Illini gymnastics will rely on balance, experience

By Emily Bayci

Perfection. In a sport where athletes are judged on every movement made and for a team coming off of a nationally ranked season, the Illinois women’s gymnastics team has one goal: to have the most perfect season yet.

“We want to try and improve on everything so that we can do better than last year,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “We want to win our first Big Ten Championships under my tenure and we want to qualify for nationals.”

Coming off of last season ranked 15th in the nation, finishing third at the NCAA South Central Regional Championships and taking second at the Big Ten Championships, Illinois has a lot to live up to; however, only two seniors graduated last season, which makes for an experienced group.

“We have a lot of leaders on the team this year and there is a lot of depth in all areas of the lineup, which will really help us out,” senior Marijka Botterman said.

The Illini started their season strong with a second-place finish at the Michigan State Quad Meet, where they lost by less than one point.

A standout in the meet was Illinois freshman Kelsey Joannides, who led the field on the balance beam, posting a score of 9.850. She also competed all-around in her first collegiate appearance.

Joannides represents the talent of the new freshman class, Starkell said. She was solid on all four events and “made it look easy.”

The freshmen are adjusting well to competing on a collegiate level due to a high level of support.

“It has been really easy to adjust because all the upperclassmen girls help us out so much,” Joannides said. “The team spirit is way higher here than on club teams.”

Illinois expects to be solid in all four events this season with vault appearing to be its best because of such a “consistent core group,” Botterman said. The Illini also have a lot of depth on the balance beam and floor routines.

The only weak link for the team is on the uneven bars, Starkell said. They are still looking for a consistent performer in the leadoff role.

“Our other obstacle this season is health,” Botterman said. “We just want everyone to stay healthy and have minimal girls out for injuries.”

Last year’s star and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Allison Buckley, has been out due to offseason surgery. Buckley, along with other injured teammates Lindsey Smith, Samantha Perino and Alyssa Harmon, should all return to competition within the next two weeks.

An important matchup for the Illini comes this Saturday at home in a dual meet against No. 11 Penn State, who Starkell says looks much stronger this year. Other big meets include facing the University of Washington and the University of Missouri, both prime competition this season.

“Experience is our best weapon this season, and we will use it to the best of our ability,” Starkell said.