No. 16 Illinois looks forward to NCAA Regionals in Georgia


Mark Capapas The Daily Illini

Senior Nicole Biondi performs her beam routine during the meet against Penn State on Jan. 31. The women’s gymnastics team will travel to Georgia for the NCAA Regionals starting Thursday.

By Jonah Perez, Staff Writer

As the last seeded team, No. 16 Illinois travels to Georgia for its regional.
“This is a bigger meet,” said freshman Abby Mueller. “We’re just going in treating it like any other meet we’ve done. We feel … not focusing on the outcome before what you actually have to do (it) because we’ll … make regional finals if we just do what we know how to do.”
“Then, on that final day of regionals … just focusing on really enjoying every moment we have out there because our theme this year is just going out, having a party and having fun. So, just focusing on the positives and just being out there as a team, I think, is gonna propel us to get the goals that we want.”
As one of the top 28 teams in the nation, the Illini have a bye and first compete on day two of the event. Their opponents are No. 1 Florida, No. 25 Central Michigan and either No. 26 North Carolina State or No. 35 Western Michigan.
The reason North Carolina State is competing on day one is because the top 16 seeds are assigned based on seed, while the other 12 are assigned based on geographic location. It must have been pushed out because of how many teams there were from its location.
Florida finished the season with the highest national qualifying score of 197.944 and a final record of 12-2. Its only two losses were in their third place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships against No. 3 Louisiana State University and No. 7 Alabama.
Central Michigan, North Carolina State and Western Michigan’s NQSs were 196.275, 196.250 and 195.769, respectively.
Last time out, Central Michigan finished fourth at the Mid-American Conference Championships with a 194.900, while Western Michigan finished tied for last with a 194.600.
Illinois placed joint-third at the Big Ten Championships in its most recent meet, coming in behind No. 7 Minnesota and No. 4 Michigan but tying with No. 19 Iowa.
For the first time this season, there were fans at the event, though it made the Illini tight. They were fantastic and finished third, but the environment was different and got them slightly off their game.
The Illini felt the pressure of perfecting the routine, and this week they worked on controlling the nerves and freely going through their events.
“Replicating the very loud music, replicating the fans, noises, crowds and things like that,” said head coach Nadalie Walsh. “Just trying to replicate that as best as possible in practice and then doing where they have to hit together as a team and function as a team. So kind of training like mini-meets throughout the week.”
The energy of the arena made it more difficult to see or hear, but it was necessary for her fellow underclassmen to experience a pumped environment, especially because the Athens Regional is bound to be the same.
One of the ways they replicated fans was using cardboard cutouts their parents and family made. Senior Tessa Phillips said her family’s was her favorite of them, but she also thought it was funny when she noticed a few pet cutouts.
Confidence is one of the most important aspects of gymnastics, and these Illini seniors embody it. Though this regional could be their last collegiate tournament, you would not know it. Because of last year, they know how easily what they love can be taken away. They are assuming they will move on to the NCAA Championships and excited for the challenge.
If they do not advance past the regional, it will be bittersweet. There will probably be some tears, but it is not what they are focused on; they are focused on winning it all.
Sophomore Arayah Simons is from Richmond, Georgia, which is about two hours away from the meet location, while senior Jaylen Spence is from Suwanee, Georgia, which is about an hour away.
Simons had a season-ending injury, while Spence unfortunately suffered a career-ending injury. Mueller praised their support and toughness throughout their whole ordeal. They do not have a victim mentality and make differences as role models and teammates.
“I wish both of them were healthy and able to compete,” Walsh said. “That would be a dream for them … to get a chance to compete in their home area, but I think just knowing that they have fans, and friends and family that are going to come and cheer us on is just really comforting and a great gesture.”
Phillips added because of the support from their families, there will be the most orange and blue they have had all year. It will make the season feel somewhat normal.
Even with some small detail struggles, the season has been a success for the Illini, and they do not have to be perfect to move on to day two. They are going to try their best and see where the cards fall, and they will leave it all on the floor and hopefully be on their way to nationals.
Walsh feels like the Illini are peaking at the right time, and all it takes is a hot streak to come away with some silverware.
“As a team going into Regionals just because we’ve come off two weeks ago getting our school high, 197.575 … we’re just really excited to kind of show what we can do in front of the other big schools and hopefully beat their butts,” Phillips said.

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