Border battle takes center stage

By Majesh Abraham

Illinois v. Mizzou. The rivalry extends further than the basketball court and reaches all the way to the gymnastics mat.

The women’s gymnastics team heads south to Columbia, Mo. to take on the Missouri Tigers this Saturday at the Hearnes Center. The ladies are coming off a second-place finish at the quad meet at Huff Hall last Saturday. They’re looking for a road win to build some momentum and help their confidence after two close defeats.

“Missouri is a very experienced team, and their skills are very good in events that we’re weak in,” said head coach Bob Starkell. “They’re well coached, train very hard and they compete really well at home.”

The Illini have an advantage in that they are led by six seniors, while the Tigers only boast two returning seniors.

“We have more of an upperclass team, so we should be more confident going into the meet,” Starkell said. “Potential wise, Missouri may have a stronger team, but our team has a lot of heart and are very competitive in nature, and we’re going to look for an upset on the road this weekend.”

The team got a strong performance last week from senior Lauren Newcomb who came back from an injury to capture her fourth all-around title of the year. Overall they posted a strong score, but couldn’t overcome large mistakes.

“Our large mistakes last week were falls, which are really uncommon,” Starkell said. “That occurs in a situation where you try to be too perfect, and start doing things out of the ordinary, which you haven’t done during practice.”

Freshman Krystal Melcarek knows the team can rebound from last week.

“We just have to keep trying; we have the potential to win, and we know we just have to put it all together, and that’s enough to keep us going,” said Melcarek.

The team could also see the likely return of freshman Michelle McGrady, who has been out with a broken foot since the beginning of the season. Her return would provide a huge boost to vault.

“She started vaulting yesterday, [and] she would be a great feature to add to our vault line-up,” Starkell said. “With a broken foot, you’re not sure what kind of trauma a hard landing would cause, but with the progress she’s making in a short amount of time we would look forward to [her return], but it’s not guaranteed.”

However, McGrady is confident about her comeback.

“I feel pretty good. I think I’m ready and I can’t wait to help the team out in the vault line-up. It will add to our depth, and I’m excited about coming back,” said McGrady. “I started practicing yesterday, and it feels like I never even left.”

With McGrady’s return, and Newcomb’s return to the line-up last week, the team is panning out the way Starkell envisioned.

“We’re definitely closer to the line-up that I initially thought we would have back in December, with [McGrady], Newcomb, and [sophomore] Danye Botterman; they’re definitely our top vault line-up,” Starkell said. “That would change the face of our vault, which would improve our chances to win.”

The Missouri meet will be the beginning of a three-week road trip for the Illini, which will continue against Michigan State and Texas Women’s University.

“All we can do is focus on our stuff; I think if we can pay attention to the details we worked on this week, we can fare real well,” Starkell said. “Our main purpose in training right now is to improve each weekend, and try to get our ultimate goal, which is to make a bid for the national championship.”