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Thursday October 6th

Preview: UNC gymnastics heads to first NCAA regional championship since 2017

A composite image shows freshman Lali Dekanoidze dismounting from the beam during UNC's meet against West Virginia at Carmichael Arena on Feb. 24, 2022.
Buy Photos A composite image shows freshman Lali Dekanoidze dismounting from the beam during UNC's meet against West Virginia at Carmichael Arena on Feb. 24, 2022.

In her first season as North Carolina's head gymnastics coach, Danna Durante had high expectations for her athletes. After five seasons at the University of Georgia — making the NCAA Super Six in three of those seasons — she wanted to bring that winning ethos to Chapel Hill.

Eighteen meets and an East Atlantic Gymnastics League regular season title later, it's clear that the success came fast and loud.

But heading into the conference championship as a No. 3 seed, the regular season success the Tar Heels experienced came back to bite them, as they finished in fifth out of eight teams.

“We all were wanting more than fifth and certainly capable of more than fifth," Durante said. "But what we took from that is — that moment was a little bigger in some of our minds than a regular season meet."

Because of the team's earlier success, UNC will have another chance at postseason glory. For the first time since 2017, the Tar Heels advanced to compete in the NCAA Regional Championships.

They are set to compete in round one of the Raleigh Regional, held in Reynolds Coliseum on Wednesday at 3 p.m. The team will face Towson University in a one-on-one battle. Only one of the two teams can move on to compete in the second round of regionals against Michigan, UCLA and Maryland on Thursday at 7 p.m.

UNC competed against Towson a few times this season. In Carmichael Arena at the end of January, the Tar Heels defeated the Tigers by a score of 196.000-195.975.

More recently, the teams met at the EAGL conference championships last weekend, where Towson’s 196.075 points earned them a second-place finish to the Tar Heels' fifth.

Following the meet, Durante and staff have been working to help their athletes manage emotions as they prepare for regionals against a conference opponent.

“It’s completely human if you are feeling that added adrenaline, so how are you going to manage that," Durante said. "Maybe just tweaking your prep routine so that you can keep yourself at the same heart rate and use that to your advantage."

Despite a few missteps at the EAGL Championships, North Carolina remains energized after a strong regular season. As the team prepares for the first round of regionals on Wednesday, junior Elizabeth Culton explained how her team was able to take motivation from defeat.

“It almost gives us a fire going into this first round of regionals because we want to prove that we can do better and show what we’ve really been working for,” Culton said.

In addition to the team qualification, three Tar Heels qualified as individual event specialists: first-year Julia Knower as an all-around, first-year Lali Dekanoidze in the vault and Culton on the beam and the bars.

Though Knower and Culton have remained two of the strongest individual performers this season, they both emphasized the importance of team performance over their own.

“My main focus right now is really on the team," Knower said. "My team is what helps me perform so well because I know they have my back and they know I have theirs."

Knower’s outlook will be key as the team begins competition. While individual performance is important, no member of the current squad has experienced a regional competition environment. A strong, supportive team spirit and energy will be necessary when competing at this level. 

Whatever the result may be on Wednesday, the experience itself will help shape the future of the program.

“I think it's going to be a really good learning experience and a good step for the future in terms of growing Carolina gymnastics,” Culton said.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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