Gymnastics powerhouse too much for Illini women’s team to handle

By Laura Hettiger

With “Illinois Gymnastics Unite” printed across orange shirts, the Illinois women’s gymnastics team marched together into Alabama, ready to flip against the No. 6 Crimson Tide in its season opener Friday night.

Unfortunately for the No. 23 Fighting Illini, the team was not “united” throughout the four-rotation competition.

“We were very strong on our first three events but struggled in our beam rotation,” head coach Bob Starkell said in a press release. “We seemed to be running low on energy heading into our final rotation and made some uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Alabama, a perennial national powerhouse in gymnastics, topped the Illini by four points, 196.300 to 192.775. In a sport often determined by just tenths of a point, minor mistakes really hindered Illinois.

The Illini took the fourth-place finish in each of the apparatuses. Each time, the Illini gymnast was less than a point away from the Alabama winner.

Although the team did not win the competition, the overall experience gave the girls an optimistic mindset for the rest of the season. After competing in front of an impressive 11,000 person crowd, the Illini and Starkell plan to use the positive routines as a building block for this week’s practices.

“A lot of the girls looked very solid today,” said Starkell, excited about the large fan base. “They were very energetic and were applauding for both teams. It might have been a little nerve racking for us, especially our freshmen, but it was great to see.”

The two all-around Illinois competitors – freshman Allison Buckley and sophomore Nicole Cowart – did not let the noise or excitement hinder their focus. Buckley felt at ease in her first ever collegiate vault and floor exercises posting scores of 9.725 and 9.775, respectively. Cowart, an all-around competitor last season, ended the day with an impressive 38.500 overall score out of the perfect 40.0 rubric.

“Allison Buckley did a really good job today for us in her first competition with two solid routines on vault and floor,” Starkell said, a nine-year veteran coach. “Also, I was very pleased with Marijka Botterman, Nicole Cowart and Sarah Schmidt’s performances in the first meet of the year.”

Alabama’s meet also featured the return of junior Julie Crall, who had suffered a torn Achilles tendon earlier in the preseason. Turning in a team-high 9.775 score on the beam routine, Crall’s performance tied her for fourth on the apparatus.

The ladies will focus on consistency and “uniting” as one team this week before the No. 20-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes come into town Jan. 19. As a double-dual meet, the No. 8 Illinois men’s gymnastics team will also be featured competing against their Big Ten rivals, the No. 7 Minnesota Gophers. The competition will be in Huff Hall with the first rotation beginning at 7 p.m.