The 2011 Northern Illinois gymnastics season has been a journey filled with uncertainty, adversity, hard work and determination. The Huskies have overcome injury, illness and a changing line-up that, at times, featured only five gymnasts on several events.
As the 2011 Huskies embark on their last road trip as a team – to the 2011 Mid-American Conference Championships in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. – the at times arduous journey may be the factor that helps NIU the most in its quest for a title on Saturday at McGuirk Arena.
“I’m very proud of this team,” said NIU head coach Mark Sontag. “We’ve been training very hard to put ourselves in this position to go up there with confidence and put together a great meet. We’re scoring where we need to be. From where we started [at 186] to bring (the team score) up to 194 shows how hard we have worked. For us to go in and be able to see improvement like that is a big confidence boost.”
Northern Illinois took second place behind No. 16 Illinois at the State of Illinois Classic last weekend with a season-best score of 194.025, including season-highs of 48.925 and 48.775 on the uneven parallel bars and balance beam, respectively. The Huskies last reached the 194-point total two seasons ago at the same meet.
The 194.025 represented a 7.2 point improvement from NIU’s lowest point – a 186.825 in a home loss to Eastern Michigan on January 16. In that meet, three Northern Illinois gymnasts (Kim Gotlund, Tanya Rachan and Jessica Watanabe) who were expected to provide 11 of the Huskies’ 24 routines, were out or suffered an injury.
Now, with Rachan and Watanabe back in the line-up on three events each, and a host of Huskies putting up career best scores, Northern Illinois takes aim at the title, a goal the team first set when practice began.
“Our goal is the same one we have had all year,” Sontag said. “We are going out to win a championship, not just to have a good meet. We have been focused on that all season, even at our darkest time when we couldn’t see the surface, that was one of our goals. We are excited to be in this spot, excited to have worked as hard as we have to get here, even though it has not been easy. The team is focused on a championship.”
Northern Illinois will begin the MAC Championship meet on floor exercise and then move to vault.
Those are the two events that were most affected by the Huskies’ early-season injury woes, and Sontag feels starting with those events will help his team achieve its scoring potential on its two strongest events – bars and beam – later in the meet.
“Our floor and vault have been the two events most impacted by injuries this year so I think starting with those events is good for us,” Sontag said. “Usually, scores are tighter earlier in the meet so I think it is good to have our lower scoring potential events first. We have our two best events for scoring potential (bars and beam) later in the meet so for us it worked out well. Vault will be a key. If we can hit some nice vaults, we will be set up well [for the final two]. We wanted to start out on a high-energy event like floor so this is a good rotation for us. I see nothing but positives from where we are sitting.”
Sontag also has the advantage of taking a veteran team that competed at Central Michigan earlier this season to the Championships. NIU’s tentative line-up features 17 routines by juniors and seniors, including five on both bars and beam. That experience is key going into a meet that is unlike any other that the Huskies compete in during the season.
“We do have a veteran team and that helps because we have people who have been there before,” Sontag said. “We have more than a couple of people who know how to compete in that format, which really is so different. This meet is a marathon. There are a lot of breaks and it’s long. You have to keep in it mentally for the entire time and if you don’t have the veterans that we do, that can be difficult.”
Reichard, who won the MAC title on bars in 2008 and on beam in 2009, has hit the 39-point mark three times this season, including in each of the last two meets. Guerra, who earned a 9.825 on bars and a 9.800 on beam at state, has been one of NIU’s top two gymnasts on those events this year.
“Holly has gone 39 three times already, so she is one to watch and is really having probably her best all-around year despite that fact she can’t train every day,” Sontag said. “Ashley Guerra has been solid as can be and Natalie Sutter is coming off a great meet. There are so many that I could talk about … Sara (Hernandez) on vault, Jessie (Watanabe) on bars and beam, and Tanya (Rachan) is really starting to put it all together. We’re coming off a strong meet at the State Championships, and practice has been really upbeat and positive. Everyone just wants to get there.”
The 2011 Mid-American Conference Gymnastics Championships get under way at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at CMU’s McGuirk Arena.
For more information on NIU gymnastics or Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.