Florida coach Jenny Rowland, hugging gymnast Alex McMurtry after her performance on the floor during the NCAA Gainesville Regional at the Exactech Arena on April 1, is eyeing a top-three finish today.

Confident UF enters national semis

By Pat Dooley Staff writer
Friday, April 14, 2017 6:00 AM

ST. LOUIS — As ear-bleeding pop music blared over a loudspeaker turned up to 11 in Chaifetz Arena, the Florida gymnastics team turned Thursday’s practice session into a dance party.

This was not a team feeling the pressure on the eve of the NCAA Championships. Instead, it was a collection of athletes having a blast.

“We were super relaxed out there,” said junior Kennedy Baker.

Ya think?

“They’re loose,” said coach Jenny Rowland. “They’re confident.”

And on this day, they were loud. The Gators have already made their mark on this championship before the first vault.

Desiree Polomares of Cal, who is competing on the beam as an individual, was assigned to practice with Florida. At one point, she turned to a Florida coach and said, “They were really loud!”

Even with only a smattering of fans in the stands and a routine get-to-know the equipment day, the Florida gymnasts were screaming and yelling like there was a title on the line Thursday.

“I guess it’s not normal for them,” Rowland said of the Cal gymnast, “but it’s normal for us.”

Tonight it’s a different story as Florida will try to make its sixth straight trip to Super Six while also knowing its season could end tonight if it does not. The top three from each of the two sessions advances to Saturday’s final.

“We just basically told the freshmen and underclassmen to be normal,” said Baker, echoing the theme Rowland has been espousing all week. “We just need to compete and we’ll be fine.

“It is a different ball game. It’s the 12 best teams in the country.”

Florida finished fourth a year ago after winning the previous three national titles. That’s the thing about the semifinal — the Gators can’t win anything tonight but they can lose it.

“It’s kind of tricky,” said junior Alex McMurtry. “You focus one day at a time and one event at the time. But (tonight) is going to be a fun meet. It will be the freshmen’s first time experiencing such a big championship.”

One of the keys for all 12 teams here is to get your treatment and get your rest. Not only has it been a long season and every team had to deal with travel, the raised podium style on the floor is rough on the legs.

“We’re going to be tired (tonight) and we’re going to be tired Saturday,” McMurtry said. “This is the final push. That’s what we’ll tell the freshmen. ‘I know you can’t feel your legs, but you’re going to have the best floor routine of your life.

“That’s what makes it so interesting, who can push themselves to be mentally the toughest to win a national championship?”

On Thursday, all of the teams went through light workouts at the arena that is the home of the St. Louis University Billikens.

“Podium training is supposed to be a lighter day, but we end up being super sore,” McMurtry said. “Even if you try not to try harder, your body automatically works itself to death. I can feel it already.

“We definitely had to get used to the equipment. The bars and beam were a little bit bouncier than we were expecting. Even the floor was like a trampoline out there.”

Each athlete went through a walk-through of sorts, wanting to know what they are getting into so there are no surprises with 12 seasons on the line. Six of them will end not far from the famous Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium.

“It’s an underlying pressure,” Rowland said, “that we all know could definitely happen. The older players have done a good job spreading their wings and guiding the young baby Gators.

“We’ve talked a lot about working in the moment. It’s another meet, treat it that way. This team has risen to the occasion all season.”

Or, as Kennedy said, “My freshman year we had a strong team (it won a national title). We’re stronger in a different way. I think our team chemistry is really good. Our talent is unmatched.”

That remains to be seen for the third-ranked Gators, who will have to finish ahead of three of the following teams to make it to Saturday — Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Michigan and Nebraska.

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




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