For the Gators, it came down to one last routine on Saturday in Duluth. Kytra Hunter, the NCAA's all-around champion, had just her floor exercise routine to go, and needed a big score to give Florida a chance to top UCLA for the national title. She got it, executing for a strong 9.925 — the Gators' best score on the floor and the second-best score on floor exercise by any gymnast on the night — that pushed Florida to 49.400 for their rotation on floor exercise. That finish gave the Gators a total of 197.775 on the day, bettering UCLA's 197.750 by the slimmest possible .025 margin.
There was just one problem: Alabama had a chance to surpass the Gators with a great routine on the balance beam. And Ashley Priess delivered it, coming up with a 9.950 that gave the Crimson Tide a sensational 49.450 on the beam, a total score of 197.850 on the night, and their second consecutive national championship.
The Gators, trying to become the fifth team to win a national championship in Division I women's gymnastics, and the first team to break through and win its first since UCLA's first title in 1997, finished second, vanquished by a team that caught fire in the final two days of its season.
Florida's second place finish is nothing to sneeze at: the Gators tied their program-best second place finish in 1998, and were much closer to first (.075 back of Alabama) than those Gators were (1.375 behind Georgia). And Florida was consistent on the night, posting just one score lower than a 9.850 (Ashanée Dickerson fell on her uneven bars routine, ending up with a 9.200) and 10 scores of 9.900 or better.
But though night, still perhaps the best ever for Florida gymnastics, will be remembered with pride, it's hard not to imagine that it will also be tinged with heartbreak.
Florida couldn't have gotten to the Super Six without the otherworldly performance Hunter put together on Friday, when she clicked off four 9.900+ scores and matched the then-collegiate-best 9.975 mark on vault. (UCLA's Vanessa Zamarippa scored a perfect 10.000 on Saturday.) But while Hunter was good on Saturday, she was not at her best, notching just the single 9.900+ score on the floor, and Alaina Johnson, who came on in a big way in the postseason, was Florida's best gymnast, with three 9.900+ scores and a 39.650 "all-around" score that trumped the 39.525 that Hunter and Marissa King both posted. If Hunter had managed a 9.950 on the vault, a number she matched or exceeded four times this season, Florida would have hoisted its first national title.
And if Hunter's night was slightly below her usual standards, Dickerson's was unquestionably a disappointment. The junior, who may be Florida's most decorated gymnast by the end of her senior season, won the NCAA Raleigh Regional all-around title two weeks ago, and had a 39.500 on Friday night in the NCAA Semifinal, apparently peaking at the right time. But her fall on the uneven bars produced her worst score in an event this season, and her floor exercise score of 9.850 was one she topped eight times this season.
Both Hunter and Dickerson are, by all accounts, competitive and driven enough to remember this night for a long, long time, and will both will have a chance to put it behind them when they compete in the NCAA Individual Event finals on Sunday. Hunter should be a contender for the podium in vault, even if Zamarippa stole favorite status with her 10, and both she and Dickerson are threats to win floor exercise. King will try to defend her vault crown, and Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto will be among the favorites on the bars.
More importantly, though, all of those Individual Event Finals competitors will be back for the Gators in 2013, as will all but three members (Nicole Ellis, Amy Ferguson, Elizabeth Mahlich) of the current roster. Of the 24 slots Rhonda Faehn had to give her team on Saturday, 22 were filled by Gators who will return in 2013, and none of the 10 9.900 or better scores came from seniors. This is a team with a window that extended beyond this year, and Hunter's phenomenal freshman season got the Gators in the national title mix a bit ahead of schedule.
The Gators will have to get past Alabama, which topped Florida in three of its four meetings in 2012, and handed UF its only regular season loss, and will be in the mix with a slew of other elite teams for next year's national title. Alabama will graduate Geralyn Stack-Eaton this year, however, and if the Gators were ostensibly the favorites heading into Saturday, they should be the favorites entering next season, and could be the overwhelming favorites in next year's Super Six.
Saturday's close brush with a championship wouldn't have hurt so much if Florida hadn't performed well — it did, and on all events, as the only team with 49.400+ scores on the vault, bars, beam, and floor — and wouldn't be a close call for a Gators team if it didn't give fans a half-dozen "coulda, shoulda, woulda" ideas. But it was the sort of heartbreak that seems more like prelude than postscript.
And if Florida's talented roster uses this heartbreak as motivation and dazzles like it can at its best next year, the Gators may very well turn Saturday night's heartbreak into the first chapter of a championship tale.