Although none of the gymnasts on this year’s Northern Illinois gymnastics team had ever competed in NIU’s Chick Evans Fieldhouse before, the Huskies looked right at home in the team’s former home while competing in the State of Illinois Classic Saturday.
Northern Illinois used its season-best performances on uneven parallel bars and balance beam to post its highest team score since 2009 and take second place in the four-team meet between the state’s four NCAA Division I gymnastics teams. No. 16 Illinois claimed the Illinois Classic Championship with a 196.975, while the Huskies’ 194.025 score gave them second place ahead of Illinois-Chicago (193.325) and Illinois State (192.650).
NIU gymnasts earned their season best scores on 10 routines Saturday, with five individuals matching or tying their career best efforts on eight sets. Four different Huskies earned seven scores or 9.800 or higher, a fact which has NIU Head Coach Mark Sontag feeling good about his team going into next Saturday’s Mid-American Conference Championships in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
“We’re the best we’ve been all year right now,” Sontag said. “We are where we want to be at this time of the year. We have more confidence and we believe we can do this, so we’re going hard after it. Today, we came out aggressive from the beginning, we were focused on the tenths and we did all the things we’ve been working on. I am really pleased because the girls have worked so hard to get to where we are and seeing all their hard work pay off has been great.”
Northern Illinois senior all-arounder Holly Reichard (Palatine, Ill./Fremd HS) continues to display her best gymnastics since the 2009 campaign as she took third place on both balance beam and uneven parallel bars while recording scores of 9.850 on each event. Her 9.850 on bars was the top score of her career on the event, while the 9.850 on balance beam tied her career top score, set in 2008. She added a sixth-place finish on floor exercise with a 9.775 and scored a 9.675 on vault to take fourth place in the all-around with a season-best score of 39.150.
“Holly put up a 39 for the second straight week; she looked great, especially on bars and beam,” Sontag said. “She’s got a lot of confidence right now. Natalie Sutter has worked so hard on her floor routine, which is packed with so much difficulty. To see her nail it, knowing all the training that has gone into it, is really fun to see. Jessie Watanabe started us out on bars with a 9.8 and came back with a 9.8 on beam so she’s really on her game right now.”
Sutter (Barberton, Ohio/Coventry HS) joined Reichard on the All-State team after leading the way on both vault and floor exercise for NIU Saturday. Sutter tied her career high with a 9.750 on vault to tie for eighth and scored a 9.825 on floor to tie for third place, and was her career best. Watanabe’s (Palatine, Ill./Palatine HS) scores of 9.800 on bars and beam marked her best effort ever on bars and a season-high on balance beam. Junior Ashley Guerra (Orland Park, Ill./Carl Sandburg HS) also recorded a pair of 9.8s for the Huskies with a 9.825 on uneven bars and a career-high 9.800 on balance beam.
The Huskies’ team total of 48.925 on uneven parallel bars tied for the fifth-highest bars score in school history.
The end result is that a Northern Illinois team with a season record of just 3-10 heads into the Mid-American Conference Championships on the upswing. With the training of the past few weeks showing up in the Huskies’ latest meets, Sontag does not plan on changing the team’s routine.
“Every week, I see something we have worked on in training put into use, and the ability to take it from practice to competition is putting us in a great spot going into the MAC Championships,” Sontag said. “What we’ve been doing is working, so we’re going to keep going. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?”
The Huskies’ performance came in front of a group of more than 30 NIU gymnastics alums who returned to Northern Illinois for the day. Following the meet, most of the alumnae and their families joined all four teams for a post-meet meal.
“It was exciting to have so many alumnae back for this meet, and it definitely made today even more special,” Sontag said. “Many of them competed in this facility so I think it was fun for them to be here and it was great to see them again.”
Northern Illinois will compete in the Mid-American Conference Championships in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. next Saturday, March 19 at 1 p.m. (Central).