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In Gatortown, a quiet confidence

After the rush of two national championships in a year, fans are expecting another title.

By MELANIE AVE
Published March 30, 2007


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GAINESVILLE - Sitting outside the popular Swamp restaurant just days before the University of Florida's Big Game this weekend, Ian Green struggled to describe the mood around the town.

He tried though.

Reluctantly.

"It's not that it's getting old, but maybe ... " the 20-year-old junior said while waiting for a turkey club.

"Maybe it's kind of expected this year," he said. "But we're still really excited."

As the Gators try for the trifecta - their third national championship in barely a year - the city and school seem to be taking it all in stride.

On Thursday, the basketball team left for the NCAA Tournament national semifinals game Saturday against UCLA in Atlanta, and a quiet confidence settled over campus and town.

Gone was the shock and mania that followed the basketball team's surprising win last year. Absent were the hangover highs from the football team's national championship.

"All of Gainesville is a little spoiled," said student David Thompson, 20, before heading off from the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house to take tests.

Students trudged to class with heavy backpacks or studied over java at Reitz Union or threw Frisbees in a city park.

Unless you walked past the T-shirt shops spilling over with orange and blue or read the headline on Sports Illustrated's cover - "Can Florida Repeat?" - nonsports fans might not realize the basketball team is two wins from being the first back-to-back national champions since 1992.

"I joke with my friends, 'Hey, we're getting tired of this national championship stuff,' " said Scott Arel, a 20-year-old sophomore from Hollywood, Fla., showing off a new Final Four shirt in the student union.

"We're still happy. But with last year's win, we were in disbelief. We were like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we won? Now it's, 'Won't it be cool when we win?' I feel like we're confident."

Inside the Gators Plus store near campus, Final Four shirts line the walls. But sales of shirts and matching hats are slow compared to last year, said manager and student Jillian Barnhart, 21.

"There's a definite buzz, but I don't think it's as big as it was last year," she said. "It's the second time around. It's horrible to say, but a lot of people were just expecting it."

Around the corner at the Florida Bookstore, a sign out front reads: "We're ready for a repeat." Inside, national championship football gear is 25 percent off.

Academic adviser Michael Funk said teachers and students are trying to get everything done before the game.

"It's kind of business as usual right now," he said, "but when the game is on, the town shuts down."

Nursing student Antonia Guiller, 19, admitted the game is far from her thoughts and school worries.

"People are just trying to graduate," she said.

Is the lack of crazy excitement a sign basketball is but a mere a shadow in this football town?

"It's definitely different with football season," said Gator fan Lester B. Jackson Jr., a retired social studies teacher, over lunch of goulash at the soda fountain at Wise's Drug Store downtown. "You can feel the electricity in the air. But with this, I feel my own sense of emotion."

At the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau, tourism program coordinator John Pricher said fan allegiance to basketball trails behind football but has increased with last year's title.

Nervous anticipation has replaced giddiness.

"The fans expect more of the team this year," Pricher said. "The football team is going to go through the same thing in the fall."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 29, 2007, 22:58:42]


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