Illini men’s and women’s teams earn season-opening victories

Bridget+Hodan+competes+on+beam+against+Michigan+State+in+Huff+Hall+on+February+17.
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Illini men’s and women’s teams earn season-opening victories

Bridget Hodan competes on beam against Michigan State in Huff Hall on February 17.

Bridget Hodan competes on beam against Michigan State in Huff Hall on February 17.

Quentin Shaw

Bridget Hodan competes on beam against Michigan State in Huff Hall on February 17.

Quentin Shaw

Quentin Shaw

Bridget Hodan competes on beam against Michigan State in Huff Hall on February 17.

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

The Illinois men’s and women’s gymnastics teams got off to strong starts to the 2018 season, winning their respective opening meets, and each team is looking to carry early momentum into home meets at Huff Hall this weekend.

In first-year head coach Nadalie Walsh’s debut competition at the helm of the women’s program, the Illini jumped out to a hot start.

Seizing the lead at the first rotation, Illinois maintained a three-point cushion for the entire meet. The Illini finished with a team score of 195.100, while Yale followed in second (191.550). Rutgers, the hosts, took third place with a score of 191.525 and Southern Connecticut State placed fourth with a team score of 187.650.

“I am really proud of the entire team and the energy they competed with today,” Walsh said in a press release after the competition. “The team chemistry was amazing.”

Freshman Kasey Meeks won the vault title in her first-ever appearance as an Illini, earning a score of 9.825. She was joined by three other Illini who won titles. Sophomore Karen Howell took first on floor (9.800) and shared the title on bars (9.875) with fellow sophomore Rae Balthazor (9.875), who also won a share of the beam title with a score of 9.875, a career-high. She shared the beam title with senior Illini Bridget Hodan.

Illinois had its best rotation on bars, with the team earning a score of 49.175.

“We started out on bars and came out with a lot of energy after warmups,” Howell said in a press release after the meet. “Lindsay (Dwyer) hit her routine and the team just exploded with energy and we knew it would be a great meet.”

The impressive showing also marked some milestones for individuals and the program. The team score of 195.100 is Illinois’ highest score in a season opener since 2015, and with the team score of 49.075 on beam, it marked the 14th straight occasion in which the team has scored above 49.000 in the event.

Freshmen Meeks, Nicole Bionid and Kylie Noonan all made their debuts for Illinois, and the trio will look to continue making strides when Michigan comes to town on Friday, where they are set to take on the Illini at 7:00 p.m. The meet will also be televised on the Big Ten Network.

The men’s team found similar success, and against some high-profile competition, as the Illini took down No. 4 Minnesota, No. 8 Iowa and No. 17 UIC in the Windy City Invitational last Saturday.

Three Illini left Chicago with titles, as seniors Bobby Baker and Brandon Ngai and junior Alex Diab all took first in events. Ngai opened the invitational by winning the pommel horse with a score of 15.250 — the Illini earned a team score of 65.950.

Diaz earned his title in the second rotation, rings, with a score of 14.450. Senior Dennis Minton took second with a 14.000 and Illinois tallied a team score of 68.100.

Baker won the horizontal bar with a score of 13.600, leading the team to a 66.400 score in the fifth rotation.

The Illini had their best showing in the third rotation on vault, earning a team score of 70.500. Junior Johnny Jacobson earned a career-best score of 14.500, and the team posted a score of 66.250 for the parallel bars in the fourth rotation.

Head coach Justin Spring was pleased with the way his team came out and competed, but anticipates a lot of work in the coming weeks to improve on a variety of areas that will be needed to succeed down the road.

Illinois will have had almost a week back in Champaign to practice ahead of its impending showdown with Arizona State on Saturday, which is slated to begin at 4:00 p.m.

“We have a lot of polishing to do,” Spring said in a press release after the meet. “Our hits percentage was super low. We have a lot of growth ahead of us and we just need to make sure that happens.”

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