Women lose, men win in gymnastics home openers


Ethan Scholl

Karen Howell performs her floor routine during Illinois’ meet against Michigan on Friday January 19, 2018. Illinois lost to Michigan 194.325 to 194.975.

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

Kasey Meeks made history on vault Friday night, becoming the first Illini freshman gymnast to open her career with consecutive individual event titles since Kelsey Joannides in 2009.

However it wasn’t enough to propel No. 21 Illinois to an upset victory over No. 3 Michigan, which came away with a 194.975-194.325 result.

Three Illini gymnasts won four event titles, including sophomore Rae Balthazor, who won the all-around title and floor title, with scores of 39.100 and 9.875, respectively.  It was her first time participating in all-around competition for the team.

“She is a great competitor and performer,” said head coach Nadalie Walsh in a press release after the meet. “She has really thrown off all the chains and been very dominant in her positive mindset. I think it has been amazing to watch and it is so fun.”

Balthazor credited her breakout performance to being filled with confidence as a result of consistent encouragement from people like Walsh.

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“I am someone that needs people to tell me that they believe in me,” Balthazor said after the meet in a press release. “It helps me with my own confidence, and she has had a huge impact in the gym. She has had a huge impact in competing. It is a blessing.”

Joining Balthazor and Meeks in titles was senior Bridget Hodan, who hit a 9.900 on beam.

Illinois will attempt to rebound next weekend at Penn State on the road in University Park, Pennsylvania. The meet is slated to begin at 3 p.m.

The men’s team also went up against top-notch competition over the weekend, but fared better. The No. 4-ranked Illini took down No. 9-ranked Arizona State by a wide margin on Saturday night, winning 407.700-387.700.

Senior Bobby Baker led the team in front of the home crowd at Huff Hall, setting a nation-high score of 14.900 on vault. Baker won two other event titles as well, taking first on floor with a 13.700 and winning still rings with a score of 14.450.

The Illini continued on to sweep the events for the night, with senior Harry McLellan claiming the title on pommel horse, scoring a 13.800 in what was the first title of his career. Former national champion Brandon Ngai finished behind him in second with a score of 13.750.

In the last event of the evening, senior Tyson Bull scored a 14.250 to secure the sweep with a title on high bar.

Head coach Justin Spring has yet to be satisfied with his team, despite early successes to start the season. His sights are set on winning more than just dual meets and event titles.

“At the end of the day, we know where we need to be, and we know the milestones we need to be hitting along the way throughout our season to be in contention for winning a Big Ten Championship and winning a National Championship,” Spring said in a press release after the meet. “It should be a really good year for us and I’m just expecting a little more in terms of big routines and more hit routines, even in the first or second meet out of the gate.”

Like the women’s team, the Illini will be heading out to Penn State to compete next Saturday at 3 p.m., and Spring is expecting it to be a tough encounter. Spring believes that if his team is going to emerge with a road win, they need to get off to a better start.

“We closed really well tonight and had a big jump from our projected scores, but that only brought us out of the hole we created from our first four events,” Spring said. “We have to be better than that. I think we generally do better when we have somebody pushing on us and I think Penn State is going to do that.”


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