GYMNASTICS: Gators Have Depth When It Counts

With one All-American down with an injury perhaps for two or three more weeks, the fourth-ranked Florida Gators face the possibility of losing a second star performer for Friday night's meet at Arkansas, but Coach Rhonda Faehn isn't worried in the least.

Senior All-American Orley Szmuch sprained her ankle on a beam dismount in last Friday's win over Auburn, and at midweek, sophomore All-American Savannah Evans came down with the flu. On most teams, losing two All-American performers would be a crushing blow, but not for the Gators.

"Losing Orley is big for us, and if Savannah can't go, that's another loss since she is scheduled to do three or four events, but we'll plug other athletes in there and we've got confidence in all of them," said Faehn, whose 8-2 Gators are 3-1 in Southeastern Conference meets.

One of the reasons that Faehn is not worried is that she's been using each meet as a chance to tinker with her lineup to build up the kind of depth she needs to combat injury or illness late in the season when championship events take place. She's not only used changes in the rotations, but in the case of Nicola Willis, who participated for Great Britain in the Athens Olympics last summer, she's used exhibitions to bring along the depth. Willis could get into the lineup Friday night although it's more likely that she'll do one more exhibition.

"We're probably going to do exhibition one more time to give her one more chance in a situation where she's not at home," said Faehn of the possibility of Willis cracking the lineup. "In Orley's spot on the floor, we'll either plug Tracey (Rai) or Tiffany (Murray) back in there."

Helping with the team depth is the return of All-American (vault) Chantelle Tousek from a variety of nagging injuries that have kept her sidelined. She performed on the beam and floor exercises last Friday against Auburn.

"It was wonderful to see her back against Auburn," said Faehn. "You could just see the fire and competitiveness and excitement back with her helping the team out."

Tousek was a slow starter last year as well. Injuries shelved her until midseason, but once she got in the lineup she came on strong. At nationals, she made All-American on the vault.

"Last year she came on strong at midseason and ended up competing solidly for us in three events the rest of the year," said Faehn. "This year she's already moving in that direction where she's in our beam lineup now and she's done floor. She has every possibility to be in our vault lineup. She's an All-American in vault so we'd like to see her come on strong now."

With Szmuch injured and fellow senior Erin Dooley still trying to recover from a stress fracture, Faehn has been blessed with outstanding leadership from her sophomore class. Sophomores Evans, Tousek, Samantha Lutz, Breanne King and Katie Rue all made All-America last year as they helped the Gators to a fifth place finish in the NCAA. This year their value to the team is not only shown in their performances on the floor, but in their practice demeanor.

"We've put our underlcassmen, especially our sophomores, in a situation where they were forced to step it up," said Faehn. "Sam (Lutz) in particular thrives on that responsibility and she's a fierce competitor but she's also very focused and a real performer. We knew that they were all like that when we signed this class. All five of them became All-Americans as freshmen. We knew they were going to make a statement and an impact this year. They are the strength and the leaders on this team."

The Gators are heavy favorites to win at Arkansas Friday night and again next Friday when they host Kentucky. Then the tough grind of March begins and the Gators will be facing the likes of Utah, Stanford and UCLA. Florida's early season schedule which included Nebraska, Georgia, Alabama and LSU was set up to prepare the team for high pressure meets.

Even with the pressure of such a tough schedule, Faehn took a calculated gamble to start the season. Most coaches have their gymnasts begin with simple routines and then add on as the season goes, putting their championship meet routines in during the month of March. Faehn and her staff put the championship routines in during the preseason and the Gators have been working on perfecting them ever since.

"Sure it's a bit of a gamble but it's definitely helping us," said Faehn. "They are becoming more polished and certainly more consistent. We knew that doing things like this would create some issues at the beginning of the year but the only way to perfect those issues is to do them over and over again, and then polish them up.

"They're performers and they're stars out there. Now we've put them in a position that they can be comfortable when April arrives. Now we just want to see everyone continue to step it up so we can be in that position where everybody can say 'I'm ready to be the best and as perfect as I possibly can be with the difficulty level.' I'm very happy with what we've done and where we are. I still think we're nowhere near our best yet, though."

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