Senior Amber See is a two-time All-Big Ten selection and former Big Ten vault champion.
Jan. 7, 2014
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Fighting Illini women's gymnastics team will carry a lot of momentum heading into the 2014 season. Illinois is fresh off making its third NCAA Championships appearance in the last five years, where it finished a program-best 11th place. In addition, last year's squad produced an All-American, four all-conference honorees, three regional crowns and 35 individual titles. This year, the Orange and Blue will kick the season off ranked 16th in the country.
"The 2014 team is determined to continue the success that we had in 2013," head coach Kim Landrus said. "Coming off of an NCAA National appearance, it is important that the team keeps its eyes on the goals and how to achieve them. Our goals remain the same as past years. We want to qualify to the evening session of the Big Ten Championships, go into regionals as a two seed and qualify for the National Championships once again. We have yet to accomplish two of these goals, so we understand the work it's going to take to get there. As a team, we know the little things will make a big difference so we must be 100 percent focused in every turn we take."
Illinois lost four gymnasts to graduation, including Alina Weinstein and Jaclyn Kantecki, who both contributed to last year's lineup. Kantecki performed on vault and bars for every meet during the regular season, producing an average score of 9.705 and 9.756, respectively. Weinstein left Illinois as one of the most decorated gymnasts in school history. The New Jersey native set new records on vault (10.0), floor exercise (9.975) and the all-around (39.625), won five regional titles, was a two-time NCAA All-American and a two-time NACGC/W Regular Season All-American. The Illini will have nine returning letter-winners and five new freshmen this season to help fill the void.
"It's always hard when you lose an athlete of Alina's caliber," Landrus said. "However, if you look back at where she started her freshmen year, you can see the growth over her collegiate career. We have a `continue to learn' philosophy and while she will be hard to replace, I am confident that others will rise to the challenge and follow in her footsteps so that their senior year is the best in their career as well. I anticipate it being a group effort to replace both her and Jaclyn. It'll be fun to see who makes their mark this year."
Head coach Kim Landrus will begin her third year as head coach for the Illini and 12th overall with the squad. Under Landrus' tutelage, the Illini have continued their national prominence. Landrus has coached two squads to the NCAA Championships and led four different gymnasts to a total of 11 All-America honors. Also while on staff at Illinois, Landrus has helped the Illini achieve seven consecutive years in the top-25 preseason poll. In the gym, Landrus' specialty is the balance beam, where four gymnasts in 2013 finished ranked in the top-75 in that event. In addition, it was the balance beam that sent the Illini to nationals last season, as the squad scored a 49.175 to edge out Big Ten Champion Nebraska for second place at the Morgantown Regional. Landrus and the Illini soared high at the Big Ten Championships, finishing first in session one and fourth overall, with a season-high 196.475, the sixth-highest score ever recorded in Illinois history.
"It will be important this year to remember that we must build every meet and learn from our mistakes," continued Landrus. "At the beginning of the year, our team established a Championship Culture, which consisted of 12 values that have been our foundation throughout preseason. We need to continue to exemplify these values on a daily basis. If we consistently remember what makes our system work and believe in it 100 percent, our goals will be very attainable."
The 2014 edition of the Illini find an almost even balance between upperclassmen (three seniors, four juniors) and underclassmen (three sophomores, five freshmen). Illinois will once again count upon Sunny Kato, Amber See and Giana O'Connor, who all received second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2013. O'Connor was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice last season, a feat only achieved once before by current teammate See. In December, the Big Ten named O'Connor and See to its 2014 Gymnasts to Watch List.
Illini nation will have five different opportunities to get out to Huff Hall to catch all the action this season. It will be yet another competitive year in the Big Ten with six of the eight schools ranked in the preseason top-25. Illinois will start its season on the road in East Lansing in a dual meet at Michigan State on Jan. 10, where the Victory Plank will be up for grabs. The Illini's home opener will take place the following week in a tri-meet with Centenary and Wisconsin Eau-Claire on Jan. 18. The annual Pink Meet is scheduled for Jan. 31 against Big Ten foe Iowa, and Gym Jam with the men's squad is slated for March 8.
In addition, the conference added the Big Ten Quad meet to the schedule this year. Illinois will return to East Lansing on March 15 to battle Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska. The top two teams at the quad meet will advance to the evening session at the Big Ten Championships at Penn State on March 22.
"I am very excited about our schedule for the 2014 season. We open up with our annual Victory Plank competition against Michigan State. This is always a fun competition as it is our only rivalry trophy. Additionally, the Big Ten Conference has a new format this year to qualify for the evening session of Big Ten's. We will compete in a quad meet the week before the championships with the top two teams advancing to the evening session. This format should make championship season even more exciting."
This year's senior class includes the trio of Elizabeth McNabb, Sarah Fiedler and Amber See. McNabb stepped up for the Illini during their postseason run. She earned the highest beam score on the team at the Big Ten Championships, and then delivered a solid 9.8 on beam at the Morgantown Regional. At NCAA Championships, McNabb competed in three events for the first time since the 2012 Regional and tied for the team's highest bars score.
"Liz has a quiet demeanor, but is definitely very matter of fact both at practices and competitions. She understands what it takes to compete at this level and works every day to be prepared for each opportunity that arises. Her leadership will be important this year as we set out to pursue our goals."
