Illini face Big Ten competition at regionals


Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Mary Jane Otto performs on the balance beam at Huff Hall on March 9. The Illini finished second with a score of 196.075.

By Sumeya Kalib, Staff Writer

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team is set to compete in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the NCAA Regional on Wednesday. The Illini have made 38 regional appearances and this will be their 16th consecutive season showing out.

They will be in attendance along with four other Big Ten teams and ranked-opponents such as Big Ten champion Michigan, 2018 NCAA champion University of California, Los Angeles, No. 10 Alabama, No. 27 West Virginia and No. 30 Central Michigan. The team has faced five out of its eight NCAA opponents during the regular season.

The Illini compete against the Central Michigan Chippewas first in a dual meet, and because they’re ranked higher at No. 29, the Illini will perform vault, bars, beam and floor, in that order. The Illini last faced the Chippewas at the Central Michigan Quad Meet back in January, finishing third.

If they advance, Illinois will face West Virginia in the second round on Thursday. The winner of the dual will face the winner of UCLA and Nebraska’s bracket for regional finals.

There will be some competition since Illinois is facing three teams that advanced in the 2018 NCAA championships, including reigning champion UCLA and Super Six finalists Alabama and Nebraska.

However, if they don’t advance at all, five gymnasts will represent the Illini as event specialists. Among them is redshirt senior Mary Jane Otto in all-around, junior Karen Howell in all-around, sophomores Kasey Meeks in vault and Kylie Noonan on the floor and freshman Shaylah Scott on beam.

According to head coach Nadalie Walsh, the team has focused on adding depth to its lineups for regionals by adding gymnasts to events they haven’t performed in during the regular season.

“We’re going to see Kasey Meeks, who has been a vault star for us,” Walsh said. “She’s actually prepared with a floor routine, so if we need her on one of those three days, that could be an exciting catapult of energy for the team to see her go out there. Even Rachael Donovan has been training in floor routine.”

The team is coming in with a season-high team score of 196.650 and is currently ranked 17th on beam with a national qualifying score of 49.150 and ranked 23rd on bars with a National Qualifying Score of 49.100.

The team had to band together to recover from teammates being injured. Senior Julia Hutcherson tore her ACL in October 2018, sophomore Jaylen Spence had a “season-ending injury” in December 2018, freshman Malloru Mizuki suffered a confirmed ACL tear on Janruary 7 while junior Rae Balthazor coined a “season-ending” foot injury on February 8, according to

Despite this, the team has grown stronger through willpower and by bringing out gymnasts who hadn’t received much exposure on the scene.

“I feel like we didn’t even choose to prepare for the depth. We had different athletes get injured who were key players and then multiple other athletes had to step up or we were going to go without having enough routines on each event and that happened throughout the year,” Walsh said. “What seemed to be something that plagued us like, ‘Oh, we’re getting plagued with injuries and all these setbacks’ … The setback became the launching pad and so having the girls that got injured, it really opened their eyes to the other ones that maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go out there. They just had to springboard themselves into a position of being ready.”

Sophomore Nicole Biondi is coming back from a knee injury and still performing her best. Although she hasn’t fully healed, according to Walsh, she brings an “authority of energy” and enthusiasm after sticking her routine.

The last time she performed was at the Tuscaloosa Regionals where the Illini beat the Wolverines and sent then-sophomore Balthazor to compete in the championships in all-around. She placed 13th with a score of 39.325.

This year, the Illini are coming back as a mentally stronger team. Walsh said her team is looking to “achieve competing three times” and had made an effort to repeat that message throughout the year.

“This team is more mentally tough. They’ve gone through more adversity, and they’re ready for that kind of platform, that kind of being out in the bright lights in front of so many people up against the best of the best,” Walsh said. “They have really improved on their own self-confidence, self-worth and their identities so I think that because what’s inside them is more solidified and solid, when they go into those arenas they’ll be so first of all grateful and happy to be together because they have grown really close this year but also just really appreciative that they are out there, and there’s nothing and no reason to hold back.”

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