Sissi snags all-around crown in NIU’s season opener

Huskies down Falcons behind best debut since 2017

Then-freshman gymnast Isabella Sissi performs on floor exercise during NIU’s meet against Illinois State University on Feb. 13, 2021. Sissi competed in all four disciplines during NIU’s 2023 season opener Sunday. (Northern Star File Photo)

DeKALB – Sophomore gymnast Isabella Sissi finished as the best all-arounder at Sunday’s season-opening meet for NIU gymnastics, helping the Huskies kick off their 2023 campaign in winning fashion.

Sissi, NIU’s lone all-arounder in the competition, finished her sophomore debut with a combined score of 39.175, beating out Bowling Green State University’s quartet of all-arounders.

“She’s one of those rare kids where when the flag goes up for her to go, like, she steps up,” NIU gymnastics head coach Sam Morreale said. “She’s ready to go where other kids might get nervous. She’s what we call a gamer.”

Keep an eye on us. I think we’re a team to watch.

— Senior bars specialist Natalie Hamp

The Blaine, Minnesota, native championed the vault during the first rotation, scoring a 9.825. Sissi also split the floor exercise title with teammates sophomore Alana Anderson and senior Ciara Ryan, each having earned an event-best score of 9.850.

The trio were among five Huskies to be top finishers in their respective events as the Huskies prevailed 194.725-192.675 over the Bowling Green Falcons, a Mid-American Conference rival. NIU’s team score marked its best in a season-opening meet since the 2017 opener against Western Michigan University (194.825), six years ago to the day.

NIU’s best performances of the day came from the uneven parallel bars and floor exercise – two events that Morreale said he is very optimistic about.

“We feel like we’ve got the ability and the talent to be a top five to ten team in the nation on those two events,” Morreale said.

The Huskies performed clean sweeps of the top three spots in each of the two events.

Senior bars specialist Natalie Hamp scored 9.900 — the highest score of the day across all events — in her first bid of the season on bars. Senior Brookelyn Sears and junior Alyssa Al-Ashari shared second place at 9.850 each.

Hamp said she felt confident about her performance, adding that she had been experiencing nerves going into the meet, the final season-opener of her college career.

On floor exercise, Sissi, Anderson and Ryan shared the event title after each earned a 9.850. Morreale highlighted the event as one of Sissi’s best of the day.

“If you want to argue about it, I thought she (Sissi) was underscored because it was pretty good,” Morreale said.

Sears rounded out the list of NIU’s top performers with a score of 9.850 on the balance beam. A pair of Falcons — senior Taylor Jensen and sophomore Kathryn Weilbacher — tied for second at 9.800.

“Overall, super proud of the group,” Morreale said. “Super excited about this start and where we can go because we’re not even at 100% yet.”

Morreale also named Ryan as a competitor that stood out for her performances on vault, bars and floor.

“Two years ago as a sophomore, she was a vault specialist and she’s worked her tail off for two seasons to put herself in the lineup on three events, if not also beam,” Morreale said. “She’s an all-arounder in the waiting.”

Sunday’s result allows the Huskies to start their season undefeated and with championship expectations.

“I do want to be a MAC champion,” Sissi said. “I do want the team to be MAC champions as well so we’re definitely all going to be plugging away at that.”

NIU resumes home competition Jan. 29, when NIU is set to host Illinois State University, Winona State University and MAC foe Kent State University for the NIU Tri Meet.

Before that, the Huskies will face a three-meet road stretch that begins with a trip to the Iowa state capital for a meeting with Iowa State University as part of the Chow’s Winter Classic Cup. The meet starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Keep an eye on us,” Hamp said. “I think we’re a team to watch.”