Illini gymnasts gearing up for championships

By Laura Hettiger

At the end of its regular season, the No. 24 Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics team found the momentum and confidence it has been searching for all year.

With victories against a collection of intrastate teams in its last two meets, Illinois is ready for the rest of “championship time” as it prepares for the Big Ten Championships this Saturday.

“The fact that at this time of the year, in the championship time, we’ve had quite a few meets under our belt,” said head coach Bob Starkell.

“Just fine-tune the gymnastics that we’re doing.”

At the beginning of spring break, the team traveled to the University of Illinois-Chicago on March 15, scoring a season-high 195.725 against the Flames.

Setting a new school record on the vault with a score of 49.150, the Illini took five of the top six finishes at the event.

Freshman Allison Buckley propelled the team by winning four individual events: vault, balance beam, floor exercise and the all-around title.

Fellow all-around competitor Sarah Schmidt made her return to all four events after being sidelined part of the season with a sprained left ankle.

“Right when she came back and did all-around, she showed a little more consistency,” Starkell said of the sophomore, Schmidt.

The one dim spot against the Flames came during the balance beam rotation.

Forced to count a fall, both Schmidt and Nicole Cowart struggled on the four-foot, four-inch apparatus.

A week off from class helped the team prepare for the Illinois Classic meet against UIC, Illinois State and Northern Illinois University on Saturday.

In the final home meet of the season, the Illini sparkled in front of the Huff Hall crowd, with Buckley setting the tone once again.

Capturing the balance beam, the floor exercise and all-around titles, Buckley and company were able to demolish the competition.

Posting a 194.825 to take the top honors, the Illini set the standard as UIC took second (194.550), followed by NIU (193.725) and ISU (191.950).

Aside from Buckley’s titles, junior Julie Crall found success on the uneven bars, setting a career-high score of 9.850 and receiving first-place honors for her efforts.

The Illini posted a season-high 49.050 in taking five of the top six places in the quadrangular meet.

But again, the team struggled when it came to the balance beam.

Though Buckley won the event with a 9.900, the Illini had several major mistakes on the event that has plagued them all year.

“More or less we’ve been having problems with the balance beam because they are assuming we are having problems with it,” said Starkell about Illinois’ beam woes.

“If we can get to the balance beam early, I think we’ll fare pretty well (in the rest of the competitions).”

Coming together during the last rotation as a team, the Orange and Blue finished the Illinois Classic by scoring a season-high 49.100 on the floor exercise to secure the win.

“The meet went really well, minus beam. Everyone was really happy with the overall meet,” Buckley said.

Closing out the year on a high note is just what Illinois needed.

With only a few days of practice before its conference showdown, the team is ready to face familiar competition.

“I think we are feeling a little more confident in general about the routines we’re doing instead of the wins we’re aspiring,” Starkell said.

“Our execution has been a lot better. It’s been more apparent in the last two weekends than the middle part of the season,” he added.

Buckley receives top honors for performance

Freshman Allison Buckley, both a team player and a competition leader, was honored over spring break for her success during the UIC competition.

The Schaumburg, Ill., native posted a 39.450 to receive the second best all-around score in Illinois history. For her efforts, the Big Ten Conference named her Big Ten Gymnast of the Week for the week of March 17-21.

The modest and bubbly freshman was excited with the honor but blind-sided when she found out.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Buckley said. “My mom ended up calling me, I don’t really check the Big Ten Web site, so my mom called and told me about it.”

Now, after the Illinois Classic Competition, Buckley has claimed 19 individual titles during her freshman campaign.

“Even as a freshman, she’s finding out she’s extremely confident in the routines she’s doing now,” Starkell said.