Freshman gymnasts bring talent to team

By Laura Hettiger

Some college teams redshirt their freshmen for a season, allowing the new athletes to get a feel for the sport at the collegiate level before being thrown into competition. For Illinois women’s gymnastics head coach Bob Starkell, there is no need to hold back his new class.

“They are going to be impact players,” Starkell said. “Especially a couple of them are going to turn out to be pretty well, and they are going to be seasoned athletes, I think, once the season starts. They won’t have much of a learning curve.”

Illinois’ four freshmen – Allison Buckley, Melissa Fernandez, Lashlee Morris and Samantha Perino – will all have valuable “tumbling time” once the gymnastics competition season officially begins on Jan. 11.

Friday evening, in front of 600 fans at Huff Hall, the new women showed Illini fans a taste of the talent they are bringing to the team.

In the Mixed Pairs Exhibition with the men’s gymnastics team, the women and men were broken into 10 groups with the two genders being paired together. At the end of the night, it was apparent the women’s team will have success in the coming years.

“I was pleasantly impressed by the young people doing well,” said Starkell at the end of the meet.

Buckley, the 5-foot-2 dynamo from Schaumburg, captured the female portion of the Mixed Pairs title, her first Illini gymnastics accomplishment.

With her sophomore male partner, Luke Stannard, the duo received an overall score of 49.875 to beat out the rest of the competition.

“It was a good start, especially for us freshmen because we’ve never been in a college atmosphere before,” said Buckley. “So it was good overall for the freshmen and good for the team.”

With a new member leading the way, Buckley set the tone for the rest of the team. Along with their male counterparts, seniors Michelle McGrady and Krystal Melcarek finished second and third, respectively, in the exhibition. Having not been in a competition since April, the ladies were pleased with their finishes.

“I actually think with the incoming freshmen and everybody doing so well in preseason, it’s been one of our greatest preseasons I’m pretty sure I’ve ever seen, so I’m really excited,” Melcarek said. “I think it’s going to be an awesome year, and I think Nationals is definitely in the picture.”

Although Melcarek and company strive for a Nationals showing every year, the ability of the freshmen and the experience of the seniors will continue to balance the team camaraderie throughout the competition season.

“This year, the feeling as the whole group, leadership is coming from each class,” Starkell said. “It’s been a nice experience, but there hasn’t been one set group who only steps up.”

Little mistakes in several routines did happen, but Melcarek believes the exhibition was a great way for the women to “get the jitters out” before it really mattered.

Starkell and his team will flip headfirst into their tough schedule in January, opening with an away meet at Alabama. A constant gymnastics powerhouse, Alabama will force the Illini to make a strong showing from the start.

Men flip, fall at Mixed Pairs

It’s a good thing Friday’s exhibition was just that for the Illini men’s gymnastics team. With numerous falls, breaks and stops in their routines, the men still have a month before those mistakes will affect the team.

“I think it was first-competition jitters,” said men’s head coach Yoshi Hayasaki. “The last time they competed was last April, so it’s been a while, and many of them are doing new routines.”

Stannard, senior Tyler Yamauchi and freshman Paul Ruggeri took the top three places in the Mixed Pairs competition. Like the women, the success of the underclassmen will play a strong roll in the 2008 season.

From the torn ACL of Olympic hopeful and assistant coach Justin Spring to the talent on the new recruiting class, hype has surrounded the men’s team throughout the preseason. This will be the first year the men will not compete under the standard 10.0 scale. Instead, the sport is upgrading to a new judging format.

“This year, with the new FIG code, you won’t see 10.0 anymore. (Scores will be) bigger than that,” said Hayasaki. “You saw scores of 14.5, 15.2, it’s a little different, it requires more difficulty, so it’s a little more difficult routine.”

Finishing No. 5 at last year’s NCAA Nationals, the men are expecting to have another successful campaign. With seniors Wes Haagensen, Chris Silcox and Yamauchi and sophomore Chad Wiest – All-Americans in 2007 – leading the way, the Illini will open competition in Chicago on Jan. 12 at the Windy City Invitational.

“Once they start performing a little bit more, start doing more routines, I think that they will settle into it,” Hayasaki offered.