After rocky start, women’s gymnastics may earn bid to national championships

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By Laura Hettiger

All year, the coaches and athletes have been stressing how much potential the Illinois women’s gymnastics team has – if only everything could come together.

After placing second at the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago, it’s time to put potential aside and fully capitalize on their talent.

As the No. 24 Illini travel to Norman, Okla., for the South Central Regional on Saturday, they will be focusing on the competition at hand. Although the team started off the season on a very rocky note – going 2-8 during the regular season – head coach Bob Starkell is excited for the competition.

“From the start of the season in January, I thought the team had the potential to be very close to where it is right now – to be in the top 25, seeded into a Regional, building up on each meet and just having our best competition (at Big Tens),” Starkell said.

Finishing his ninth season with the Orange and Blue, Starkell knows “Championship Time” is extremely important, and the coach is excited for the squad to show off this weekend.

As the No. 5 seed in the six-team competition, the only place the Illini expect to go is up. Its steep competition includes No. 4 Alabama, No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 16 Boise State, No. 19 Arizona State and Southeast Missouri State.

“We’re not quite seeded as high as we wanted to be, we wanted to be in the top three out of six teams,” said all-around competitor Nicole Cowart. “I really think we have a chance at upsetting number four … and possibly making our first Nationals trip.”

The sophomore is confident in her teammates, especially after coming off a strong showing in the conference championship. Posting a 195.125 as its Regional Qualifying Score, Illinois is a point and a half away from top-seeded Alabama and one point ahead of sixth-place SEMO.

Cowart believes the team’s recent practice strategy will go a long way. With “meticulous” coaching, the gymnasts are fine-tuning every move because “every tenth (of a point) we can get” is critical.

The Illini are focused on reaching the NCAA National Championship as a group. Starkell believes if each individual does well and thinks about how she can help the team, then Nationals will be within their reach.

“The key is to be at the top of their game,” Starkell said.

However, there is a chance for Illinois gymnasts to win individual event titles.

Recently crowned Big Ten Beam Champion, Julie Crall has the chance to capture the Regional title and get her personal ticket punched to Nationals. Also, all-around competitor Allison Buckley has prevailed on every event this season, and her fellow Illini feel she will have a successful meet.

“Ultimately, I think that Allison has a really good chance to at least make it on one event, or two events, or all-around,” said senior Krystal Melcarek.

Though the gymnasts are excited to compete and happy to be a part of the NCAA Tournament, this time of season is bittersweet for many of them. If the Illini do not qualify for Nationals, then this will be their final meet of the season.

Melcarek admits that the thought of not being an Illinois gymnast anymore is “scary,” but she is embracing the upcoming competition.

“I’m not going to be thinking it’s my last meet,” Melcarek said. “Just be on the lookout for us going to Nationals. That’s all we can ask for.”

Regional Qualifiers (RQS)

No. 4 Alabama (196.870)

No. 10 Oklahoma (196.450)

No. 16 Boise State (195.690)

No. 19 Arizona State (195.405)

No. 24 ILLINOIS (195.125)

No. 36 Southeast Missouri State (194.065)

No. 24 ILLINOIS (195.125)

No. 36 Southeast Missouri State (194.065)