GYMNASTICS: UF Blows Out UGa For Region Title

By the time Samantha Lutz stepped up to begin her routine on the uneven bars, the NCAA Southeastern Regional Championship already belonged to the Florida Gators. All Lutz did with her near perfect 9.90 that ended with a nailed landing was punctuate a night of nights for Coach Rhonda Faehn and her gymnastics team, just two weeks removed from what could have been a devastating fourth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships.

Two weeks ago the Gators managed to do all the little things wrong on their way to their biggest disappointment of the season. Instead of coming home with the SEC title, they limped back to Gainesville shell shocked to think that they could make so many mistakes in one meet. Faehn didn't let the sting of defeat linger with her team. The team watched the video of the SEC meet, saw their mistakes pointed out and then began their focus on staying in the moment.

That's what Faehn calls it for her gymnasts. Staying in the moment means concentrating on the one thing they can control and not thinking about the things they can't control. On this night when Florida claimed its first regional title since 1997, the Gators were able to overcome an injury to Savannah Evans (sprained ankle during floor exercises), a fall off the balance beam and a disappointing vault rotation (48.875). The Gators were able to maintain their focus when there were problems and that provided the difference.

"It obviously showed that they were focused in only doing what was right in front of them at that moment and obviously they see the results turned out the way we wanted by winning," Faehn said after the Gators won the regional at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center with a 196.575 while SEC champion Georgia had to have help to finish in second place. Only a disastrous beam rotation (47.375) by Denver allowed the GymDogs to earn their 22nd straight trip to the NCAA meet.

Georgia was on the verge of elimination from the NCAA Championships for the first time in 23 years until Denver (tied for third with North Carolina at 194.075) had to eat scores of 9.10, 9.25 and 9.50 due to shaky performances on the beam. When Denver faltered, the GymDogs backed in to the NCAA meet (first and second place teams advance).

"We couldn't do enough so that Denver would have to self-destruct," said Georgia Coach Suzanne Yoculan, "and I don't ever count on any making mistakes for us to move on. Now that's what happened, but I honestly felt we needed to be prepared for us not going [to the NCAA meet]."

At the Southeastern Conference meet, Georgia turned in a gaudy score of 197-plus while the Gators were easily off the mark in a meet they expected to win. This time the roles were reversed and Faehn credits her team for learning from the loss rather than dwelling on it as a failure.

"We've spoken all year long about just how talented this team is and there is no limit that they can win a national championship," she said. "Obviously the results at the SEC were not what we were looking for but we had said when we came back that as long as we took that as a learning experience it was not a failure and I feel we really learned from that and it really showed tonight."

It was on the balance beam where the Gators got their momentum to win the regional and it was that same balance beam that cost both the GymDogs and Denver. While Florida thrived on the beam, Georgia and Denver met with one mistake after another.

Florida's first rotation of the night was on the beam. Ashley Reed, the freshman from Davie who won the All-Around title with a 39.350, led off with a solid 9.75 that was followed by Katie Rue's 9.80. When senior Orley Szmuch stuck her landing for a 9.90 it was clear the Gators had the early momentum.

That's when things got a little bit dicey for the Gators. Chantelle Tousek fell off the beam, something that would have distracted the entire team two weeks ago at the SEC meet, but on this night, the Gators stayed in the moment. Rather than see their momentum curtailed, senior Erinn Dooley stepped up to deliver a 9.90 that calmed whatever jitters the fall might have caused.

"She went up there and did exactly what she's capable of doing," said Faehn, named the Southeastern Region Coach of the Year. "She hit an unbelievable routine and brought the momentum back up to where it was before the fall. Those things come from maturity and experience to not get rattled by something like that."

Dooley knew that Tousek had fallen, but it only made her a bit more aggressive and more focused.

"I heard the fall but didn't see it," said Dooley. "It made me more aggressive. I just focused on what I do every day in the gym."

Breanne King followed Dooley with the Gators' third 9.90 of the rotation. Five scores count per rotation, so Tousek's 8.80 was discarded and Florida had a 49.175. During the same rotation, Georgia turned in a 49.000 on the bars.

Florida overcame the loss of Evans in the floor routines to turn in a 49.200. All five of the scores that were counted were above 9.80. At the same time the Gators were performing so solidly on the floor, the GymDogs were melting down on the beam where they had to count scores of 9.225, 9.550 and 9.400 with a best score of 9.775.

From that point onward, the Gators were in the lead and Georgia was faced with trying to mount a monumental comeback. Florida turned in an uncharacteristic vault rotation while Georgia had its best rotation of the night on the floor with a 49.350, allowing Georgia faint hope of the miracle rally. But, any chance the GymDogs could win ended on the vault where Georgia managed only a 49.150 when much more was needed.

That left the Gators to finish things up on the bars. All Florida needed to win was five average scores, but the Gators delivered so much more. All six Gators scored at least 9.80. Reed, Szmuch and Samantha Lutz all turned in 9.90s to push the Gators to a victory margin that is akin to a football team winning by four or five touchdowns.

"It was a perfect way to end the meet," said Faehn. "That was great, not only for the bar team and Randy Lane who is the bar coach, but just to finish out so strong that way. What was really nice was at the first meet of the year, the Super Six (at the O'Connell Center back in January), there was a similar setup and the exact rotation that we had tonight. Being the first meet of the year we struggled a little bit. It was wonderful to see that this team had matured and became stronger throughout the year and not only finished hitting every single routine aggressively."

REGIONAL NOTES: Szmuch, Reed and Lutz tied for the championship on the bars… Dooley was the champ on the beam … North Carolina's Courtney Bumpers, the defending NCAA floor exercise champ, qualified for the NCAA's with a 9.95 … Reed became the first Gator freshman to win an NCAA regional All-Around title since Janice Kerr did it in 1987 … King, who has been one of the steadiest Gator performers all year, finished third in the All-Around competition with a 39.175… The last time the Gators won the regional, they defeated Georgia (1997) … Florida advances to the NCAA championships for the 23rd time in the 24 years the championships have been held…Denver Coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart competed for the Gators from 1989-92.

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