No. 22 Illinois women’s gymnastics look to defend Illinois Classic title

By Tyler Fedak

Tweet: @illiniWGym Illini hope to win Illinois Classic for ninth consecutive year #illini

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team returns to Huff Hall on a three-game winning streak to defend a title its held for eight years.

The No. 22 Illini are coming off a successful doubleheader weekend where the team racked up two wins and set a new season-high total score of 196.525.

Illinois garnered multiple Big Ten honors for the second week in a row. Senior Giana O’Connor was awarded with Big Ten Co-Gymnast of the Week and senior Sunny Kato with Big Ten Event Specialist for the second consecutive week. Assistant coach Jacob Lee said these conference awards showcase the level that the team is at.

“It just shows how talented they actually are,” Lee said. “If it’s an on-night, they’re able to be the best in the Big Ten.”

This Saturday, Illinois will host three fellow Illinois teams in the State of Illinois Classic. The annual meet brings together UIC, Illinois State, Northern Illinois and Illinois to determine who is the dominant collegiate gymnastics force in Illinois. The Orange and Blue are the eight-time defending champions of the Illinois Classic.

Illinois is going up against Northern Illinois, Illinois State and UIC, who average scores of 194.086, 191.697 and 191.996 respectively this season. The Fighting Illini, averaging a 195.586 this season, want to build off their momentum from the past few weeks going into their final Huff meet. To do so, the coaches are making sure that the gymnasts aren’t being overworked in practice this week.

“We’ve got to be very careful with how we pace them,” Lee said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re not beating them down so that we can build their confidence and get them to where they need to be.”

The Illinois Classic will be the last career Huff performances for the team’s three seniors — O’Connor, Kato and Heather Foley.

“Going into it, I’m going to be kind of sad but I’m going to go into it like a normal meet,” O’Connor said. “I want to go out, hit all four and have a great team total; that’s how I want to remember my last time at Huff.”

The four-team matchup is a change of pace for Illinois — a team that has only competed in head-to-head meets this season. With its sights on the conference and national championships, the team is looking forward to this opportunity as a way to prepare for the large meets ahead.

“Since there’s three other teams out there, its a lot more noisy and harder to focus,” Lee said. “It’s really good preparation for our championships meets.”

The Illini are already accustom to a bit of noise during competition, but that’s usually when they’re making it. The gymnasts make it a habit to cheer and dance along side their performing teammates to take away the pressure and make it a fun environment. O’Connor, who ranks No. 15 in the nation in the all-around, said this creates an adrenaline rush and gives her a lot of energy while she is performing.

“It honestly helps a lot when you see your teammates going crazy on the side,” O’Connor said. “You know that you’re doing a great job out there and it helps you to continue to hit the rest of your routine.”

The Illini will use the energy from each other and the Huff Hall audience to defend their title this weekend.

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Sources: fightingillini.com, bigten.org, ncaa.com, uicflames.com, goredbirds.com, niuhuskies.com