After two long weeks on the Big Ten road, the Michigan State gymnastics team (3-3-0) was welcomed home Feb. 16 to host their second ranked team of the 2020 season, No. 23 Illinois (6-4-0), for their annual alumni recognition meet.
In the last seven weeks, the Spartan ladies have posted an overall score of 196.000-plus twice. Once against the No. 15 Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-3-0) on Jan. 26, and again Sunday afternoon to knock off the Fighting Illini with a score of 196.150.
"It's thrilling, because obviously, you hope for moments like this, you work hard for moments like this," coach Mike Rowe said. "We've been trying to up our game, improve ourselves and maybe be that Cinderella team in the Big Ten that surprises people."
Junior Lea Mitchell also spoke on the team's winning score of 196.000-plus, saying that the team didn't come close to that score last year, so to have already done it twice only halfway into the current season is exciting for them.
The Spartan ladies also posted team scores of 49.000-plus on three of the four events, registering a season-high on bars with a score of 49.125 to lead their team to the top.
"We're still not satisfied with what we can do, what we can put out there," Rowe said. "We know we can go 49.000-plus on all four events, and when we put it all together, we're going to be unstoppable."
Currently, the Spartan ladies are ranked 19th in the nation and third in the Big Ten conference for the floor exercise, averaging a squad score of 49.083.
The ladies are also ranked as 15th in the nation and third in the conference on the balance beam, averaging a squad score of 48.967. Individually, senior Gabriella Douglas sits at 6th in the conference, personally averaging a score of 9.854.
The first rotation of the afternoon put Michigan State on the vault, where both Mitchell and Douglas tied with Illinois gymnasts for second and fourth places. First place was dominated with orange and blue as Illinois junior Nicole Biondi took the rose with a score of 9.850.
Rowe gave a shoutout to sophomore Alyssa Wiedeman for her score of 9.725 on the vault.
The second rotation of the afternoon put Michigan State on the uneven parallel bars, where — despite an uncharacteristic mistake from junior Madison McHale — freshman Jori Jackard and sophomore Alaina Raybon were able to snag the top-dog roses with career-high scores of 9.925 and 9.900.
Rowe also gave shoutouts to these two underclassmen. Jackard's mark ties for the fifth-individual bars score in program history and the highest since the 2018 season when former Spartan gymnast Hailee Westney also logged a 9.925.
Mitchell was upset with her bar performance. "I feel like I didn’t really follow through in all of my details," she said. "But I'm happy that I was still able to contribute."
The third rotation of the afternoon put Michigan State on the beam, where the podium was captured by the green and white's opponents in a three-way tie with a collective 9.900 by Illinois senior Karen Howell, Illinois junior Kylie Noonan, and Illinois sophomore Shaylah Scott.
The Spartans didn't make their mark on the board until fourth place, through a tie that Mitchell squeezed her way into with a solid 9.850 between Biondi and Illinois freshman Arayah Simons.
McHale came back from her fall off the bars to receive a career-high score of 9.800.
The fourth and final rotation of the afternoon put Michigan State on the floor, where first and fourth places were split between seven girls with only a 0.025 difference.
Sophomore Ashley Hofelich, Mitchell, and Simons all recorded matching scores of 9.850 for the first-place three-way tie. Douglas tangled with Noonan, Scott, and Howell of Illinois, who all recorded matching scores of 9.825 for the fourth-place three-way tie.
In the all-around, Michigan State and Illinois both handed out honors to their ladies.
In first place, for top gymnast honors, was Mitchell with a score of 39.300. This marks her fifth-consecutive all-around title over the course of the 2020 season.
"Lea's on track once again," Rowe said with confidence. "Got to get over that hump, that 39.300, and she'll do it."
Mitchell said she's going to take this title and continue to knock out her routines the same way she practices in the gym. Her biggest concern is focusing on what she needs to be successful.
Howell followed Mitchell closely in second place with a score of 39.250. Biondi took third place with a score of 38.925, while freshman Nyah Smith rounded out the list with a fourth-place score of 38.575.
"They fought, they had each other's backs," Rowe said in celebration of his girls' accomplishments. "I credit all of these kids, because each kid is a different part of our puzzle, and each kid pushes each other and supports each other. Without any one of them, we'd have a whole different dynamic. ... They all mean the most. They all know that they're an important part of this program and are going to contribute equally. We gotta keep them believing that, because it's true."
This alumni meet recognized the 1988 team that qualified for nationals. Rowe was thrilled with the support and turnout from alumnae Sunday afternoon — gymnasts from 1977-2016 were present, and former coach Michael Kasavana made an introductory speech on video.
The Spartans are scheduled to drive down Saturday to the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio for "Elevate the Stage." Michigan State is slated to take the stage at 7 p.m. against undefeated in-state rival No. 9 Michigan (7-0-0), No. 7 Minnesota (5-1-0), No. 24 Maryland (6-2-0), and Penn State (3-6-0).
"We have a tough pod on Saturday night (at Elevate the Stage) and we've got to work on landings on every event," Rowe said. "We're doing better, we're really consistent. But, some landings on floor we gave up today. We've given up three or four on vault — which, those are probably the hardest — but ... you can pick a point when it comes to that many."