Illini women's gymnastics peaks at Big Tens, fails to reach Nationals

By Ashley Wijangco

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team had one target all season long: to place in the top 10 at NCAA Championships. The Illini failed to reach that goal, but sophomore Mary Jane Horth felt the season still went wellmp.

“We put together some great meets this season and had a lot of learning experiences,” Horth said. “We definitely built as the season progressed. So as a whole, it was awesome. It might not have ended on the greatest note, but I’m really proud of all the girls on our team.”

Illinois opened its season on Jan. 11 with a 195.175-193.475 win over Central Michigan. From there, the Illini’s team totals only increased. They followed up with a win over Rutgers the next week in their first conference meetmp.

The gymnasts came across their first loss of the season on Jan. 25 when the Illini faced Big Ten rivals, Michigan. The Illini went into the meet with the hopes of ending a now-29-year losing streak to Michigan but ultimately fell to the Wolverines 196.850-195.475mp.

Illinois then went on a winning streak, defeating four Big Ten teams: Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State.

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On Feb. 27, the Illini suffered their last dual-meet loss of the season to the then-co-defending champions, the Oklahoma Sooners. The 197.875-195.950 loss came during the first meet of a two-meet weekend for Illinois.

The Illini completed the double header at the Masters Classic in Lincoln, Nebraska, where junior Giana O’Connor tied the program-best all-around score to lead the Illini to a second-place finish against Nebraska and San Jose State.

Illinois followed that up with two first-place finishes at the State of Illinois Classic and the Big Five Meet. The Illini also earned a spot at the evening session of Big Ten Championships with their Big Five Meet win. It was the team’s best meet of the yearmp.

The Illini began the conference championship on vault, where they set a season-high 49.400. They carried that momentum to place second and score a new program-best team total of 197.350.

“Big Tens is just when it all came together,” sophomore Sarah Lyons said. “It was so rewarding to not only be able to come out on top but just to finally put together the meet we knew we could have.”

From there, Illinois earned a spot at the Morgantown Regional as the No. 3 seed in a six-team field, but its 196.675 was only good enough for third place. Illinois failed to qualify for Nationals, but three gymnasts advanced as individual competitorsmp.

Horth and O’Connor competed as individual all-around competitors, and senior Sunny Kato made Nationals as an event specialist for the uneven bars. None came home with hardware, but O’Connor was named a first-team All-American for the all-aroundmp.

Illinois’ shortcoming was a disappointment at first, but now the gymnasts are motivated more than ever.

“We didn’t advance to NCAAs, but honestly, I have never seen such a driven group after that,” sophomore Erin Buchanan said. “Even the three who went to NCAAs came back, and we sat down, and we put down our goals. Our goal next year is to make it to Super Six, because after watching this past year, we know we’re capable of doing it.”

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