GAINESVILLE — For several consecutive years, Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn watched as her highly ranked squads dominated meets all season, only to fall short at the end when it counted most.
So after the Gators failed to advance to the final six in the NCAA championships last season and finished seventh overall, Faehn sat down to do serious soul searching about where her program was.
"The crazy thing about last year is we started off great, and we were all excited because we had a great beginning of the season," said junior Marissa King, the reigning NCAA vault champion. "And when we got to postseason, we crumbled because you can't stay at the top with no break for that long. There had to be a change from last year. There had to be."
Faehn agreed and made changes contrary to everything she had done in the past. She de-emphasized the early regular season — forget trying to win every early meet, keep the routines simple and limited — implemented full routines nearly a month later than in prior years and prepared the Gators to give everything they had at the end.
With the new strategy, Faehn said, the team is the healthiest it has been entering postseason since she arrived nine years ago. And the strategy hasn't had a negative effect on competition. Florida is 17-1 this season and won the SEC championship and the NCAA Raleigh Region.
As the No. 1-ranked Gators prepare to compete in the NCAA championships beginning tonight in Duluth, Ga., Faehn believes the strategy has paid off in a big way.
"We're really excited for it," she said. "Our goal from the beginning of the season was to start out slow and then progress much further as the season went along, every competition getting better and making sure that our athletes were able to stay healthy. I feel like they are in a tremendous spot physically and mentally, and their confidence level is at its highest knowing that we have been able to do what we were hoping to accomplish so far."
The Gators are in tonight's second semifinal session, which includes four of the five SEC schools that are among 12 competing. The others: defending champion Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. Ohio State and Oregon are also in the group.
The Gators believe there's a different feel to this team than the one that went in No. 1 last season.
"We have a lot more confidence in ourselves," said junior Ashanee Dickerson, who won the all-around competition in the Raleigh Region with the nation's top total (39.65). "Last year at regionals, we had a few mistakes, and I don't think we had the confidence in each other that we could be able to hit routines. Now we do, and we feed off each other.
The Gators have carried the No. 1 ranking since late January, but Faehn said it hasn't been a burden, instead part of what makes this team unique.
"This team is completely different than any other team that I've coached — with a totally different mentality," she said.
The Florida gymnasts said there's no chance they'll be overconfident. They were the top seed entering the national championship last season and fell far short of goals. It's what has driven them all season long.
"Everyone has that bittersweet feeling," King said. "We were a great team last year, we were ranked No. 1 and we went to nationals and crumbled. It was a horrible feeling. I've never felt such disappointment. We not only want to achieve great things for ourselves, we want to win a national title for Florida and Coach Faehn because she's such a great coach. That feeling from last year has brought motivation into the gym every day."
In the 30-year history of the NCAA gymnastics championships, only Alabama, UCLA, Georgia and Utah have won national titles. At the Raleigh Region, several schools had a message for the Gators.
"The coaches said, 'Go out there and get that championship, we want you to break in and stop those four (schools) from winning,' " Faehn said. "And that's our goal."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]