GAINESVILLE — After struggling through late-season injuries and peaking just short of the national competition the past several years, Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn began to re-evaluate how she devised the Gators' season.
In an effort to ensure her athletes remained healthy and mentally able to compete for the entire season, Faehn made the calculated, yet risky, move to reduce the number of regular-season meets.
As Florida prepares for tonight's national championship semifinal at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Faehn's squad is healthy, has won an SEC and NCAA region title, and as the No. 2 seed is poised to contend for its first NCAA title.
And she never has been more certain that she made the right decision.
"I think it was a great decision," Faehn said. "When we decided to do 10 meets as opposed to upwards of 13, we had people questioning us. … I feel (the Gators) are exactly right on track. In years past, we felt we peaked too early and were just kind of hanging on at the end, just trying to survive. This year it feels completely different. And it's such a different mentality with this team, they are so hungry, and they are so disciplined. It's really exciting."
The Gators, whose best NCAA-sanctioned finish is second in 1998 (UF won an AIAW title in 1982), will compete in the second semifinal session at 7 tonight, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Missouri and Stanford. The first semifinal session is at 1 p.m., with No. 1 seed UCLA, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Utah.
The top three teams from each session advance to Friday's Super Six final at 6 p.m. UF is convinced that having the event in its back yard will be an advantage. Since 1982, the host team has won the national title 10 times.
"Having NCAA's at home is huge," senior Amanda Castillo said. "My adrenaline rush is already going. I was on campus, then seeing the big banner on University Avenue, and then coming in and seeing them set up the podium. It's huge because it's home. And the crowd is going to be amazing. You just don't realize how much of a big deal it is to have it here in your home. The whole team is very excited, and it's just a sense of relaxation almost."
Faehn also believes the Gators' overall balance will tip things in their favor.
"We have a lot of athletes that are doing just one event, some are doing two events, some three, and we have just two all-arounders," she said. "In the past, we were all-around heavy, and there were a group of athletes that weren't even competing. I think we have such a wonderful balance. Everyone is contributing, they all feel they are a part of it. And it's just a really special thing."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.