Megan Harrington gives Jaye Mack a peptalk at the 2023 Norman regional.

Belief Makes the Future Bright for Illinois State

The Norman regional didn’t go quite the way Illinois State’s contingent had hoped.

Jaye Mack, who qualified to compete on floor, put her hands down on her first pass, and Alana Laster—there to vault—put up a solid Yurchenko one and a half but missed qualifying to nationals.

Sending individual competitors to nationals was once a seemingly unattainable goal for the Redbirds—until Angelica Labat scored a 9.950 on vault at the 2021 Tuscaloosa regional, where she was competing in the all-around. She won the event outright and secured a tiebreak-free berth to Fort Worth. She was joined in Tuscaloosa by Cameron Topp, who competed on floor. They were the first Redbirds to qualify to the NCAA postseason since Gabrielle Cooke on floor in 2017.

Labat made her way to regionals again in 2022, heading to Norman in the all-around with Laster competing vault and Mack floor. This time, Mack’s 9.925 was enough to punch her nationals ticket. The Redbirds had gone from zero national qualifiers in program history to two in back-to-back seasons.

It’s understandable why head coach Bob Conkling was sad for Mack, whose fall was the only one of her career thus far. The sophomore has been an incredibly consistent piece of the Redbirds’ best lineups, vault and floor.

The three-year streak of sending gymnasts to the postseason feels like a turning point to Conkling. Previously, he had a few of his strongest athletes believe that they belonged on that stage, but the entire team is starting to see it as a possibility.

“When the team starts having that belief as a group, I feel like that’s when we can start really moving up,” he said. The Redbirds are a perennial top-36 team on the “leg events” but are held back by bars and beam, something Conkling is very aware of.

The team had to absorb an injury to Madison Kipp, a strong bars and beam scorer, which really tested depth on those pieces late in the season.

Still, the Redbirds found their footing, coming away with their first MIC title in 11 years.

“We had a terrible practice before conference, and I know the team wasn’t happy,” Conkling said. The coaches brought the team together, but it was the gymnasts themselves who rallied and found the motivation to have a solid day, putting up Illinois State’s best beam total of the season, even without Kipp.

“I don’t know what they said,” Conkling said of that gymnasts-only meeting. “I didn’t ask because it worked. They really did step up on their own and come together and say we can do this.”

The conference title came down to Mack’s floor routine. Lindenwood had secured a 196.275. Mack’s 9.925-set, highlighted by a stuck full-in, was enough to propel the Redbirds into first with a 196.375, a new program record.

To Conkling, the team’s 2022 successes come down to competition in the gym. Laster, Labat, and freshman Nirel Bart-Williams are consistent all-arounders and push each other day in and day out. He also saw a momentum shift after February’s Metroplex Challenge. The team was in third for most of the meet and had the second-highest floor number of its session behind only Utah.

“Being in second place on floor was an eye opener for the entire team,” Conkling said. “We actually are competitive with some really good programs in the country.” That’s when he saw his team start to believe.

Conkling is carrying that belief into 2024. The Redbirds signed three-star recruit Reese Grolla, who excels in particular on bars and beam. The Canadian attended Illinois State’s camp, and her gymnastics immediately stood out. Conkling sees her as adding to the competition in the gym on those events.

Bart-Williams is also part of the future. She came into Normal, Illinois, as a freshman with full routines. Conkling had to reign her in, taking apart and reworking her composition for college.

“She’s just a talented athlete,” he said. She is already working upgrades, including a new bar dismount: a double Arabian half-out. She had been working on a double front half-out—an upgrade from her double front this season. One of Bart-Williams teammates suggested she try a double Arabian. Conkling wasn’t working bars that day—assistant coach Jessica Yamzon was—but he looked over to see Bart-Williams successfully completing the double Arabian. He asked her if she was twisting the right direction to add a half-out. She was, and so she added the half-out on her next attempt. In a single day, Bart-Williams had a new dismount that she plans to debut next year.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s cool,” Conkling said.

His optimism doesn’t end with Grolla and Bart-Williams either. Labat announced that she’ll be returning to use her fifth year of eligibility, so the Redbirds are losing no routines for the 2024 season. Conkling has his sights set squarely on qualifying to regionals as a team.

After regionals, he held a meeting with his entire staff. Everything was on the table. He’s looking for solutions to any and every issues his staff notices.

“I’ve got an ego but not a very high ego. I’m always up for new things,” he said.

One of those new things has been Illinois State’s social media presence, managed by Megan Harrington. From polls about which of her legendary shoes she’ll wear on meet day to viral videos, she’s constantly working to up the Redbirds’ visibility on social platforms.

The gymnastics team has more followers than any other sport in the athletic department, and Harrington celebrates every milestone. Conkling greatly appreciates her work, too. The videos help bring in some revenue, and the team is very visible to recruits.

Harrington posts everything from clean meet videos and funny fails (turn your volume on for that one) to behind-the-scenes looks at practice and life as a Redbird gymnast. The sum total comes to gymnasts having what looks to be a great deal of fun, all while doing excellent gymnastics.

“We have a lot more kids that want to come to here than we’ve ever had before,” Conkling said.

Between the uptick in recruit interest, competition in the gym, and a new belief among the team, it’s hard to see Illinois State’s future as anything but bright.

READ THIS NEXT: Labat Taking Historic Nationals Experience One Step at a Time

Article by Emily Minehart

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