Defend the Dome: Florida gymnastics wants packed house for home opener

USA TODAY Sports

The defending national champion Florida gymnastics squad is off to a great start this season, and faces a schedule that screams "Who wants some of this?" Starting Friday, YOU should.

Florida's gymnastics team and coach Rhonda Faehn finally got over the hump in 2013, becoming only the fifth gymnastics program to earn an NCAA national championship.

And the Gators remain loaded for 2014, returning 2013 NCAA all-around and balance beam champion Bridget Sloan (sophomore), 2012 all-around and vault champion Kytra Hunter (junior), 2013 uneven bars champion Alaina Johnson (senior) and five-time All-American Mackenzie Caquatto (senior) as their core.

Florida's gymnastics team was ranked No. 1 in the preseason gymnastics poll for the first time ever in 2014. But their road to a repeat is filled with the toughest obstacles NCAA gymnastics has to offer. The Gators face five of the top eight teams in the preseason poll, including No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 LSU and No.8 Georgia.

So far, their title defense has gone well.

What better place to start the 2014 season than a trip to Pauley Pavilion, the site of the Gators' 2013 title, to face the No. 4 UCLA Bruins? In a rare live-televised meet of gymnastics heavyweights, the Gators nipped UCLA by 0,025, the narrowest of margins in collegiate gymnastics. The 196.65-196.625 victory earned the Gators their first ever win against UCLA on the road in dual meet action.

Hunter led the Gators and won the all-around title with a score of 39.375. Hunter also won the floor exercise with a 9.925 while Bridgette Caquatto, Mackenzie's younger sister, claimed the uneven bars title with a career best 9.9. Hunter's performance earned her SEC Co-Gymnast of the Week honors, and it was a special win for Faehn, who competed for the Bruins during her collegiate career.

Next, the Gators opened their SEC schedule in Auburn with a 197.075-196.225 victory over the No. 14 Tigers. At Auburn, Sloan took center stage for the Gators, winning the all-around title with a huge 39.70 score. Sloan also won or shared titles in the vault (9.95), uneven bars (9.925) and floor exercise (9.90). Mackenzie Caquatto won the balance beam with a 9.95, while Hunter shared the floor exercise title with Sloan. Sloan was named SEC Gymnast of the Week for her efforts against Auburn.

And Friday night brings the biggest meet of the season so far. The Gators, currently ranked No. 3 (teams are re-ranked based on average score in meets completed) finally make their home debut in the O'Connell Center at 7 p.m., against the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs.

It will be Florida's first time competing at home under the national championship banner which now hangs from the O'Dome rafters, and Faehn is hoping that Gator fans come out in droves to support their defending champions.

"Our goal is for people to come through the doors and be able to see an amazing hour and half of athletics."

It's a sure bet that fans who come out will not be disappointed, and this team has certainly earned your support. So, if you're a Gainesville local, grab some friends and head over to the O'Dome Friday to see some great gymnastics before dinner.

And get there early if you can: The first 1,000 fans will receive commemorative 2013 National Championship pint glasses and schedule key tags. The Gators will also autograph team posters following Friday’s meet.

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