be consistent and hit our routines and correct the mistakes that we had made in the previous two meets. It showed them that what we focused on in the gym and in practice pays off …focus in on the little things from this meet to get better."

The first indicator that the Gators were fully focused was on the parallel bars. Florida trailed after the first rotation, 49.250-49.000, after Nebraska's Kristi Esposito and Desire Sniatynski closed out the Cornhuskers' bar routines with a pair of 9.9s. When Orley Szmuch nailed her landing on the opening bar routine (9.875) for the Gators, it set the tone for the rest of the rotation. Sherie Owens followed with another 9.875 while Rue and Ashley Reed posted 9.850s. Lutz came in at 9.90.

"We mainly worked really hard on bars all week," said King, noting that in the previous two meets the bars had been "our weakest event."

She said practices were spent "working on our hand stands, body alignment and landings."

Lutz said, "The key was to come in and nail it on bars after we had some mistakes in the previous couple of meets, but that's what we know we're capable of doing all the time is hitting all our routines like that and it shows that when we hit routine after routine how much the scores improve."

The Gators 49.350 on the bars, cut Nebraska's lead to 98.550-98.350 at the halfway point. Florida took the lead for good (147.725-147.525) on the balance beam where King had a 9.950 and Rue a 9.9. On the same rotation, Nebraska had its first two performers on the floor exercise step out of bounds for costly deductions.

Florida's floor routines were crisp and well executed, but it was Lutz who came through with essentially the dagger to the heart that killed Nebraska's chances. Unable to handle floor exercises in the first two meets of the season because of a sprained ankle and bruised heel suffered at the Super Six, Lutz took center stage and delivered a spectacular 9.9 floor routine.

"It was my first time on floor this season so I was really excited to be out there and I really enjoyed doing it," said the sophomore from Grove City, Ohio.

Freshman Tiffany Murry delivered a 9.875 on the floor routine and King had a 9.85 to go with a 9.825 by Rue and a 9.775 from Reed.

Faehn knew that Lutz had the big score in her once she was healthy again.

"One of the reasons we put Sam in the floor lineup is because she's such a performer," said Faehn. "We weren't able to put her in last weekend because after the Super Six after beam she had bruised her heel and sprained her ankle, but she is a tremendous performer and it's obvious when she's out there that she loves what she's doing and the judges love it and the crowd loves it."

For Lutz, the meet was simply an extension of all that had taken place in practice during the previous week.

"There was huge improvement tonight with the little things that we've been working on in practice … landings, presentations, showing off our routines," she said. "Looking like we're as confident as we are out there was key for us."

The Gators will be home again next Friday night when they host fourth ranked Alabama at the O'Connell Center.

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