Florida gymnast Grace McLaughlin gets ready to perform on the beam during a meet.

Gators counting on boost from home crowd for berth at nationals

By Pat Dooley Staff writer
Saturday, April 01, 2017 8:35 AM

Grace McLaughlin remembers her reaction when she was told last year's NCAA Regional would not be in Gainesville as scheduled because of the renovation delays at the O'Connell Center.

“I was upset,” said the Florida gymnast. “I'm going to tell you I was very upset. It's not in my hometown? What are you talking about?”

Instead, Florida switched with Georgia, which hosted one of last year's regionals while the Gators were shipped off to Minneapolis, Minn. The Gators qualified for the NCAA Championships with their second lowest score of the season.

“We definitely had a tough travel regional last year,” said Florida coach Jenny Rowland. “It was far and it was very cold.”

A year later, the third-ranked Florida gymnasts have been able to enjoy the comfort of their own beds and 80-plus degree days. They will play host to the Gainesville Regional Saturday at the O-Dome starting at 4 p.m.

The other teams in the field are 10th-ranked Georgia, 15th-ranked Missouri, New Hampshire, Penn State and North Carolina.

The top two teams will advance to the NCAA Championships at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, Mo., in two weeks. Florida is looking for its 35th visit to the championships.

This is the first time Florida has hosted a regional since 2013.

“I keep forgetting that it's here,” said junior Alex McMurtry. “We've always been on the road for regionals. It's just a really nice treat to not travel and worry about recovering from travel days.

“It's really exciting. Our friends and family will be here.”

Certainly, the Gators will get a boost from an orange and blue crowd, but the home-arena advantage is more than just cheering fans in this sport.

Not only are the Gators familiar with the equipment they will be using, the fans know when each gymnast will do her traditional “Chomp” during the floor exercise and do it right along with her.

“We know the equipment, they know our chomps,” McMurtry said. “It helps more than the fans think.”

It's on the floor that the UF gymnasts said a home crowd can really help and bring energy during the routines.

“We build off the energy from the crowd,” McLaughlin said. “I'm pretty sure most people will be wearing Gator stuff. You can't explain the feeling when you see the Gator Nation doing (the chomp) with you.

“I've got family, my friends, my professors are coming. I'm really happy.”

After 13 straight weeks of competition, Florida had last weekend off. The Gators practiced every other day with the break.

Florida will start on the bars, then move to the balance beam. After a bye, the Gators will finish with the floor and vault.

McMurtry said regionals can be difficult because of the bye week.

“It's hard to get everyone going,” she said. “We're going to focus on bringing the energy and we're counting on the crowd to help us.”

Ah, that crowd.

There's nothing like being home when your season is on the line.

“Definitely looking forward to staying with our routine,” Rowland said on Wednesday. “Sleep in our own beds, stay on campus, girls going to class this week. We get to be on our own schedule.”

Parking update and parking shuttle

Fans with the season parking pass can access the O'Connell Center lot from either Gale Lemerand Drive or SW 2nd Avenue.

No parking pass? No problem. Those fans can access the O'Connell Center lot at SW 2nd Avenue.

UFPD and O'Connell Center staff will redirect fans without parking passes to SW 2nd Avenue. These attendants will be at University Avenue and Stadium Road. Fans with parking passes should be prepared to show the pass to gain access to Gale Lemerand Drive.

Another efficient option is the complimentary parking shuttle. It transports fans from the UF Commuter Lot on Gale Lemerand Drive to the O'Connell Center.

Reminder that Gator track & field teams play host to the Pepsi Florida Relays today at the nearby James G. Pressly Stadium. Fans for either gymnastics or track can utilize the parking shuttle. It will make stops at both the O'Connell Center and Pressly Stadium today.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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