After 158 routines in competition, countless hours in the Huskie Stadium gym and 40 road trips with her Northern Illinois teammates over the last four years, NIU women’s gymnastics senior Holly Reichard has spent the last two weeks training for the final meet of her lifelong gymnastics career.
Reichard left DeKalb Thursday for Norman, Okla., where she will compete as an all-arounder in the NCAA South Central Regional on Saturday. Action gets under way at the Lloyd Noble Center at 4 p.m. with live stats and a live webstream of the meet available at www.soonersports.com.
While the Regional could lead to a berth in the NCAA Championships if Reichard is one of the top two all-arounders not on an advancing team or an event winner, the Palatine native said she has approached practice as if the competition is her last meet.
“I am thinking of this as my last meet,” Reichard said. “That way, going to NCAAs (the NCAA Championships) would be like a prize. The great thing is, the whole notion of pressure is gone. I have nothing to lose so that is exciting.
I want to go hard, be aggressive and do my best. I know what to expect, I’ve been there before and I’m used to it. I can go there and it can be a fun experience at the end of my career.”
Reichard knows what to expect as she makes her third appearance at an NCAA Regional in four years to become just the fourth Huskie women’s gymnast all-time to make at least three appearances at regionals.
Even the venue for this year’s South Central Regional is familiar as Reichard competed in Norman for NCAAs as a freshman in 2008. While Reichard is looking at the regional as her last meet, NIU head coach Mark Sontag said he could see the Huskie advancing.
“First of all, she absolutely has the talent to make it (to nationals) so that’s part one of the equation,” he said. “She has to be on top of her game that day. She has to hit and hit well. You cannot have a weak event and be competing at this level. All four of Holly’s routines are national class routines, so we are definitely aiming for those 9.9s and better on all four events.”
Reichard led Northern Illinois in 2011 with scores of 9.850 on the balance beam, uneven parallel bars and floor exercise, while hitting a season best 9.750 on vault.
She totaled an all-around best of 39.150 and scored 39 or higher three times. She has done it all while continuing to battle a leg injury that sidelined her for several meets a year ago, causing the Huskies to reduce her training time throughout this season.
“She’s been phenomenal,” Sontag said. “All year, she has worked around the situation with her ankle and foot. It’s painful every single time she lands on it. She’s been able to adjust to competing with less training and less reps during the week, but has still been able to hit her sets and have quality sets. She’s made adjustments all year. For her to come back at the level she’s competing is impressive.”
In addition to strong gymnastics, Sontag said that Reichard also brings a very important variable that is impossible to manufacture to Saturday’s competition – experience.
“The experience of (competing at) NCAA Regionals is so different than anything else,” Sontag said. “You almost have to make it once to even know what’s going on. It is a seven-rotation format, so you have to be able to go through the ups and downs and the marathon of waiting. It’s twice as long as a regular meet, so to be able to stay up for your events, but also be able to relax in between, that’s a skill that you have to learn and you don’t get a lot of practice. The more you get there, the more confidence you have, so you can settle in and focus on doing what got you there in the first place.”
In Reichard’s first appearance at regionals, as a freshman in 2008, her highest event score was a 9.625 on balance beam and she totaled a 37.500 in the all-around. A year later, she capped a stellar sophomore season – when she captured MAC Gymnast of the Year honors – by scoring a 39.075 to take eighth at regionals and placed fifth on beam with a 9.825 while hitting all four of her routines.
Sontag is confident Reichard can improve on that performance because he has seen her put together what he believes is her best season in 2011.
“Holly is better now than she was her sophomore year,” Sontag said. “She is the best she’s been, and to do that her senior year and get there (to postseason) is very fulfilling. Our only regret is that we don’t have the team with her, but to have her there and represent NIU is a great end to a great career.”
Reichard admits there may be some strong feelings as she goes through her last performance on each event, but knows she will not have any regrets following the meet.
“Probably as I am going through the meet, as I finish each event, I’ll know that it’s my last time and I’m sure it will creep into my thoughts. I wish our team could be there competing, but overall, I don’t regret one thing (about my NIU career),” Reichard said. “I feel during my four years here I have grown so much as a person. Being a teammate, meeting people, handling different situations … NIU has been a great learning experience.”
Reichard will rotate with the No. 3 seeded Washington Huskies and open the meet on floor exercise. Her appearance at the NCAA Regionals marks the 18th time a Northern Illinois gymnast has been selected to compete at NCAA Regionals under Sontag. NIU has sent at least one gymnast to Regionals in 11 of the last 12 years and in each of the last five seasons.
Six teams, five all-around competitors (not on a competing team) and one individual event specialist per event were selected in each of six regional competitions to be contested Saturday. The top two teams, top two all-arounders not on an advancing team and individual event winners who are not a part of those groups will advance to the NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, scheduled for April 15 to April 17 and hosted by Kent State University and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.