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Vault, Hunter propel Florida to SEC gymnastics title

Georgia gymnast Kaylan Earls, second from right, sits on the stage as Florida gymnasts, left, are honored  after the SEC Gymnastics Championships, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Duluth, Ga. Florida won and Georgia placed the third. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Georgia gymnast Kaylan Earls, second from right, sits on the stage as Florida gymnasts, left, are honored after the SEC Gymnastics Championships, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Duluth, Ga. Florida won and Georgia placed the third. (AP Photo/John Amis)

DULUTH -- It can truly be said that Florida vaulted past the competition to a win at the Southeastern Conference Gymnastics Championship.

The Gators rose a wave of four scores of 9.90 or better in the vault event to charge to the team lead, and three individuals in the top five in the all-around competition -- led by all-around champion Kytra Hunter -- helped them seal the deal to take the title Saturday before a crowd of 7,170 at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

Florida finished with a total of 197.15 points to dethrone defending champion Alabama, who was runner up at 196.775, while meet host and local favorite Georgia placed third at 196.575.

"Of course we're really excited," said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn, who was also honored as SEC Co-Coach of the Year with Auburn's Jeff Graba at the postmeet awards ceremony after leading the Gators to their second SEC title in the last three seasons. "The team stayed tight a little bit in the beginning, and they went so aggressive in the last two events. It was just amazing because they just didn't give up. ... I'm just really proud of them."

The Gators started somewhat slow, standing third behind Alabama and Georgia following the first rotation after scoring 49.05 on the balance beam.

The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide then exchanged the lead during the next two rotations, but whatever nerves Florida may have had were gone after taking some time away from the competition floor with a bye.

"Actually, we were in the lockerroom dancing and just having fun," said Hunter, who was also received the SEC's Freshman of the Year award Saturday. "When we came out here, we'd been practicing on the vault and sticking drills. And I think we'd just been practicing like we wanted to compete. It's helped a lot and it showed when we competed (Saturday) night."

Indeed, Florida's commitment to the vault showed, with Hunter leading the way with a 9.975 -- including perfect 10s from two of the judges, while Marissa King added a 9.925 and Ashanee Dickerson and Alaina Johnson each posted a 9.90 to shoot the Gators to the top of the team standings.

And they finished the meet strong, with Johnson posted the meet's top score on uneven parallel bars with a 9.925 and Mackenzie Caquatto tying for second with Georgia's Kat Ding and Alabama's Geralen Stack-Eaton at 9.90 to put Florida over the top.

Hunter's score of 9.875 also gave her 39.625, just enough to help her edge Arkansas senior Jaime Pisani's score of 3.9500 for the all-around title.

King (fourth, 39.425) and Johnson (fifth, 39.40) then followed LSU's Rheagan Courville (third, 39.450) to round out the top five individually.

Georgia had a solid, if not spectacular, meet behind Ding, who finished eighth in the all-around at 39.325, and Noel Couch, who tied for ninth at 39.225, plus the support of a partisan crowd of Bulldog faithful.

Still, it wasn't quite the performance coach Jay Clark would have liked, something he vowed his Gym Dogs would work on heading into the NCAA Regionals, with an eye towards returning to The Arena at Gwinnett Center for the NCAA national meet late next month.

"We didn't have the big mistakes," Clark said. "But we weren't where we needed to be. We nickeled and dimed ourselves from the get-go in all four events. ... I kept thinking we were going to snap out of it after the first event or two and be able to hit our stride. We had our opportunity early. I thought Florida opened the door for us, but they eventually kind of got into a groove there on the last two events.

"If we have everybody on the same page, then we're good. It's just a matter of being able to be there, and you know what? Ninety-plus percent of the time this year, they've been there. (Saturday) night, they weren't. But the nice part is, we get a shot to come back in here and be able to improve because we'll be back in the same environment, same building, same set-up -- the whole deal. It's not over for us. We honestly believe we can compete with the best teams in the country."