NIU Peaking Heading Into MAC Championships

GO HUSKIES <i>Natasha Jufko is one of three seniors in the Huskie line-up at the MAC Championships.</i>
Natasha Jufko is one of three seniors in the Huskie line-up at the MAC Championships.

March 21, 2014

DeKALB, Ill. - The Northern Illinois University Huskies are confident, healthier and unified entering Saturday's Mid-American Conference Gymnastics Championships in Ypsilanti, Mich. The Huskies will battle six other teams for the MAC Championship at the Convocation Center on the campus of Eastern Michigan beginning at 1 p.m. (CT).

Fans can watch the free live stream of the meet at here or follow updates on Twitter @niuscores.

NIU Head Coach Sam Morreale believes the Huskies are peaking after scoring 195.000 or higher in each of the last two regular season meets of the season.

"I feel really good about our group going into MACs," Morreale said. "I feel good about the build we've been on the last three to four weeks. This is the first team we've brought a team into the championship meet that is peaking. I want to go in and hit; we don't' want to leave anything on the table. If we are hitting, we're putting pressure on all those other teams."

NIU, which finished with an 8-8 regular season record and was 3-3 versus MAC opponents, put up a 195.000 team score a week ago at Arizona State just one week after tying the second-highest team score in school history with a 195.100 at the EMU Eagle Invitational. It is the first time NIU has reached the 195 mark twice in the same season. The Huskies have seen several gymnasts get healthier, while others have returned to the line-up after missing time earlier this season and have earned their highest scores in the last few meets.

"We're excited," Morreale said in regards to the team's mindset. "We've been working toward this all year and trying to build for it. We're on a good confidence roll. We're going after the team championship, we have individuals that want to be MAC Champions and we have individuals whose chances for a spot in regionals hangs on this meet."

Seniors Kim Gotlund (Wadsworth, Ill./Warren Township HS), Natasha Jufko (Spring Hill, Fla./Pasco-Hernando HS) and Megan Melendez (Stafford, Va./North Stafford HS) have each raised or hit their career-high marks this season, and their drive and determination has fueled the 2014 Huskies. Gotlund's 39.075 all-around score at Arizona State last week established a new career-best and she was named to the first team All-MAC squad by league coaches for the second straight year. Jufko, a balance beam specialist, has a season-best mark of 9.875, while Melendez overcame an early season foot injury and has excelled on both uneven parallel bars and balance beam over the last month of the season.



"It's the last chance for our seniors to make that statement and put an imprint on this program that will go down in history," Morreale said. "I can't say enough about how they've helped us turn this program in the right direction. They really bought in to the team concept and helped instill it in the younger kids."

In addition to Gotlund in the all-around, sophomore Jaelyn Olsen (Bethany, Okla./Putnam City West HS) and junior Amanda Stepp (Lapeer, Mich./Lapeer East HS) are among those Huskies looking to improve their regional chances and/or claim a MAC individual title. Olsen, who has become a force on balance beam of late while continuing to dominate on vault, has won vault in six of NIU's 10 meets on the year and averages a 9.815 on the event. Stepp, meanwhile, has five scores of 9.825 or higher in her last seven meets on floor exercise.

NIU will have a bye in the first rotation and follow the "traditional" order of events - vault, bars, beam and floor exercise - and will be on floor in the meet's final rotation. While that rotation is familiar, other aspects of the conference meet, including the number of teams, the noise generated by seven fanbases and the addition of byes, is different. Morreale believes this team has gained experience and enters the event with the right mindset to handle the biggest meet of the season.

"Some of the atmospheres we've been in already this year - at Nebraska and at Arizona State - will help," Morreale said. "To me the difference with having seven teams is simply the length of the day. We'll rely on the upperclassmen to keep them focused. The key is to not making it a bigger deal than it is, and the hope is mentally we've crossed that bridge. Just like every meet, it's all about being steady and hitting. I think we're at a really good place with our skill level and the way we perform our routines. We're at a good place with each other, there's a real team feeling."

The Huskies are seeking their first MAC Gymnastics team title.

-- NIU --

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