Women’s gymnastics battles for in-state bragging rights

Full speed ahead. Next stop: the Illinois State Classic.

The No. 13 Illinois women’s gymnastics team heads to Normal, Ill., on Saturday for a quad meet with Illinois-Chicago, Illinois State and Northern Illinois, all of whom will be competing for the unofficial state championship. Coming off two straight wins against rivals Ohio State and Missouri, the team hopes to continue its momentum beyond this weekend into Big Ten Conference Championships next weekend.

“At this point of the season, you try to stay as close to consistent as you can with the lineup,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “As a coaching staff, we’ll always look get better and explore which ways we may be able to do that lineup-wise. But we feel rest right now would probably not be the best thing for us. This is a really strong and healthy group with a goal in mind: winning at Big Tens. And we want to make sure their mental set is tight and don’t want to deter anything they’ve been doing thus far.”

The three other teams from the state, along with the Fighting Illini, will be vying for bragging rights in the annual event, which Illinois has claimed the past two years. The Illini scored a 196.450 last season at the event, their fourth-best mark in school history. Northern Illinois took second place with a score of 194.925, followed by UIC and Illinois State posting scores of 194.800 and 193.275, respectively.

“It’s pretty meaningful to us,” junior Samantha Perino said. “We obviously go out there and try to win every year. But overall we have the same mindset, run the same practices, and it’s a good precursor for us before the Big Tens. Its championship format gets us prepared for next week.”

And with only one week left before the showdown at Big Ten Conference Championships, the meet will serve as a final tune-up for a squad who is always set on improving.

“We’ll do what we always do,” junior Melissa Fernandez said. “Just as hard in practice and just as hard in the meet. Hopefully we can also use this just as another building block for Big Tens, making sure we fix some little things. We want to especially focus on the vault and aim high on that.”

Starkell wants the weekend to be a learning experience, in which the team hopes not only to win its first championship, but the first to come.

“I want them to come out more confident than the last couple weekends,” Starkell said. “One thing we want to take away is a good vault score. The vault is pretty good event, but we’ve struggled recently trying a few things. We’ll also start on beam this week, which we haven’t done this season. It’s a new challenge and another thing we’ll be prepared for when Big Tens come around.”