Women’s gymnastics relying on experience

After a shortened practice week, the No. 20 Illinois women’s gymnastics team will rely on things that cannot be taught in practice when it heads to Minneapolis on Saturday for a Big Ten dual meet against Minnesota: experience and leadership.

With two meets in three days last weekend, the Fighting Illini took an extra day off to rest their bodies.

“(Our upperclassmen) have set really good examples,” sophomore Kelsey Joannides said. “The girls made it a point to lead by example. Even through ups and downs, they always encourage and provide constructive criticism. We’ve had one less practice this week, but it was just as intense because of how the coaches and team help each other.”

The meeting marks the second time the two squads have battled this season. The Illini took second in a tri-meet on Jan. 15 at Nebraska, competing with the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers. Illinois scored a 193.375 while Minnesota took third, posting a 192.775. But with the meet in Minnesota, the Golden Gophers may have an upset in mind, as they’ve been averaging nearly three points more at home this season.

“They’re a really tough beat at home,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “It’s a strong team on the bars and beam. And they’re Big Ten competition, so it should be a challenge.”

Junior Melissa Fernandez, who is coming off of a successful weekend in which she won the all-around and beam titles in Chicago and the vault and bars crowns against Michigan State, is one of the upperclassmen who has been looked upon to lead this season.

“One of the keys is being more confident,” Fernandez said. “As you go on you pick that up with experience. The underclassmen, as good as they are, just don’t have experience. So to vocally lead is a big part of what I do and I really like it.”

Starkell feels he may be coaching some of the best upperclassmen he’s ever had.

“Experience of upperclassmen is always an impact for success of the team,” Starkell said. “I don’t know where the saying is from, but it’s said, ‘The team is as good as its seniors,’ and this is probably the most depth I’ve had as a coach and definitely the highest scoring. A big part of it is that they’re consistent and maintain a high competition level, and that’s why we are where we’re at.”