Fiedler won her first collegiate beam title last season in a dual meet against Michigan State and ranked in the top-25 in the conference on the uneven bars. In total, Fiedler hit 24-of-26 routines, set new career highs of 9.875 on bars and 9.825 on floor, and achieved eight top-five finishes.
"Sarah has had a very productive preseason and should be a staple in our line-up on all four events. Her experience will be important as she has been a consistent competitor on three events throughout her collegiate career. We expect her to add vault to her resume and look forward to her being an all-arounder for the Illini."
Former Big Ten Vault champion Amber See returns after a successful junior campaign in which she made the All-Big Ten Championship Team after finishing in a tie for second place on floor with a 9.95. See ranked 20th in the country on floor exercise and became the sixth Illini ever to score a 9.95 on the event. See also competed in the all-around four times, setting a new career-high mark of 39.325.
"The maturity that Amber has demonstrated this fall has really helped her work towards her goal of competing all-around consistently in 2014. Look for her to captivate the judges and audience on both vault and floor as her high level of difficulty and quickness makes her gymnastics exciting to watch."
The juniors are comprised of Jordan Naleway, Sunny Kato, Kelsi Eberly and Gabriella Nguyen. Voted the team's Most Improved Gymnast, Naleway will look to carry her momentum into 2014. Naleway set new career highs on bars (9.8) and beam (9.825) at the Big Ten Championships, and then tied her career high on floor (9.8) at the NCAA Championships.
"Jordan's passion in gymnastics elevates the expectations she places on herself. The amount of progress she made between her freshmen and sophomore season was remarkable and I expect her to continue that success in her junior year. Her lead-off role on both bars and floor is one that she handles well and allows our team to have a great deal of confidence to start the event."
Kato, a bars and beam specialist, finished last season with four individual titles, the second most on the team. The co-winner of the Most Consistent Beam Award with O'Connor, Kato set career highs of 9.9 on both apparatuses and led the team on beam at the NCAA Championships with a 9.85.
"Sunny is a true standout on the two events that she competes. Her nice lines, high level of difficulty and natural look make her gymnastics look easy. I am confident that she will use the experience she gained last year to prepare her for any situation that arises."
Eberly competed in eight meets last season, on both beam and floor, and produced one top-five finish at Michigan. Eberly hit 12-of-14 routines and set a new career high of 9.85 on beam. Meanwhile, Nguyen will be sidelined this year due to injury.
The sophomore trio of Giana O'Connor, Heather Foley and Tori Fujinami gained a lot of experience during their freshmen campaign. O'Connor made the all-around podium at the Morgantown Regional and tied for 11th place in the all-around in Session I at the NCAA Championships. O'Connor captured two beam titles and scored at least a 39.1 in seven of the final eight meets.
"Giana is a very talented athlete that will once again be looked at to compete in the all-around. Last year was a definite learning experience for her. She now knows what to expect every weekend. She is a very driven individual who wants to excel. Her competitiveness will push her every meet and I am confident that she will have a very critical role in our success this year."
Foley was a staple in the vault lineup, competing in all 14 meets and setting a career high of 9.85 at the Big Ten Championships. Foley worked her way into the floor lineup where she competed in the final nine meets of the season and posted a career-best mark of 9.85. Fujinami also worked her way into the floor lineup midway through the season where she hit 5-of-6 routines and set a career high of 9.8.
Coach Landrus ushered in five newcomers to Illini nation this fall, as they will look to immediately help out the squad in 2014. Sarah Lyons (New Braunfels, Texas), Emily Lennon (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), Suren Kanchanavaleerat (Vancouver, Wash.), Mary Jane Horth (Akron, Ohio) and Erin Buchanan (Haymarket, Va.) all bring plenty of experience from the national competition level.
Coach Landrus' Event-by-Event Breakdown:
"Our theme for vault is going to be to execute well. With the return of Foley, O'Connor and See, we will have a core group of vaulters that understand dynamics, form and landings. Newcomers, Erin Buchanan and Emily Lennon, will add power and difficulty as well. I anticipate vault will be an event that will continue to get better throughout the year. We have some individuals that will be upgrading their vault as the season continues. If we are able to carry out the plan in place, down the stretch our vault team should be stronger that it was in 2013. "
"In 2014, bars should be a very strong event for the Illini. The line-up will return five competitors from our NCAA National Championships line-up. This group prides themselves on being clean with a good swing. Handstands will be important, but it is an area of emphasis that they work on consistently. Senior, Amber See, who saw action a few times on bars last year, will have a more consistent role this year. Newcomers, Horth and Buchanan most likely will see time in the bar line-up as well."
"Beam is the event in which we have the most depth this year. This creates a competitive environment in the gym and will allow us options when comprising the line-up each week. We return a very experienced line-up with five gymnasts returning from last year. They understand the importance of not only being physically prepared, but mentally prepared as well. This is something that we work on, so when they are placed in that competitive atmosphere, their brain is trained to do what it does every day."
"Our floor line-up will have a mix of high level difficulty combined with good execution and showmanship. Once again, we return a great deal of experience as we only graduated one routine from this event. It will be important that the floor team performs and puts on a show. Look for Buchanan, O'Connor and See to impress with their dynamic tumbling and captivating routines. Additionally, Sarah Fiedler has an extremely fun routine that will be a fan favorite."
"There will be several athletes seeing all-around action this year. Fiedler, O'Connor, and See will be counted on to lead this team with their consistency on all four events. All three have a wealth of experience and are ready to make 2014 their best year yet."