The Northern Illinois University women’s gymnastics team gets its 2014 season started at 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, when the Huskies take on the preseason No. 10-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Bob Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb.
Live scoring of the meet will be available online, and fans can view the meet on HuskersNside on Huskers.com (monthly subscription required). The season opener for both Nebraska and NIU is part of NU’s “Rumble and Tumble” event featuring wrestling and women’s gymnastics.
NIU head coach Sam Morreale is in his third season leading the Huskie program. NIU returns 14 gymnasts from last year’s squad, which placed fourth in the Mid-American Conference Championships, and welcomes six newcomers to the 2014 squad. NIU went 7-11 overall a year ago.
What is the mindset of the team entering the 2014 season and specifically in this meet at Nebraska?
“They have a very focused mindset. It’s very team-oriented. We had an outstanding preseason. The kids came in from the summer ready to go, whether it was the returning kids or the freshmen. We were able to hit the ground running, which in turn has given them a positive mindset because they did the work over the summer. That carried through preseason and now they are ready to go. They are looking forward to competing against a top 10 team (in Nebraska). They want to see how we stack up. They are very interested in hitting the ground running. They want to go there, they want to surprise Nebraska. Whether it’s putting a scare into them, winning an event, having an event champion, whatever they can do to make Nebraska remember us is what they want to do.”
What makes this team different going into the year than some of your previous squads?
“(The girls) keep talking about this NIU team is the best team they’ve been involved with since they’ve been here. We’ve had good kids, but we’ve never had the number and the depth that we have now. Seniors always see it as their last chance, but realistically they have the mindset they want to win, they want to do well. They want to break school records. They want to take the program to the next step. They want to be that group that finally gets to regionals. Every day they’ve been striving for that. They’ve been asking me for more. They’ve been asking to do more strength, to do more reps. As a coach you love to hear that because they are ready to do whatever we are asking of them.”
Talk about the leadership you have seen from your three seniors.
“These guys, every senior class understands it’s their last go-around. Every class up until this one has started a countdown. This is my last year, my last eight months, six months, two weeks. This group is not doing that. They are approaching every day where they want to get better so they can still chase some of their dreams. Kim Gotlund wants to take this team to regionals as a team if not get back there by herself. Megan Melendez wants to get to nationals, and she’s good enough to do that if she can get the job done. As a coaching staff, we’re not afraid to talk about those big goals. Granted that’s not our focus … we’re going to do like we’ve done every year, get our start values, hit our routines, stick our landings, and then those scores tend to take care of themselves. We have our meet goals that we chase but this group has that long-term goal that they feel like they’re good enough. You look around the gym and you look at the talent and the kids who may not make line-up, and they are good. Now they have to get out there and do it.”
Does this team come into the season with more confidence?
“I think we’ve always come in with confidence, but a lot of times it was bravado where they wanted to be confident. These guys looking around, looking at themselves, they see skills, they see talent, they see quality that makes everybody get a little better. What we’ve been doing in practice is only building to a good start.”
Are the freshmen that come in today more advanced than in previous years?
“Yes, just the pool of athletes we select from is a bigger pool than it’s ever been. The clubs are doing a great job of preparing kids. Kids from a lot of clubs are taking the next step. Clubs understand what’s needed. The rules are streamlined where they are not that different (between club and college). It helps them come in more prepared. A lot more kids are doing camps before they get here so they are exposed to different things. The whole junior Olympic gymnastics program is giving us a lot more kids to choose from.”
What impact have the six NIU freshmen had on this team already?
“They are coming in mature, they are coming in with great attitudes which rolls into what we’re trying to create. They are pushing the older kids. They are all likable, they are all good kids.”
Last year, three freshmen contributed in the line-up, do you see the same with this group?
“I honestly see this group of freshmen maybe contributing more. They are going to end up contributing as much if not more than last year’s group simply because this group is healthier coming in. I think it is top to bottom, whether it is scholarship or walk-on, they are all contributing and all pushing the kids in front of them which will make everyone more prepared.
“We still have a great group of seniors and upperclassmen. I am not taking anything away from the sophomores and juniors. Amanda (Stepp) is still going to be a rock star for us. Kelly (Nortz) is going to get her stuff done, although she’s coming back from injury. I think a good way to say it is we are well-balanced. We are not going to rely heavily on the freshmen, but they are ready so they are going to get some opportunities.”
Give us a breakdown of each event for the 2014 Huskies.
Vault: “On vault, we’re deeper and have more difficulty than we’ve ever had as a Huskie squad. A 10.0 start value on vault is what you chase, because if you don’t have it you are immediately starting the meet at a two to four tenth disadvantage, and we won’t have that this year. We will be starting equal with Nebraska on vault – they have six 10.0 vaults and we have six. Freshmen are a part of that. We recruited freshmen to help vault, which means that as the year goes on, vault is going to get better.”
Uneven Parallel Bars: “Bars is probably the event where we are not as deep as the other events, but from a historical standpoint at NIU, we are still deeper. We can still go eight deep with a 10.0 start value and these kids are hitting routines in practice. It’s not something we are rolling out hoping we are going to get through it. Bars is the one event where we don’t have a lot of freshmen in the line-up, but that’s good from an experience standpoint and as the year progresses, who knows what is going to happen.”
