Jan. 17, 2008
Northern Illinois Head Coach Mark Sontag enters his ninth season at the helm of the Huskie gymnastics program confident that his squad is deeper and more prepared than ever before to compete with the teams at the top of the Mid-American Conference.
While NIU's teams under Sontag have had success individually - sending 12 competitors to NCAA Regionals over the last eight years - and in the state - with a second-place team finish and the state all-around champion in 2007 - the Huskies are determined to climb the MAC ladder in 2008. Northern Illinois was fifth in the league a year ago.
"I am very optimistic coming into this year," Sontag said. "The plans and reality are starting to converge, and I think we are going to be much stronger in the beginning of the year, and hopefully build on that as we go toward the Championship."
Sontag's optimism is fueled by a strong corps of returning gymnasts, led by 2007 NCAA Regional performers Leah Johnson (Jr./Glenview, Ill.) and Natalie Blum (Soph./Homer Glen, Ill.) along with NCAA alternate selection Jennifer Naughton (Jr./Smithville, Mo.), that has been bolstered by the addition of seven accomplished newcomers.
Leading the way among the newcomers is highly-recruited freshman Holly Reichard (Palatine, Ill.) while Sontag is anxious to see what Michigan State transfer Briana Dicus (Soph./Rochelle, Ill.) can bring to the team. While not technically a "newcomer", sophomore Rachel Adams (Fruitport, Mich.) has been impressive in training and will see her first extended action in 2008 after battling injuries most of last season.
The difference in 2008 is that both the rookies and the veterans came to NIU in August having honed their skills during the offseason.
"As far as being prepared, I feel good that we are really working on putting the routines together and doing the upgrades that are going to make us competitive with the top of the MAC," Sontag said. "As a group, they came in ready to start off where we left off last year."
Another factor in the Huskies' 2008 success are the technical abilities of this year's squad - from throwing more 10.0 vaults to upgraded routines on the floor exercise and more difficult combinations on the uneven parallel bars and balance beam.
"Top to bottom, there is not much separation between our gymnasts on each event. We have depth in terms of the number of routines as well as the quality of the routines," Sontag said. "We will be taking more risks, but the rewards are great. We have a group of people at each event, but we also have other gymnasts working on skills to get into the picture."
While technical skills, team depth and preparation are all important to the Huskies' success, Sontag sees intangibles like mental toughness and team togetherness in his 2008 squad.
"This year's team has really come together," Sontag said. "Although it is an individual sport, it takes a team effort and team cohesiveness to be successful. All the teams that I have seen do really well in the MAC, that has been the ingredient. The mental aspects of this sport are so strong, that when you have a full team behind you and you are competing as one, it makes a difference."
The Huskies return four of their top performers on vault from a year ago in Leah Johnson, Naughton, Blum and Amber Whitecotton (Sr./West Dundee, Ill.), as the first three each averaged over a 9.6 on the event last season. Johnson and Naughton both earned a career high score of 9.850 on vault during the year.
In 2008, Adams and Reichard are two of the Huskies throwing big vaults while Johnson has upgraded her move, which Sontag calls "a beautiful vault, one of the best in the conference."
The most significant change on vault in 2008 will be not only in the level of difficulty of NIU's vaults, but in the number of people on the squad able to execute those vaults.
"We are throwing more 10.0 vaults than we have in the past, which is very good," Sontag said. "Vault has been an area that we have tried to be deeper and stronger and I think you will see that this year. Last year once we got past fifth or sixth vaulter, we had nobody else. Now we can go about eight or nine deep in that event."
UNEVEN PARALLEL BARS
Northern Illinois must fill a big hole on the uneven parallel bars with the graduation of 4.0 student-athlete Jody Yednock, who left NIU as the first first-team Academic All-America in the history of the gymnastics program while also taking home the Mid-American Conference's Bob James Award, given to just one female student-athlete in the MAC each year. Yednock was the Huskies' top "swinger" as she scored 9.800 or above five times, averaged a 9.729 and was an alternate selection to the NCAA Regionals on bars.
Bars specialists Allison Holysz (Sr./Hoffman Estates, Ill.), who saw action in every meet last year, and Jessica Marston (Jr./Glendale Heights, Ill.), who has reworked her routine with unique combinations, are expected to contribute, while Johnson has added a new major release move and Blum's routine is cleaner and tighter, according to Sontag. Newcomers Reichard, Sarah Hurley (Fr./Geneva, Ill.) and Dicus will also push for a spot in the line-up on bars.
