In March 2020, Ithaca College was preparing to host the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA) championship, where the top gymnasts and teams from the NCGA would compete to be the top team in the nation. But as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down athletics programs, the championship was canceled and the college lost its opportunity to host that year’s championship.
Two years later, South Hill had the opportunity to play host to the event once again, as the 2022 NCGA championship was held at Ben Light Gymnasium March 26. The Bombers competed against SUNY Brockport, Springfield College, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The South Hill squad finished in fourth place with a total score of 192.325 points, with Wisconsin-Oshkosh taking home the national title with 194.100 points.
The Bombers’ performance set two new program records. The 192.325 are the most points the team has ever scored in a NCGA competition, breaking the previous record of 191.650 set in 2019. The team also set a record for the uneven bars, where the team scored a 47.850, 0.125 points higher than the previous record set in 2018.
Before the championship, the attention of the team was set on preparing to participate in it. Head coach Rick Suddaby said he wanted the team to focus less on physical training and instead to work on focus and having the gymnasts get more confident in their routine.
“We’ve trained a lot on focus and what things we need to be thinking about,” Suddaby said. “It’s difficult because those are tough changes to make. Us coaches can’t quite see that, we have to interpret what we see. We’re teaching them how to think about their sport, how to think about performing, how to not get nervous and how to be confident. That’s what we’re doing.”
On top of preparing to compete, the team also focused on the non-competition aspect of hosting the championship at Ithaca College. For the team, Suddaby said, the goal was to create an environment where the other competitors and teams felt welcomed, something he wanted to emphasize as well.
“I definitely want to run a superb championship this year,” Suddaby said. “This will be my fourth one that I’ve run in my 35 years here at Ithaca. We take pride in that people never leave an Ithaca College championship without saying that it was exceptional.”
Before the Bombers were able to get ready for the championship, the team first had to qualify at the NCGA East Regional championships March 12. To earn qualification, the college had to finish in third place or better or it would not get to compete in the championships, even though it was hosting.
With that bar set for the team to meet, junior Nya Pauldon said the team members wanted to enjoy themselves at regionals. Pauldon said that mindset allowed the team to be at its best.
“I think for us, it was really important to focus on fun,” Pauldon said. “When we’re having the most fun and just doing what we know how to do in the gym, we score the best and hit our routines a lot better. So for us going into regionals, all we focused on was just enjoying the moment and going out there and being with your teammates.”
In competition at regionals, the team finished in third place behind Brockport and Springfield, good enough to qualify for nationals. A major benefit to hosting the championship event, of course, is that the Bombers were able to bring a home crowd to the gym. A majority of the seats were filled by the Bomber faithful, and those that attended cheered loudly for each gymnast when they performed their routines.
Pauldon said the energy provided by the crowd, along with getting to perform in front of people close to her, meant a lot both to her and to the entire team.
“Getting to compete at home was an amazing opportunity,” Pauldon said. “The energy in the gym was insane and for so many of my friends and family, and friends and family of teammates to be able to be there was super special. It was also so exciting to meet and reunite with a lot of alumni for nationals.”
The Bombers heavily relied on the presence of freshmen gymnasts this season, with the class making up 12 of the 23 gymnasts. Suddaby said the expectation from early on was that the freshmen would compete at a high level for the team.
Two freshmen made a splash at the meet, with freshmen Skye Cohen placing third in the all-around and Jillian Freyman finishing in a six-way tie for sixth place in the balance beam with a score of 9.775. Senior Amelia Bailey was also a part of the tie for the beam, helping the Bombers to the fourth spot in the standings. The three also took home All-American honors for their performances.
Seeing the results that the freshmen were able to post this year, Suddaby said the team was excited to see them succeed at nationals. He also said he is excited to keep working with them.
“We are thrilled to have three of us on the podium, earning All-American honors,” Suddaby said. “It’s a real honor and it’s fun to have one senior and two freshmen finish so highly. Our future is bright.”
After being a part of the team that could not host nationals in 2020, Bailey said she felt like everything worked out well by having the college host this year instead. She said the chance to have her final competition held at the college held a special feeling for her.
“Competing at nationals in Ithaca is extremely special to me,” Bailey said. “It really feels like a full-circle moment. We were supposed to have nationals at Ithaca my sophomore year but … to compete for the last time at my own school is something I’ll never forget.”