Women’s gymnastics qualifies for NCAA Championships for first time in program history

The No. 14 Illinois women’s gymnastics team had an anxious week as it prepared for the NCAA West Regional, held in Seattle on Saturday night. The Illini did not know exactly how they would fare and had one goal on their mind — qualifying for the NCAA Championships.

There was no reason to worry when the weekend ended, though, as the Illini took second in the regional and earned their first bid to nationals in the program’s history.

“We knew that we were capable of going to nationals, we just didn’t know if we would pull it off or not,” sophomore Allison Buckley said. “But the energy was there, and we all did extremely well.”

No. 2 Utah (197.675) owned the competition, while Illinois (196.700) led the rest of the field of No. 19 Boise State, No. 11 Auburn, San Jose State and Washington. The top two teams qualified for the NCAA Championships.

“We focused on beating Auburn and Boise State,” senior Marijka Botterman said. “We knew Utah would be off with their Olympians doing their Utah thing, but that second place was ours.”

Buckley led the way for Orange and Blue, tying for the beam title with a school record-breaking score of 9.950, finishing second on the bars (9.90) and fourth in the all-around with her career-high score of 39.425. She is the third Illini in school history to win an individual regional title.

As an individual qualifier for nationals last year, Buckley was happy to qualify with the whole team this season.

“Nicole (Cowart) and I went to nationals last year, so we have experience and can offer everyone advice,” Buckley said. “But it will be one hundred times better with the whole team there because we are going to have such a high energy level.”

Led by Buckley, the Illini posted their record-high score on the beam with a total of 49.200. Freshman Kelsey Joannides and sophomore Melissa Fernandez tied for fourth on the event, each with a score of 9.875.

Botterman finished in third place on the uneven bars, posting a career-high 9.900. Following Buckley in the all-around were Joannides (sixth) and Cowart (seventh).

Starkell said Cowart’s performance solidified her as the most consistent performer of the season, which will help at nationals. Head coach Bob Starkell said the girls “simply exploded” every time someone hit a routine.

“We are entering new territory right now because we have never been to nationals before,” Starkell said. “We are just going to have to wing it and hope to beat some teams so we can prove ourselves as national material.”

The Illini will join Utah and 10 other teams at the NCAA Championships in Lincoln, Neb., from April 16-18. Illinois was the only team that was not a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in any of the six regional meets to advance to the Championships.

Botterman said that when she entered the program as a freshman, she never dreamed that they would make it to nationals.

“We are just so happy now that we accomplished our goal. I guess we have a new goal to make now,” Buckley said. “My voice is completely shot right now because we were screaming so loud and crying so much because we have never been this excited in our lives.”