SEC gymnastics report:

Florida a given to repeat

By: Troy Schulte
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013
Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn watches her team during their meet against Arkansas Friday night at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn watches her team during their meet against Arkansas Friday night at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK - At some SEC gymnastics meets, the defending allaround champion would be favored to repeat. A former Olympian who enters with the highest all-around score of the season would also be a favorite, along with the SEC Gymnast of the Year who has won more all-around titles this season than any gymnast in the country.

All of those credentials - owned by three different gymnasts - will be on display at today’s SEC meet at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock during what is expected to be an intense all-around competition in the second session starting at 6 p.m.

“There’s a lot of great ones,” Florida Coach Rhonda Faehn said.

Florida’s Kytra Hunter won the SEC and NCAA all-around titles a year ago, but could be considered an underdog to teammate Bridget Sloan and LSU’s Rheagan Courville tonight.

Sloan’s 39.590 all-around regional qualifying score ranks No. 2 in the country and she was named SEC Freshman of the Year on Friday. Courville, who finished second in the all round to Hunter last year, is sixth with a 39.530 and five gymnasts who will compete today are ranked in the national top 25.

Hunter and Arkansas’ Katherine Grable are tied for 13th with a 39.415 and Courville captured eight all-around titles this year, the most of anyone in the country.

But Courville, who scored a season-high 39.600 in the all-around against Alabama, said the level of competition will have to be taken out of the thought process today.

“You can take your environment around you and let it make you better,but it can mess you up sometimes,” she said. “If you just do whatever you do every day in the gym, you’ll be successful.”

A year ago Sloan was preparing for an attempt to make the U.S. Olympic team for the second time. She was the youngest member of the silver medal-winning U.S.

team at the 2008 games in Beijing, but she suffered an elbow injury during the first day of the Olympic Trials last month and didn’t get a chance to make the team again.

She was on track to enroll at Florida no matter how last summer turned out, and said she’s surprised at how well she’s held up during a schedule of weekly meets.

“I came into Florida not really knowing what to expect,” she said. “I was worried if my body was going to hold up, but I honestly feel better now than any time for me. It feels great to have that spark and that emotion back.”Midseason change

Katherine Grable enters today’s SEC Gymnastics meet as Arkansas’ best chance for a high score in the individual all-around competition.

It’s a pleasing spot for the junior and co-coach Mark Cook, because her season hasn’t been as smooth as either would have liked.

Grable, who earned two all-American honors a year ago, struggled in a few early meets this season and missed another in January because of a suspension.

But Friday at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock Grable, even with an ice packed wrapped around her right ankle, said she’s ready to have her best meet of the year.

“I started out a little slow,” Grable said. “I had a coupleof mess ups in the middle of the season, but after that I kind of got my head together, I feel very confident in all my skills and routines.”

In Arkansas’ final meet of the season, at UCLA on March 17, she scored a season-high 9.900 on the vault and a 39.475 in the allaround, her second-highest mark of the year.

“She’s as good as any other all-around in this meet,” Cook said. “I just think she’ll have a shot at doing well here. … She was just really inconsistent on a couple of performances, (and) now she’s just been pretty consistent.”Tough debut

Missouri Coach Rob Drass knew his team’s first season in the SEC would be a tough road. Then the Tigers went through a rash of early-season injuries that shifted some of his gymnasts’ roles, one of which has a walk-on competing as the Tigers’ only all-arounder today.

“We’re just ready to show how much we’ve grown this year,” Drass said. “Because I know not everybody got our best shot.”

A year ago, Missouri finished in a tie for second in the Big 12. Today, Missouri enters as the No.

8 seed after losing all seven SEC dual meets this year.

Part of that has to do with the strength of its new opponents - seven SEC schools are ranked 19th or higher by GymInfo - but some early season bad luck has played a part, too.

Drass said an Achilles tear, a dislocated ankle and a posterior cruciate ligament injury helped contribute to losing 14 of a possible 24 starting spots early in the season. Those setbacks pushed sophomore Laura Kappler into the role as Missouri’s only all-around competitor.

“It was definitely a learning experience in a lot of ways, and a growing experience,” Drass said.

“Our team responded really well to the challenge. I think you’ll see our best team

Sports, Pages 28 on 03/23/2013