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Gymnasts Gray, Radon leap onto NCAA stage

Buffalo will be well-represented by a pair of sophomores Saturday in regional competitions of the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships.

Kayla Gray of the Town of Tonawanda is one of three University of New Hampshire gymnasts who qualified for the Morgantown Regional hosted by West Virginia University.

Nicole Radon of Hamburg will compete with the Kent State team in the Tuscaloosa Regional hosted by the University of Alabama.

Twelve teams and 12 all-around competitors and event competitors will move on to the NCAA championships April 19-20 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.

Gray, who trained under coach Larry and Carol Goldsmith at Gleason’s Gymnastics in North Tonawanda, was the East Atlantic Gymnastics League individual champion on balance beam with a mark of 9.875 at the league meet two weeks ago in Chapel Hill, N.C. She earned a spot on the EAGL All-Tournament first team on beam and in all-around where she finished in a three-way tie for second with an overall total of 39.150 for the four events – vault, bars, beam and floor exercise.

The win on beam was her ninth of the season in 12 meets on that apparatus and her fifth in a row. She also had single wins in floor exercise and all-around during the season.

“The beam is my favorite and best event,” Gray said.

“Kayla performs one of the most impressive beam routines in the county,” New Hampshire coach Gail Goodspeed said. “She has an unique routine and has an artistry that will catch everyone’s eye. . . . Her ‘Popa’ (straddle jump with a full turn) is textbook as are all of her other dance combinations.”

Gray will compete for the all-around title in Morgantown along with teammate Austyn Fobes. A third Wildcat, Hannah Barile, is entered in vault and floor exercise.

Gray’s No. 1 fan at New Hampshire is her older brother, Kyle, a graduate student at the school. Kayla first got into the sport 15 or 16 years ago following in her brother’s footsteps.

Gray competed for Gleason’s Gymnastics in Level 10 Nationals, winning on the beam in 2008. She did not compete in high school because she was home-schooled by her mother, Karen, after spending her freshman year at Nichols.

Radon’s Kent State team qualified en masse. The multi-talented Radon competed in the state high school meet all four years at Frontier Central and earned section titles in 2009 and 2010. She was second in all-around at the state championship in 2010. She also competed for Stumpf’s Gymnastics Club under coaches Kurt and Lisa Stumpf.

Her brother Mike, who played quarterback at St. Francis, is a former Connelly Cup winner as the top football player in Western New York and went on to play at the University at Buffalo and Missouri State. Her father, Felix played at Lackawanna High and Youngstown State with Ron Jaworski.

Radon has been a consistent performer all season on the balance beam and floor exercise, helping the Flashes win the Mid-American Conference regular season championship with a 6-0 record. She posted a personal best on beam when she scored 9.850 during the final home quad meet on March 15.

“I had a pretty good year this year. I’ve been pretty consistent,” Radon said. “We were unbeaten in the conference regular season, but the conference meet wasn’t our best.”

Kent State finished behind Central Michigan and Western Michigan, who tied for first place in the MAC championships. Radon competed in floor exercise, her strongest event, and balance beam in the MAC meet.

Radon and the Flashes made it to the regionals last year at North Carolina State so she knows what to expect as far as the atmosphere and competition.

“There will be a big crowd there because Alabama [the Crimson Tide draws as many as 15,000 for home meets],” Radon said. “There will be a lot of excitement. It’s definitely nerve-wracking because it’s a long day [of competition] but it’s fun.”

Her mother, Michele, and father will be in Tuscaloosa to lend moral support as well as two cousins who live in Georgia.

At Kent State, Radon is known as much for her singing as for her athletic ability. She performs the National Anthem before all the Flashes’ home meets as well as other Kent State athletics events and has tried out for American Idol. She intends to give it another try when her gymnastics days are over. Because she was always singing in the car when her dad drove her to school as a fourth- and fifth-grader, she soon was off to voice lessons in addition to her gymnastics training.

She grew up listening to The Beatles and Sinatra and lists popular British R&B and soul singer Joss Stone as her inspiration. There’s music in the family, too. Her great uncle, the late Johnny Krizancic, was well known for his tamburitza, a style of music brought to this country from the Balkans.

Radon has performed at the NCAA nationals before – as a singer. In 2011, Nicole, then a high school senior who had already committed to Kent State, performed the anthem before the NCAA meet at Cleveland State.

“It was an incredible experience,” Radon said. “I was honored to have that chance. Remembering that just makes me want to get back to nationals again.”

Kent State’s veteran coach Brice Biggin thinks that performing as a singer has helped Radon as a gymnast.

“She came in from a little bit smaller gym, and I wasn’t sure she was exactly as prepared for the workload as she needed to be,” Biggin said. “She has been a dream to work with. She works extremely hard and is very calm in competition. I think that’s where her singing helps. She’s prepared mentally for the crowd and noise and stuff like that. She’s had a great year for us.”