Freshmen lead Illinois women’s gymnastics to 11th-place finish at nationals

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team failed to reach its season goal of placing in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala. The team placed 11th overall, but its final score of 195.800 marked the highest nationals score in program history.

“We came ever so close to it,” head coach Kim Landrus said. “But I think what’s even more important is we went into the competition, (and) we knew what we had to do. We had to worry about our performances, and we continued to build throughout the competition.”

It wasn’t all about the outcome, though.

“Our mindset was to go for the experience and kind of get used to that because that’s what we want to keep doing in upcoming years is to keep making it back to nationals,” freshman Erin Buchanan said.

The Illini competed Friday in the first session of the semifinals and began the meet with a bye. Following that, they competed on the uneven bars for their first event of the afternoon.

Illinois started slow on the event, as none of the gymnasts scored a 9.800 or higher. Freshman Mary Jane Horth and senior Elizabeth McNabb each scored a 9.775 to lead the team to a 48.725 team total.

From there, the Illini moved to the balance beam, where they slightly improved their team total to 48.800. Horth again led the lineup with a 9.800, the highest score for her team up to that point.

“We didn’t really have the best meet that we could have had as a team, just the potential that our team has,” McNabb said. “But I think that’s all about the sport of gymnastics. Every day is not going to be perfect, and you just have to stick together as a team and really try to come together and focus on the team and cheer each other on.”

After taking another bye following beam, the Illini were able to improve in the second half of the meet.

They competed on floor, their best event of the night and earned a team total of 49.200. All of the gymnasts in the lineup scored a 9.800 or higher on their floor routines, led by Buchanan’s 9.875.

The meet concluded on vault for Illinois, where it finished strong with a 49.025. Buchanan, along with sophomore Giana O’Connor, led the team on this event with 9.850’s on their vaults.

Buchanan nearly earned second-team All-American, but her 9.875 and 9.850 on floor and vault, respectively, were short of the 9.900s needed to achieve the status.

The freshmen achievements of Buchanan, Horth and Emily Lennon, who earned a 9.825 on vault, makes the future bright for this program.

“We have a nice blend of youth and experience,” Landrus said. “Our freshman have so much to offer this team, and I couldn’t be prouder of them — the way that they came in this year and worked through preseason, which is always difficult, and come meet time, they continued to get better and better throughout the whole year.”

McNabb concurred, saying “We have a great future for girls on this team. We have a strong freshman class that we expected from the day that they signed to come to this school. They’re great gymnasts, and as long as they stick together as a team and keep each other motivated, I think this team has a very, very strong future.”

Ashley can be reached at [email protected] and @wijangco12.