Gator Gymnasts win first SEC title since '89!

The No. 1 University of Florida gymnastics team (15-0-1, 5-0-1 SEC) used steady performances throughout Saturday's competition to claim its first Southeastern Conference team title since 1989 and sixth overall. Since UF last claimed the SEC title, the league championships have been dominated by Georgia and Alabama. Georgia and Alabama have claimed the league crowns from 1989-2006.

Florida used its highest team score ever in SEC Championship competition (197.325) to claim the title. Two-time defending NCAA champion Georgia was second at 197.175, followed by Alabama (197.00) and LSU (196.25). Rounding out the results of Saturday's meet held in front of an Alltel Arena crowd of 5,134 was Arkansas (194.55), Auburn (194.475) and Kentucky (194.00).

UF's Rhonda Faehn was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season. The Gator gymnastics team has held the No. 1 ranking for all but one week of the 2007 season. This was the first time UF had ever brought the No. 1 ranking into the SEC Championships. Amanda Castillo is the SEC Freshman of the Year, becoming the third Gator to win the award (Orley Szmuch, 2002, Betsy Hamm 1998). Castillo also won the evening's floor exercise title at 9.95. She is the first Gator to win a SEC event title since Chrissy Van Fleet (balance beam) in 1999 and the first to claim the floor crown since Melissa Miller and Pam Titus shared the 1989 title.

The Gators and the GymDogs were in a battle throughout the meet, exchanging the lead after in the first two events, but the score was deadlocked after three events. Florida finished on floor, posting its highest road floor total of 2007 (49.45). The Gators watched the final rotation, knowing the GymDogs were capable of matching or bettering that mark on UGA's final event of the uneven bars. But UGA tallied a 49.30 on the event to give UF its winning margin of .15.

"It was just unbelievable the way our athlete competed with so much heart and determination tonight. We made mistakes here and there, but it was just unbelievable to see that they didn't let any of those get to them. They just kept fighting back and fighting back," Faehn said. "There was just so much passion. We proved that this team has the heart and the determination to win. They came back, even though they made mistakes and they just didn't give in."

Perhaps it was the video the team watched prior to warm-up that helped give them the drive to keep fighting tonight. UF Football Coach Urban Meyer, who had spoken to the team prior to their final practice in Gainesville on Wednesday, shared the video that the football team watched prior to its BCS National Championship game in January. The team watched the video again prior to heading out for Saturday's warm-ups.

Florida opened the meet by matching its second-highest vault team total (49.30) for the fourth time this season. UF was led by a pair of 9.90s from Corey Hartung and Ashley Reed, which tied for fourth overall. The mark was a collegiate-best for Hartung, who was making just her fifth vault appearance of the season.

The Gators used marks of 9.80 or above to post a team total of 49.275 on the uneven bars. Castillo and Melanie Sinclair anchored the UF lineup with a pair of 9.90 to tie for second overall.

The first five Gators turned in hit balance beam routines, as Florida tallied a 49.30 on the event. Senior Breanne King and Reed each posted 9.875 to be among a seven-way tie for fourth in the final standings. Katie Rue, Sinclair and Hartung each posted marks of 9.85.

Florida led all schools with its 49.50 floor score to finish the meet. Castillo led UF with her 9.95 to claim the title. Hartung posted a 9.90 to tie for fourth and the Gators received a 9.875 from both Rue and Reed (tie for sixth overall).

Samantha Lutz, one of Florida's five member senior class, was elated UF won the title Saturday.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet. It is amazing, especially for these seniors. We knew we had a shot at it and we came out here and did our job," Lutz said. "We stayed cool and we kept our energy up. This is the greatest feeling I've felt in gymnastics."

Next up, the Gators await Monday's announcement by the NCAA of team assignments for the six NCAA Regional sites. The NCAA Regional Championships are set for April 14. The top two teams at each of the six sites will advance to the NCAA Championships, set for April 26-28 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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