Gymnasts finally find their balance



By Laura Hettiger

Save the best for last.

That’s exactly what the Illinois women’s gymnastics team has done the last three weeks.

After starting 1-8 in the first two months of the regular season, the Illini have made enough minor changes, in both routines and overall confidence, to really succeed during “Championship Time.”

The team’s latest accomplishment: taking home second-place honors at Saturday’s annual Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich. Illinois finished just behind the host Wolverines (196.750) and posted its highest score of the season (195.750). The Illini have not placed in the top two of the conference since 1990’s Big Ten championship team.

“Probably from depth-wise and potential-wise, I’ve had some talented teams, but this is probably the most well-balanced team,” said Bob Starkell, head coach of the Fighting Illini. “This is the highest Big Ten performance and finish since I’ve been here.”

During Starkell’s nine years with the Orange and Blue, he knows this is the prime time for his team to be peaking. In both practice time and competition time, the team’s demeanor is all business.

“I think in general, (the gymnasts) were starting to feel the sense that postseason was right around the corner,” Starkell said. “Their training became more detail-oriented. We have been getting better and better on things we’ve had trouble on all year.”

And one of the things that has been plaguing the Illini all year has been their arch nemesis: the balance beam. Saturday night in the final rotation of the competition, the team once again saved its best for last.

Sophomore Nicole Cowart started off strong for Illinois, setting the standard high for the rest of her teammates with a 9.725. The only blemish of the entire competition came when freshman Lashlee Morris “got her toe stuck on the beam,” threw off her balance and took a fall, putting intense pressure on the final three Illini beam competitors.

This time, the Illini prevailed against the balance beam, setting a season-high 49.050 on the team’s apparatus foe. Similar to many past meets, it was the tandem of freshman Allison Buckley and junior Julie Crall that really sparkled for the Illini.

Buckley pulled in a 9.875 for a three-way tie for second, while Crall showed her dominance over the four-foot, four-inch piece of wood, receiving a 9.900 for her efforts. At the end of the competition, Crall was named the Big Ten balance beam champion.

“The Julie Crall routine was the final routine of the night on beam,” Starkell said of the Cincinnati native.

“Once I knew she was three-quarters through the routine, I knew she could potentially place first.”

Other top finishes of the night included Buckley’s and junior Lindsey Smith’s four-way tie for fourth (9.850) on the vault, sophomore Sarah Schmidt’s 9.900 third-place performance on the uneven bars and another Buckley tie for seventh (9.825) on the floor exercise.

The final standings established Michigan as Big Ten champions, followed by Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State.

“A lot of good things happened, I don’t even know where to start,” said an excited Starkell. “We were energized and excited, didn’t stop until we got back to the hotel after dinner (after the competition).”

The women will take this weekend off, their first free weekend since early January. They will spend the next 12 days preparing for the NCAA Regional Competition on April 12.

“We will have longer to prepare, which is a good sign at this time,” Starkell said of the looming NCAA competition. “It should be pretty interesting.”