Northwest Herald Athletes of the Week for Feb. 16-22


Gracie Willis, So., Prairie Ridge, girls gymnastics

Prairie Ridge gymnast Gracie Willis landed one of her best floor exercise routines of the season at the most opportune time last weekend.

The Wolves’ co-op team was had just fallen behind Carmel by .05 in the team standings at the IHSA Girls Gymnastics State Meet in Palatine. The Corsairs held that lead for about 2 minutes.

Willis scored 9.725 in floor, boosting Prairie Ridge’s team score past Carmel’s and giving her the floor exercise individual state title. The Wolves, who also added on later with Gabby Riley’s balance beam score, finished with 148.25, ahead of Carmel (147.85) and Lake Zurich (147.725), for their fourth state team title in six years.

Willis had scored 9.575 in Friday’s qualifying, which included a step out of bounds that cost her .1 on her score. When her team needed it most, she came through with a near flawless performance, which also earned her a state title.

Willis was voted Northwest Herald Female Athlete of the Week. Riley won it last week. Willis answered a few questions from sports writer Joe Stevenson.

What will you remember most about your performance at the IHSA Girls Gymnastics State Meet?

Willis: I’ll most remember all the support I felt from my teammates and coaches. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. Running off the floor after my performances on Saturday into all of their arms was the best feeling ever. Then, we cheered Gabby on during her floor routine moments later, and that love we all have for each other is unmatched.

What got you interested in gymnastics?

Willis: As soon as I could walk, I started climbing out of my crib. When I was about 2 or 3, my mom (Leisa) put me into Mommy and Me classes to give me something to focus my energy on. I’ve been in it ever since.

Your brother Jackson just made a parachuting team at the U.S. Military Academy. Would you ever parachute out of a plane?

Willis: I definitely would. He and my father (J.D., a career Air Force man) have both impacted me greatly and caused me to think about going to a service academy.

What is it like to do a double back flip in floor exercise?

Willis: It’s actually one of of my favorite things to do in gymnastics. It’s a little bit scary because I feel suspended in the air for a split second, and it can be difficult to find the landing. However, I am usually consistent with it, and it’s a very fun skill for me to do.

What is your favorite class?

Willis: It changes depending on what I’m learning, but my favorite class at the moment is Algebra II with trigonometry. Mrs. Patel is an amazing teacher and I’ve been picking up on the concepts fairly easily. Also, AP Human Geography is very tough, but coach (Andy) Petersen is the GOAT.

What is something not many people know about you?

Willis: I’ve lived in seven different places. My dad was in the military until retiring here, so before we moved to Illinois, I never lived in one place for over three years.

What’s the worst injury you ever had to deal with?

Willis: I fractured a growth plate in my wrist several years ago which took me out of gymnastics for about 10 weeks, but I’m very thankful that’s the worst injury I’ve had.

Your parents own Chick-fil-A in Crystal Lake. How often do you eat there and what do you order?

Willis: I typically eat there about two times a week and I always order different things to keep it interesting. My most frequent order is an original Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich with a frosted coffee.

What is one of your pet peeves?

Willis: Dog owners who don’t let me pet their dog.


Dylan Connell, Marian Central, Jr., wrestling

Connell joined an elite club last week at the Class 2A Wrestling State Tournament when he won his third state title.

Among area wrestlers, only Connell, Richmond-Burton’s Jordan Blanton (2005, 2006, 2008), and Crystal Lake Central’s Trevor Jauch (2009, 2010, 2011) and Joey Kielbasa (2009, 2010, 2011) have ever accomplished that feat.

Connell finished his season at 44-0 with a victory over Grayslake Central’s Joey Jens, 5-0, for the 170-pound state championship. For that effort, he was voted the Northwest Herald Male Athlete of the Week.

Connell, an Illinois commit, wrestled with the Hurricanes in the Class 2A Dual Team State Tournament on Saturday. Marian lost to Aurora Christian, 32-25. Connell answered a few questions from Northwest Herald sports writer Joe Stevenson.

What do you remember most about your Class 2A State Tournament performance last weekend?

Connell: What I remember most is getting that final takedown in the finals to seal up the match and win.

How did you deal with the pressure and expectations this season of being a two-time state champion?

Connell: Dealing with the pressure and expectations is very difficult for some, but I can control myself very well in those environments. I just tell myself to stay calm and go out and have fun.

What sport do you wish you were good at?

Connell: Hockey.

Do you have any hidden talents?

Connell: I ride dirt bikes.

If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and what would you be called?

Connell: I would want to be called Mr. Future and I would be able to tell the future.

Now that the season’s over, what food will you most enjoy that you had to pass up the last few months?

Connell: I normally can’t have doughnuts. They are my favorite food.

What was the last really good book you read?

Connell: “Holes” by Louis Sachar. The boys are sent into the desert and they overcome a lot of problems while stuck at their camp.

If you could time travel, what sporting event (past or future) would you want to go see?

Connell: I would want to watch Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor fight in the UFC, the second match from Aug. 16, 2016. McGregor won by decision.

What is your favorite wild animal?

Connell: Gorillas, they are one of the most powerful animals. They are very strong.

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