Team of the century: 2014 Illini women’s gymnastics season yet to be replicated


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

The Illinois Women’s Gymnastics team celebrates after one of its members completes their routine during a match against Michigan on Feb. 7, 2014.

By Nithin Reddy, Staff Writer

The 2013-14 Illinois women’s gymnastics team finished off on a postseason run that has never been replicated in Illini history. The Illini made the NCAA Championships for the fourth time in the previous six seasons while finishing 11th in the rankings.

The Illini started the season ranked 16th in the country after they made it to the semifinal session of the NCAA Championships in the previous season. The team lost two important gymnasts from that team: Jaclyn Kantecki and Alina Weinstein. Kantecki was one of the team’s best gymnasts on vault. She posted a score of 9.75 in both the Big Ten Championships and the NCAA Regional.

Weinstein, on the other hand, was an immeasurable loss for the team. Weinstein finished 2013 as an All-American in floor, the MVP of the team and the lone Illini to make First Team All-Big Ten. However, she could see that the future was bright.

“There’s so much more to expect from Illinois,” said Weinstein. “They’re going to be great. There’s so much potential and room to grow with this program.”

Replacing Weinstein was a task that would come collectively rather than individually. As for Kantecki, the Illini needed someone to replace her on vault, and they found it in freshman Erin Buchanan. While in 2014 she may have nearly been an All-American on the floor, Buchanan helped anchor vault along with Senior Amber See.

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The start of the season didn’t turn out as the team expected. After a win at Michigan State and a tri-meet victory against Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Centenary College, the Illini would lose three of their next four meets with their only win coming at home against a dismal Iowa team. In spite of what the Illini’s record of 3-3 said, the team did not look wavered. All three of those losses came against teams ranked in the top 21 of the country, and close losses to Penn State and Michigan just showed Illinois how close they were to breaking through.

The Illini would immediately respond, claiming victory in an in-state quad meet against UIC, Northern Illinois and Illinois State. The meet featured a dominant performance on the vault, where Illinois set a school record of 49.425 on the routine and See scored a perfect 10. The Illini would continue their win streak in a tri-meet against No. 19 Central Michigan and No. 23 Ohio State before falling to No. 2 Oklahoma at Norman.

The season culminated in a senior night meet against Lindenwood. In a packed Huff Hall, the Illini put on a show, scoring a 197.1—the highest in school history. Former head coach, Kim Landrus, remembers that meet fondly.

“Senior night was so special and sweet. Not only did we celebrate the storied careers of our three amazing seniors (Amber See, Elizabeth McNabb and Sarah Fiedler), but we broke the school record with a 197.1,” said Landrus, “The team had been striving for that 197-mark the entire season. I was so proud of each one of them.”

The Illini won every event of the meet including Fiedler winning her first career all-around title and setting a career-high on the event. The meet capped off a regular season that featured numerous team records as well as individual successes that have been etched in Illini history.

Heading into the Big Ten Championship, the Illini were looking to claim the elusive Big Ten title for the first time in school history. Unfortunately for Illinois, Michigan put up an incredible 197.55, which no team came close to. The Illini would place 4th, just 0.05 points behind Minnesota for third.

Following the Big Ten Championship, Illinois went to Minneapolis to compete in the NCAA Regional. Needing to place top 2 in the Regional to advance, the Illini were going to have to outscore either Oklahoma or Minnesota, a feat the Illini had failed to accomplish in three tries on the season. The Illini were able to do it. Placing second in the Regional, Illinois was able to get over the hump and edge out Minnesota to advance to the NCAA Championships. 

“Qualifying (for) the NCAA Semifinals was the culmination of a season filled with heart and perseverance,” said Landrus, “We came off of an amazing bar performance and went to beam and punched our ticket to NCAAs. The feeling was indescribable.”

The Illini went on to compete at the semifinal session of the NCAA Championships but were unable to advance. The Illini finished in 11th place for the second straight season and tied a school record for the best finish. 

As for individuals, the Illini claimed two First Team All-Big Ten gymnasts, Amber See and junior Sunny Kato, and two Second Team All-Big Ten gymnasts, Erin Buchanan and sophomore Giana O’Connor.  Buchanan also fell just shy of being named an All-American on both floor and vault. The team did not have any All-Americans, but it featured two future All-Americans: Kato and O’Conner.

The 2013-14 team will be known as one that set numerous records and wrapped up the most successful stretch in Illinois women’s gymnastics history.

“Our theme for the year was limitless. It was a feeling everyone shared. When the season concluded, so much history had been made with a No. 11 national ranking and Illinois’s first back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances,” said Landrus, “Honestly, it was a total team effort. A combination of youth and experience that continued to build with each other the entire year. For our seniors to lead the 2014 team to all their accomplishments, it spoke volumes. I still get chills thinking about it.”