Women’s gymnastics seniors close out home careers Saturday

The year before the Illinois women’s gymnastics seniors joined the program in fall 2006, the Fighting Illini finished seventh in the Big Ten Championships. Now the 2010 squad, featuring seniors Sarah Schmidt, Nicole Cowart, and Laura Woolf, is battling to win it all this year.

“This group of seniors we have are an integral part of how far this team will go this season,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “Winning the Big Ten would be more of a statement on their end. I would hope for a championship with them for all the hard work and time they have put in during the years.”

No. 13 Illinois will be at Huff Hall for the final time this season on Saturday to face No. 14 Missouri for a double dual with the Illinois men’s gymnastics team. The day will be marked by Senior Day festivities as well as Gym Jam, which expects to draw more than 1,000 fans.

Saturday will be the last dual meet for the seniors who helped changed the program from Big Ten cellar dweller to back-to-back conference runner-up finishes, along with a third-place finish in 2007. Since coming in as freshmen, each senior athlete feels they have grown not only as gymnasts but as leaders. Being the upperclassmen on the squad, each one has also filled in different roles that has lead to the successful transformation of the program.

“Nicole is our strongest vocal leader,” Schmidt said. “She tells you what you need to do. I don’t know how she does it because I couldn’t. She has helped this team get where it is because of the way she has lead.”

Schmidt, who has anchored the Illini at home this season by ending every floor event with a bang, has found leading more by her actions is what she is comfortable with. It’s a role she has flourished in.

“Sarah is kind of like our silent leader, our secret weapon in fact,” Woolf said. “But her gymnastics is so powerful and she goes out there and hits every time. And her work ethic in the gym is amazing.”

Woolf, who joined the team as a walk-on and later earned a scholarship through her hard work and dedication, has filled the ultimate leadership role.

“Just who Laura is inside and outside of the gym is amazing,” Cowart said. “She doesn’t get too much recognition, but she means so much to us. Just how much she loves the sport, it reminds on rough days what we need to do. And if anyone ever has a problem, the team knows they can go to her.”

After all of the festivities, there is still the battle between border rivals as the Illini face the Tigers. Starkell knows it is going to be an emotional meet, but he expects the team to come out and compete like usual down this critical stretch of the season.

“This will be an excellent matchup between two top-15 teams,” Starkell said. “They beat us pretty bad at their place last year, but I think we match up well this year. But this is our chance to put up high score. We have an advantage being at home, but they have an advantage on the season as they’ve put up some higher scores.”

The Illini will continue their march toward the Big Ten Championships, which takes place March 27 in Columbus, Ohio. After a third-place and two second-place finishes in the last three years, the seniors have only one perfect way of ending their collegiate careers.

“It would just be phenomenal to win the Big Ten as we go out,” Woolf said. “We were so close the last two years, and I can’t think of a better way to finish.”