I’m still not ready to discuss what happened to Fighting Illini men’s basketball. I’m not ready to reflect on the season, take away positive things and move towards the offseason. I’m certainly not emotionally ready for the familiar existential despair of Illinois Football. If you’re with me in feeling that way, how about a happy story about Illinois?
Nadalie Walsh’s women’s gymnastics program was one of 16 teams nationally to earn a seed in this weekend’s regional championships. Two teams will advance from each regional site; Illinois’ Athens, Georgia, regional contains, among others, No. 1 Florida, Big Ten champion Minnesota, Big 12 champion Denver University and the legendary Georgia program of ten national championships.
It’s unlikely that Illinois will advance out of this regional, but not unthinkable. The Illini defeated Minnesota in a dual meet on March 13 that saw a program record 197.575 all-around score posted. This was the peak of a notable trend this season:
Illinois started the season ranked 22nd and has climbed to 16th in part due to their commitment to add more difficulty to their routines. This year marked the first time an Illini gymnast completed a vault with a 10.0 starting value. The more difficult your routine is, the higher your maximum possible score (with 10 being the highest possible). In our gymnastics overview two years ago, we noted that while Illinois had never attempted a vault worth 10.0 possible points, Big Ten standard-bearer Michigan had multiple gymnasts performing such vaults regularly. Adding more difficult routines increases your team’s score ceiling and is how the most dominant programs such as Oklahoma and Florida have distinguished themselves.
In general, it is an exciting time for women’s collegiate gymnastics. Illinois is not alone in pushing the envelope this year, as a staggering number of programs set new record high scores. Even among an increasing caliber of competition, however, Illinois has risen faster than the trend.
Though Illinois is led by senior Nicole Biondi, the only designated All-Around competitor, many other contributors are underclassmen. Sophomore Mia Takekawa made history last year as the first Illini gymnast to ever score a 10.0, doing so on beam. She narrowly missed the podium for beam at Big Ten Championships, posting a 9.95. Takekawa has also won event titles in bars and all-around and will be a fixture of next year’s team.
Fellow sophomore Mia Townes leads the Illini in beam average with a 9.817. Beam is decisively the strongest apparatus for Illinois as they rank 14th in the country, compared to 17th in bars, 19th in floor and 24th in vault. Townes is also Illinois’ best vaulter by average and is second in floor average only to junior Shaylah Scott.
Freshman Amelia Knight has posted the highest score on bars this year with a 9.95. Behind Biondi in bars average are sophomore Olivia O’Donnell and freshman Kaitlyn Ewald. Sophomore Arayah Simmons has posted the highest floor score with 9.95 and has also turned in solid performances on vault and bars.
A peak performance by this young group at the regionals could be a harbinger of great things ahead next year. Regionals are underway already; the schedule can be found here.