NIU Gymnastics nationally ranked No. 1 in academics


Courtesy of NIU Athletics

Head gymnastics coach Sam Morreale talks to his team during a meet in the 2021 season.

By James Krause

DeKALB — During the offseason, the NIU women’s gymnastics team accomplished something that even head coach Sam Morreale said rivaled the team’s 2019 Mid-American Conference championship.

NIU was ranked number one in academics for the 2020-2021 season by the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association with a team GPA of 3.874. After coming in the top three for two straight seasons, the honor is a huge deal for Morreale.

“We won our MAC championship a few years ago,” Morreale said. “But this academic honor is as important, if not more important for me. At the college level and here at Northern, we stress that student-athlete aspect. It’s super cool to have a group of kids who get that and understand excelling at academics is an important piece to the puzzle.”

Senior Morgan Hopper, majoring in marketing, pointed to the team’s discipline in finally getting over the hump of third place on the WCGA academic standings.

“It became so appealing because we’re such a determined, strong group of women,” Hopper said. “We thought we could really do this.”

Hopper said the team and coaches all bought in on the mindset of being “student first, athlete second.” It’s something Morreale said has been built into the culture ever since joining the NIU coaching staff in 2003.

“We kind of push that where, professionally, there’s really nothing in gymnastics unless you go to Cirque du Soleil,” Morreale said. “You have to settle into what your career will be. I don’t ever tell these kids what majors to take, what to chase or if they can’t do a certain thing. I think that helps us. It’s their choice of who they want to be and what they want to pursue.”

Along with the difficulties of balancing school and sport, Hopper said the COVID-19 pandemic made things even harder for a team that enjoyed the camaraderie that came with face-to-face classes.

“I know a lot of girls on our team, me included, like that social face-to-face interaction,” Hopper said. “Having that stripped away from us was really hard…Keeping our grades up meant we had to teach ourselves a lot because not getting that lecture or face-to-face interaction was really difficult.” 

Every member of the 2020-2021 roster was awarded for their work by being named to the WCGA’s Scholastic All-American Team. The accolade will go alongside a second-place finish at the MAC Championship on March 20. Hopper said that success in the gym and in class had one major common factor: time management.

“This sport is so mental,” Hopper said. “It’s so compartmentalized, and that’s how we keep our schedules outside the gym as well. If you are a good time manager outside of the gym, odds are you’re going to be able to time manage in the gym as well. Having goals set up for yourself, that goes into being a smart person and creating the best experience for yourself in and out of the gym.”

Coach Morreale can speak to the hardships of being a student-athlete. The Addison Trail High School graduate started his collegiate career as a walk-on at NIU and became a two-time team captain for the Huskies.

“Smarter kids just make smarter gymnasts because it’s a very mental sport,” Morreale said. “You have to be able to understand what you’re doing and how your body is moving.”