By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LITTLE ROCK – It would have been very easy for Florida gymnastics head coach Rhonda Faehn to pencil in the final week of her 2013 regular-season schedule with a home meet against a lesser-caliber opponent.
But Faehn knew that would ultimately do her team no favors when it came time for the Southeastern Conference Championships – which take place this Saturday in Little Rock, Ark. – and the NCAA Championships.
The Gators, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team heading into this weekend’s league championships, traveled to No. 7 Utah last weekend to compete in front of 14,903 fans. Florida posted the nation’s top road score of 2013, but it wasn’t enough in a 198.125-197.875 loss. Though the Gators (8-2) would be unable to put another notch in the win column, it was just one more test that Faehn feels her team passed with flying colors.
“I feel like we have had a lot of great tests this year,” Faehn said. “I have been most impressed with how we have performed in difficult situations and pressure situations. Finishing up at Utah, that was an incredible opportunity to put our athletes under pressure, performing in front of 15,000 people in the stands.”
Facing top competition in a hostile environment will prepare the Gators well for this weekend’s SEC Championship at Verizon Arena, but there was another factor to last week’s trip that will help ready Florida for the NCAA Championships, which are set to take place April 19-21 in Los Angeles.
“This was important for our team because the NCAA Championships are in Los Angeles and that is not an easy travel,” Faehn said. “It was important to test our athletes, knowing that this was going to be a long travel. There was a very short turnaround with altitude and we wanted to see how they would respond. The only way you know is to put your athletes in those situations.”
Florida, which looks to become the first league school since 2006 to claim consecutive SEC Gymnastics titles, finished second at last season’s NCAA Championships, just 0.075 behind Alabama. It was an experience that Faehn said was both disappointing and motivating.
“It was definitely the best and the worst experience,” Faehn said. “The absolute heart-wrenching part was being that close and not winning the title, and the best part is that our team competed their hearts out. They put everything on the line. They walked away from that competition and knew that they did everything that they possibly could have done.”
While there is still work to be done, Faehn is pleased with the course Florida is charting as it enters the postseason.
“Of course, we have to do our job at SECs and regionals, and hopefully qualifying for NCAAs,” Faehn said. “But our team wasn’t affected physically by travel and changes. We have to be able to handle the rigors of that type of travel and be quick to adapt and still be fresh.”