GYMNASTICS: Huge showdown for Gators in Athens

Four weeks ago, Coach Rhonda Faehn and her University of Florida gymnastics team took to the floor to open the season in The Super Six Challenge at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Even though it was the first meet of the season and her team is so young, made up mostly of freshman and sophomores, Faehn wouldn't take the easy route even in a meet that featured national powers Georgia and Alabama.

Instead of easier routines with a low degree of difficulty, Faehn insisted that her team start the season doing the routines that they will be doing in the Southeastern Conference championships, the NCAA regionals and the NCAA finals. She got a mixed bag of results. The Gators finished second in the Super Six, even finishing ahead of Alabama, which has won four NCAA titles and finished third in the nation in 2004.

The winner that night in the Super Six was Georgia, a five-time NCAA champion and the defending SEC champion. Georgia won by dumbing down routines and taking fewer chances. Easier routines meant fewer mistakes and a win for Coach Suzanne Yoculan, who just 10 days later would be hit for major NCAA violations (lost one scholarship, Yoculan's off-campus recruiting restricted).

At the time of the Super Six, Georgia was higher ranked than Florida. That's not the case Friday night when the fifth ranked Gators go into Athens to face the seventh ranked Bulldogs in what will be the most closely viewed gymnastics meet in the nation this weekend. Florida's higher ranking has everything to do with the fact that Faehn has kept her team working on perfecting the tough routines even though dumbing down might get higher scores. The scores keep improving week to week, however, even as the competition gets tougher.

"This is a big one for us," said Faehn, Thursday, just before departing for Athens. "I would say that at this point in the season it's the biggest one we've had. It's huge for us because it's on the road, it's getting later in the season and everyone, especially our entire team, has greater expectations now than we had at the beginning of the season."

The Gators enter the match at 6-2 with back to back wins over nationally ranked Nebraska and Alabama. Both those matches were at home in the O-Dome, but both were character builders for the Gators had to come from behind, winning both meets with decisive floor routines.

Against Nebraska, Samantha Lutz nailed down the win with a near perfect floor routine. Lutz and Breanne King had great floor routines against Alabama to get the Gators close, then Samantha Evans (9.995) finished off the Crimson Tide. The Gators will likely require that same kind of clutch performance Friday but it will be in a hostile environment.

"I think that the challenges are there for us," said Faehn. "We're still definitely doing the difficulty in our routines, we've fine tuned our lineups even more and I think we're more consistent than we were. Now it's how we handle the pressure situation of being on the road and there will be 10,000 people in a really tough place to win, but if we can win, we'll be far more prepared for the SEC, the regionals and the Super Six at nationals."

To win in this environment, Faehn has spent this week doing what she does every week with her young team. Since you can't play defense in gymnastics, all you can do is control the things that you do best, so she stresses to her team to maintain their focus, blocking out all the distractions that you will find in a big crowd and more importantly, don't pay attention to what the other team is doing.

"I keep reminding them that they have no control over what the other team does," she said. "They have to do what they do, but for us, we have to stay focused in on all the things that we can control. We CAN control our own mindset and what we do on the floor and how we are performing. We have to go up there and make sure that our only focus is on making the outcome what we want it to be."

It is when the team starts checking out what the other team is doing and trying to compare scores that concentration levels drop considerably. In a sport where even one slight bobble can mean the difference in a win or a loss, there can't be a breakdown in concentration and focus.

"Those times when you lose focus and when you start to compare yourself with someone else during the competition is when you have the kind of breakdowns that mean the difference in winning or losing," she said. "When focus is lost, it's almost impossible to get it back again. For us to win against Georgia, we, as a coaching staff, have to eliminate what our athletes are looking into so that doesn't happen. I'm very confident that if we can maintain our focus, we can come home with a win."

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