Three gymnasts hope for strong showing at NCAA regionals

Doug Gulasy

Brian Marks | Daily Kent Stater

Junior tri-captain Jill Kowalski will be one of three Kent State gymnasts competing at the NCAA Regionals, but she knows the rest of the squad will be checking the results online.

Credit: Adam Griffiths

In the Kent State gymnastics program’s storied history – nearly 390 victories and nine Mid-American Conference titles – five gymnasts have advanced to the NCAA Championships.

Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., junior tri-captains Kristin Peters and Jill Kowalski and sophomore Laci Hendress will look to add to that total.

“Qualifying for NCAA Nationals is very difficult, but I think all three individuals have a very realistic shot,” coach Brice Biggin said. “But they’re going to have to perform at their best.”

Unfortunately for the three, the rest of the team won’t be there to cheer them on. The top six teams in each region advance to the regionals, and the Flashes finished seventh in the Central Region.

“(The team not qualifying for regionals) is frustrating, knowing that we could go as a team and beat some of those teams there,” Kowalski said.

Hendress added, “(Especially) knowing that we had a more consistent season than lots of teams there.”

Because the top six teams in the six regions advance, the thinking is that the top 36 teams in the country would be at regionals. Given the Flashes’ No. 29 ranking, however, that appears not to be the case.

“That problem will be taken care of next year because next year they will be taking the top 36 teams regardless of what region you’re in,” Biggin said.

Kowalski will be competing in the all-around Saturday, just as she has all season for the Flashes.

“She’s the No. 1 all-arounder from a non-qualifying team,” Biggin said. “She’s going to get a chance to rotate around with (No. 3) Alabama, and that certainly will be a fun experience. … There’s such a huge crowd out there at Alabama, and we’re hoping that they’ll kind of adopt her as well.”

Kowalski said she wants to do well for her teammates’ sake.

“You just have to find it within yourself to motivate and know that your teammates are going to go look online at how you did afterwards, and you’ve got to do it for them,” she said.

Peters will be competing on bars and beam Saturday, and Biggin predicted that she can “make some noise.”

“If she goes out and performs just what she’s capable of, I think she gives herself a great chance and potential of moving on to the NCAA Nationals,” he said.

Peters said that trying to represent the team and university well at regionals was “a different kind of pressure.”

“There’s pressure in that we have to do it by ourselves,” she said. “But then I think when we actually compete together, there’s a little bit more pressure because we’re there as a team to win, whereas right now, we’re there to win for ourselves.”

Unlike Peters and Kowalski, who competed at regionals with the rest of the team during their freshman year and individually last year, Hendress is a newcomer to the event. She will compete on the floor.

“It’s kind of an honor to be able to represent the school there,” Hendress said. “I wish it were as a team, as does everyone else, but it’s more exciting than anything.”

Biggin said Hendress shouldn’t be overlooked just because she hasn’t been there before.

“She’s been our sixth kid up on floor almost all year and has got a very exciting, great dance, great presentation routine,” he said. “She could surprise a lot of people out there.”

Biggin said it will help next year’s team to have three gymnasts coming back who have experienced the atmosphere at regionals.

“They can, from personal experiences, talk to the kids next year,” he said. “Because certainly next year, we expect to definitely qualify as a team.”

Contact gymnastics reporter Doug Gulasy at [email protected].