Illini of the Week: Julie Crall

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Laura Hettiger

Julie Crall is a lot of things. She is graceful, agile and very comfortable in a gymnastics leotard. She is also determined, passionate, fearless and a student-athlete in the College of Business.

And she is one more thing: a Big Ten Conference Champion on her favorite event – the balance beam.

This past weekend at the annual conference showdown in Ann Arbor, Mich., it was ultimately up to Crall to determine the fate of Illinois.

Heading into the competition’s final rotation, Penn State and the Illini were neck-and-neck, with Illinois down just slightly at 146.725-146.700 for second and third place, respectively.

The nerves were high for everyone in Orange and Blue, knowing Michigan had all but secured the Big Ten title. Penn State, a notorious vaulting powerhouse, got lucky and was able to end on its favorite event, while the Illini finished the meet on the balance beam – the one event that has shaken the team almost every regular season meet.

As Lashlee Morris, the fourth competitor in the six-person lineup, took a fall, Crall knew it was time for her to step up for the team. In the anchor position, the junior was the deciding factor in whether or not Illinois would be runner-up in the conference or fall off the top tier of the champion’s podium all together.

The Cincinnati, Ohio, native embraced the pressure and performed the beam routine of her life – a near-perfect 9.900 on the elevated strip of wood.

“It was her routine that secured our second spot in the team awards,” said head coach Bob Starkell about his balance beam conference champion. “The clutch performance of the evening was Julie’s beam routine. We could have gone from second to, if she fell, going all the way to fourth even.”

But the confident, third-year competitor knew she had the ability to turn in such a high score; it was all a matter of putting everything together.

After falling off the beam during the third rotation of the Illinois Classic meet just seven days prior to Big Tens, the gymnast cleared her mind and “just put myself in the zone and be as confident in myself as possible.”

“I had worked hard all season,” Crall said of winning the event title. “It was a good accomplishment to have, and I’m glad I did my part to help the team get second at the Big Ten Championships.”

Crall has been the go-to beam competitor since joining the No. 24 Illini in 2005.

During both her freshman and sophomore seasons, the conference selected her as Second-Team All-Big Ten.

This year, however, the conference neglected to recognize Crall at the annual Big Ten Banquet Friday night before the competition. Her determination this season – especially on Saturday – speaks for itself, regardless of conference accolades.

Suffering from a torn Achilles tendon just one year ago, the motivated blonde has bounced back from surgery, countless hours of rehabilitation and intense pain to sparkle in the biggest meet of the year to this point. And the talented Crall was just happy to celebrate the win with her fellow Illini.

“I was extremely excited (after my routine),” Crall said. “I didn’t know what score I would get, and we didn’t have to count a fall for the first time all year on beam. Just being congratulated by the team was very memorable.”

Crall’s score solidified Illinois’ second place Big Ten finish. In her other apparatus, the uneven bars, her 9.775 was the team’s second-highest score on the event.

It is fitting that her older sister, Molly, is the reason Crall pursued gymnastics, as the Big Ten meet was truly a family affair with her “other” family: the Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics team. Thanks to Crall’s perfection, the team found the success it had been searching for all year.

“At least 95 percent of beam is mentality,” said Crall. “Your confidence comes and goes, but you have to find it within yourself.”

Saturday night, in front of the nearly 4,000-person crowd, Crall and company found the confidence within themselves to leave their mark on the 2008 Big Ten Championship.

Illini of the week honorable mention

Dominique Worsley – Men’s track and field

The sophomore sprinter became the Illini’s first NCAA Regional qualifier of the season, taking home the 100 meter crown with a time of 10.54 at the Southern Illinois Gill Spring Classic on Saturday. Illinois won the meet with a final score of 205, ahead of Southern Illinois’ 188.50

LaNeisha Waller – Women’s track and field

The senior was named Big Ten Track Athlete of the Week on Tuesday after she led the Illini last weekend at the Hurricane Challenge in Coral Gables, Fla. Waller won the 100-meter hurdles with an NCAA Regional qualifying time of 13.45 and joined teammates Tiara Armstrong, Aja Evans and Omoye Ugiagbe to hit the regional standard time in the 4×100 meter relay. She finished the meet by earning her third Regional qualifying mark in the long jump, tying for first with Florida International’s Kerry Walker with a height of 19 feet, 11 1/2 inches.