Women’s team enters season at No. 13, led by All-American

Despite their difference in years, Illini gymnasts junior Melissa Fernandez and freshman Alina Weinstein envision the same picture perfect ending to the season as the rest of their teammates and coach.

“Win the Big Ten,” Fernandez said. “We’re really excited for the season, and we’re working hard. And we still have to fix our sticks and work some out kinks, (but) a perfect ending is to win the Big Ten.”

If Fernandez, who is coming off a First Team All-American year, will have anything to do with the Illini’s success this year, she got off to a good start Sunday. The women’s squad teamed up with the Illinois men’s gymnastics team for the annual Mixed Pairs Exhibition meet at Huff Hall where 12 mixed teams competed against one another. Fernandez, who paired with sophomore Austin Phillips, received two perfect-10 scores for her performances on the balance beam and uneven bars, pushing her team to the top and taking first place at the event.

“I felt good,” Fernandez said. “And the team looked really good, so this was a good indicator for the season.”

Fernandez isn’t the only one expecting big things out of team this year, as it enters the season ranked No. 13, their highest preseason ranking in the team’s history.

“Each year we get better and better,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “But we try to not pay attention to rankings at all. We just want to put ourselves in a position to make it extremely difficult for judges to score against us, and that’s just on how hard we work.”

Weinstein wants to do her part to help the team achieve that perfect ending.

“My first event turned out to be better than I thought,” Weinstein said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and the upperclassmen have been helping me a lot. I just want to do whatever I can to help us.”

As the team approaches its first meet with Oregon State, Air Force and Alaska next month, Starkell is happy with where the team is headed.

“We’re looking good at this point,” Starkell said. “The veterans are ahead of where they were last year at this time, and I think the freshmen found out how talented the upperclassmen are, and they’re learning from them. We’re going to use (all of our strengths).