Balance Beam: “Balance beam is arguably our best event right now and probably will be this year just because on that event there is only one freshman breaking in, and five are upperclassmen which bodes well from experience and comfort. The one freshman, Megan Greenfield, is going to open a lot of peoples’ eyes. I believe she will make a run for [MAC] Freshman of the Year because she’s that good. She and Jaelyn Olsen are a lot alike in that they make skills look effortless and they do things really cleanly. Megan Melendez had to revamp her whole beam routine based on some rule changes. She had to learn a new dismount and she’s put in a lot of work this summer and preseason on it. As of now she looks as good as she looked last year, so she did a really good job there.”
Floor Exercise: “Floor is the event we haven’t recruited for it but everyone we recruited is also really good on floor. Floor is probably our deepest and going to be our most competitive event based on the number of quality routines we have. That might be the one place where we move around and have different exhibitions and give different people chances.
“Overall and on paper with what we’re seeing in gym, we’re going to be a very competitive team.”
How is the health of your team going into the season?
“We are banged up, but that’s the beauty of having depth. Is this line-up the line-up we are going to go into MAC Championships with? I doubt it but I am not afraid to. This line-up will be competitive. The beauty is bars can get better, floor is going to get better based on a couple kids getting back healthy. We’re getting healthier every day.”
How do you expect this meet to set the tone for the season?
“Our sport is not about head to head. What we do on vault does not affect what they do on vault. The goal is we don’t want to look like we don’t belong. We’re going to approach it like every other meet where we take care of our routines first, but you can’t overlook the fact it’s a Top 10 team. It will be nice to measure our routines against them. We’re not a Top 10 team but how far behind are we? I feel like we could be a Top 25 team to start the season. We have to be sharper. We can’t self-destruct if things don’t go perfectly, but I think my seniors and upperclassmen will help keep it together.”
Not just at Nebraska but in the first several meets, what do you want to see from the Huskies?
“Early focus for us will be to do what we do in practice. I want to see us hit like we hit in practice. Moving forward is where we fine-tune and work on the little details. We are already doing that [detail work], we are not adding a big skill, or getting over the hump of I hope she makes the routine. We are past that. We’re hitting our routines, it’s now are our handstands good, are we pointing through our toes. The focus early is to transfer what you’ve been doing in practice out into competition so there’s no difference and then you go after the little, little things.”
What is the key to hitting your routines in meets?
“To me it’s numbers, experience and confidence in skills. We talk about that a lot. No one has skills in the routine they’re not comfortable with or can’t do. It’s almost the mental side of it, it’s not getting yourself too worked up. We talk all the time about not trying harder because it’s a competition routine because then your timing is off, then you are missing. Just do what you do everyday, stay in that same mode. We can’t find a second gear, like some other sports can when you compete. We have to find that second gear every day so when we are in there today and we are competing vault, they are going as hard as they can so in a meet you aren’t trying harder. That’s the kiss of death, trying harder.”
What does the Mid-American Conference look like this season?
“The MAC will continue to become more competitive. We all recruit from the same circles. We don’t live in different worlds. The difference is teams like Kent, Central have the experience, they have the resume. The fact there teams have been there and done that, it makes it easier for them starting a year. Bowling Green is better, they were better last year. Ball State and WMU have new coaches but they were competitive last year. Eastern Michigan hosts and they were a better team last year. We are all chasing the same goals, no one is satisfied with being a MAC team competing, we all want to get to regionals. There are no easy weekends.”
Last year NIU did not get a win on the road, is there anything to that and will you address it?
“As a team we haven’t talked about it as a coaching staff we have. If you look at scoring, we score well on the road, we just don’t win. I don’t think it’s anything we did as far as how we traveled. When we went to Iowa State, went to Central (Michigan), we had good meets, we just got beat. It would be different if we were going out and scoring 190s on the road. I think we can win on the road. We racked our brains and couldn’t come up with anything. I think our kids are comfortable away from home, we tend to push teams to their high scores.”
What are your team’s goals for the year?
“The standard is to qualify for NCAA Regionals as a team and win MACs. Those are our end goals. Depending on Regionals, I think we have quality kids who can get through to nationals but that will remain to be seen. As far as the beginning of the year goal, we want to come out of the gate with 9.7 averages across the board. Last year we started with 9.6 so we bumped it up. The 9.7 will be a little bit of a challenge. It will be easy for our best kids to get there, but it will depend on the way they are scored. Will judges score on what they see or what they expect? Our goal is to hit. Out of 24 routines, we want at least 20 hits (five per event) so we have a decent shot at scoring. We just want to hit.
“The other thing we talked about is keeping it fun. When it becomes work, it makes everything a lot harder.”
The Huskies will host four home meets in 2014, beginning Friday, Jan. 24, with a 7 p.m. match-up versus Ball State in the home and Mid-American Conference opener.
Admission to all gymnastics meets this season is free for everyone.
For more information on NIU gymnastics and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.