Illinois women’s gymnastics advances to NCAA Nationals with 2nd-place finish at Minneapolis Regional

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team came into the Minneapolis Regional and seeded second for the first time in program history. As the team left the meet, it became the first Illini squad to advance to consecutive NCAA Championships.

Illinois’ second-place score of a 196.600 at the Minneapolis Regional on Saturday solidified the team’s spot at Nationals. When the Illini heard the news, they cried tears of joy and shared hugs. Junior Sunny Kato described it as “one of the best moments of my life.”

The uneven bars lineup played a large factor in the team’s second-place finish. In fact, Illinois’ 49.400 on bars was the best total of the night for that specific event. It also showed the improvements the gymnasts have made with their handstands and landings, something they have been striving to do all season.

“I don’t expect anything less from this bar team because they’ve been doing amazing,” Kato said. “It’s just so exciting ‘cause it all just came together, and for the first time, I think everyone just did awesome. We had five for six sticks, and we hit our handstands. Basically, everything just went right for us. It was nice having that.”

None of the individual bars scores was below a 9.800. Kato’s 9.925 led the way for the Illini, and she also tied California’s Dallas Crawford for the bars title. Freshman Mary Jane Horth took third place with her 9.900.

Bars proved to be the highlight of the night for the Illini, but the meet didn’t start that as great. Despite senior Amber See tying for third on floor, Illinois got off to a slow start with a 49.025 on the event but the gymnasts didn’t allow that to faze them.

“Regardless of the scores we got on that first event, we had three more events we could pick it up on, and we really did that tonight,” senior Sarah Fiedler said. “We just persisted throughout the whole meet and ended up really well.”

After performing on bars, the gymnasts moved on to the last event of the night, the balance beam. Illinois found itself in a close match with Minnesota, just as it was in the Big Ten Quad Meet on March 15. This time, though, the Illini had the 147.450-147.050 advantage. Just as the slow start didn’t affect the team, neither did the close score.

“Coming off of bars, the energy was so great, but then we had to remind ourselves, ‘We can’t get too excited yet. We still have one more event that we need to nail,’” Fiedler said. “We just stayed focused. There was a lot of cheering going on. There were a lot of great things happening on other events. We just really stayed focused, stayed united within the team, and we got the job done.”

Fiedler scored a 9.900 on beam to lead Illinois, and she tied with three other gymnasts for the beam title. She described the first-place finish as “an added perk,” as making it to Nationals is the real highlight. Head coach Kim Landrus called the event “indescribable.”

“I talked to the team at the beginning of this year, and I knew there was something special,” Landrus said. “They have had the hard drive and determination the entire season and continued fighting.”

Ashley can be reached at [email protected]