With five Southeastern Conference teams ranked in the top 10 heading into league championships, the meet will be a great primer for NCAA Championships in a few weeks.
While No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 LSU and No. 10 Arkansas will all be serious contenders for the SEC title, No. 1 Florida will be the favorite with a roster that includes four all-arounders ranked in the top 16.
Sophomore Alaina Johnson (No. 5), juniors Ashanée Dickerson (No. 9) and Marissa King (No. 15) and freshman Kytra Hunter (No. 16) give the Gators high-scoring potential as they seek their first league title since 2010.
“This team has tremendous balance,” Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn said. “Our four top all-arounders can all challenge to win an all-around title or an individual event title on any given day … they’re all just that strong. You combine that with our specialists and the girls leading off our events … from top to bottom we’re really deep.”
The Gators’ quartet has produced seven of the nation’s 22 scores of 39.60 or better this season. Dickerson accomplished the feat three times, including in Florida’s win against Utah on March 16 in which she scored a 39.625. In the same meet, Johnson notched her collegiate-best of 39-675, while King set her collegiate-best with a 39.65. It was the first time three all-arounders posted scores of 39.625 in a single meet since 2004.
Practicing every day with some of nation’s best collegiate gymnasts serves as a great motivational tool as Florida hopes to contend for its first NCAA title.
“No matter who competes all-around, we all have a lot of confidence in each other,” Hunter said. “We all feed off of each other and push each other.”
Team depth has also given Faehn the flexibility to rest certain gymnasts for some meets in preparation for the postseason.
“It has been really nice because throughout the season Rhonda has been able to take people in and out and give people the opportunity to rest because we have that much depth,” King said. “Having four girls in the line-up who are all-arounders is a huge strength. It is awesome.”
While each of the all-arounders has the ability to earn big scores, they also all have their own unique styles.
“Alaina is powerful, but at the same time she has long, lean lines, so she has a more artistic style to her,” Faehn said. “Ashanée is sheer power and super-consistent, and knows where those landings are. Kytra (a two-time member of the U.S. Senior National Team ) is probably one of the best tumble, floor and vault performances in the country. Marissa is completely different from the rest. She is our most charismatic performer and she lights up the floor and loves to be out there in front of the judges. She lives to perform and has a tremendous amount of confidence.”
“We keep each other on our toes,” King said. “It’s nice that we can rebound off each other. Individually, we all bring something special and unique to the team, but it really works together.”
Florida also entered last year’s SEC Championship as the No. 1 ranked team, but finished second behind Alabama, 197.225-196.975.
“I feel like last year we thought about things too much and didn’t enjoy it,” King said. “It’s not really about the gymnastics right now. Girls around the nation have been doing gymnastics since they were very young … we know our skills. It’s all about having a tough mental game and the right mindset going into this competition.”
The SEC Championship will be held at the same venue where the Gators won their last league title in 2010 — the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. It is also where the NCAA Championships will be held on April 20-22.
“It’s a great experience for our athletes because it puts them in a situation in this part of the season to really test them and put them under pressure,” Faehn said. “It helps them gain experience for regionals and nationals. It is an extremely tough field and it’s awesome because it is on a podium and let’s our athletes experience what a podium championship like nationals will be like. It’s a situation for our athletes to get better and come away with a great experience.”