"Bars looks very solid right now," Sontag said. "Jody [Yednock] will be hard to replace but we brought in some strong freshmen. Allison [Holysz] is doing fantastic, every routine looks the same as the last one. Holly [Reichard] has a very unique bars set with some different turns. Add Leah - with a challenging new major release - and Natalie, as well as Jessica Marston and I feel like we are in good shape on bars."
Junior Jennifer Naughton has added a triple series on the beam for 2008.
NIU returns four experienced balance beam competitors, led by Naughton who was an alternate to the 2007 NCAA Regionals on beam and averaged a 9.606 for the year with a career-high score of 9.875 at Denver. Jennifer Rice (Sr./Homewood, Ill.), Leah Johnson and Whitecotton all were mainstays in the Huskie line-up a year ago, with Rice scoring a 9.825 as NIU's team beam score at Denver was the fifth-best in school history.
Reichard, Dicus, a former third-place finisher at the Big Ten Championships on the beam and an NCAA Regional participant, and Sarah Hurley, all could challenge for a spot on the 2008 "beam team."
"This has been the best preseason from a beam team that I have seen," Sontag said. "It is such a mental event that you have to get the basic elements of your routines down early. We are focusing on not defeating ourselves."
Both Rice and Naughton have added triple series on beam and have looked stellar in preseason workouts, according to Sontag.
"Beam has been an event that has been a very strong event for many of the other MAC schools," he said. "I feel we have leveled that playing field this year."
Some of the biggest line-up battles for 2008 are taking place on floor exercise where Blum, an NCAA Regional participant on floor last year, Rice and Whitecotton were the Huskies' most consistent performers in 2007 as each averaged over a 9.6. Not to be discounted are returnees Naughton and Leah Johnson, who posted season-best scores of 9.850 and 9.825, respectively, with Naughton taking the state title on floor.
Despite those results, Sontag said nearly every floor routine has been changed going into this season.
"I don't know if anybody will be throwing the same routines as last year on floor," Sontag said. "Jennifer Rice is coming with an all-new high-energy routine with some unique dance moves. She stands out and is so fun to watch.
"Jennifer Naughton is one of the most artistic and dynamic dancers on the team. Natalie Blum is rock solid and Amber Whitecotton is doing a routine which finishes and starts with double backs, which is huge."
Add Adams, Dicus, 2007 returnee Ashton Flora and Sarah Hurley, who are all challenging for a spot in the line-up, and a new conditioning program which Sontag believes will pay off in terms of endurance at the end of the meet.
"We have been trying to do different things as far as conditioning," he said. "We are focusing on trying to build endurance so that we can finish the meet stronger. I think that's where floor kind of hit us. We have done some things to counter that this year that I hope will pay off."
A year ago, Leah Johnson was the Huskies' lone all-arounder. The Glenbrook South HS product scored a career-best 39.075 while winning the state title in the all-around and then qualified for the NCAA Central Regional in the all-around, where she placed 14th.
In 2008, Johnson is likely to be joined in the all-around category by Reichard, while Adams, Dicus, Blum and Sarah Hurley all have the potential to crack the Huskie line-up in all four events. In order to field the strongest overall team, NIU all-arounders must qualify as one of the team's top six gymnasts in each event
"Leah and Holly are our two all-arounders right now," Sontag said. "We have some others that could be four-event competitors for us as well. We could be close to the make-up of some of the higher level teams where we are a little bit deeper in the all-around."
The Huskies will take on a challenging schedule that begins with three-straight Mid-American Conference dual meets, including the season-opener at league favorite Kent State (Jan. 20), which will play host to the MAC Championships at the end of the season. NIU will meet in-state rivals Illinois and Illinois-Chicago multiple times in 2008.
"We open up with three MAC teams, so we will get a good feel for where we sit in the conference right off the bat," Sontag said.
As always the goal is to extend the season past the MAC Championship and look toward sending not just multiple individuals to regionals, but the entire team.
"The last two years, I felt like we had the talent, training, and everything we needed to be competitive to make it to Regionals and to contend in the conference," Sontag said. "I am hoping that we have done a number of things, from conditioning to training a little bit differently, to be stronger and more prepared earlier in the season. Hopefully that will pay off, and if we can get the talent and the team cohesiveness to come together, we will definitely be a force to reckon with this year."