Women’s gymnastics finish disappointing sixth at Big Ten Tournament

Big Ten Conference Championship weekend failed to bring big results for No. 13 Illinois, which finished a disappointing sixth-place, just ahead of host Ohio State, which finished seventh.

The Illini finished with a score of 195.025, short of the 196.900 Michigan tallied for its fourth-straight conference title and 17th overall in the last 19 years.

Despite falling short of expectations, Illinois picked up individual honors including four All-Conference selections as well as the Big Ten co-Coach of the Year award for head coach Bob Starkell.

Preseason favorite Penn State finished second followed by Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota. Illinois and Ohio State rounded out the top seven.

“We felt our preparation was good, just like any other meet,” junior Allison Buckley said. “We got there and it was a good warm-up, just the execution wasn’t there. It sort of became like a ripple effect after a shaky start. We got nervous, and it let to too many little mistakes making it hard for us to come back.”

Illinois was challenged early, both by starting off on the floor event for the first time all season, and then later losing all-around competitor Melissa Fernandez to injury on the vault. The setback forced Illinois to alter its usually consistent lineup.

“A tough night because we didn’t quite meet our expectations,” Starkell said.

“We’re somewhat disappointed and have a few bumps in the road ahead of us. I was extremely disappointed with the bars, but our biggest struggle was probably starting on the floor where we weren’t the sharpest. It didn’t allow us to keep our energy high going into the other events. And it was tough losing Melissa because she was doing well. It made us put pressure on some others, and we were proud of what they did.”

Fernandez felt some pain in her leg after her landing on the vault and was held out from the bars and beam events. Despite the injury, she placed third overall on the event along with teammate Buckley with a score of 9.850. The vault was the team’s best event, finishing second on the night. Illinois also finished third on the beam.

Following the meet, Starkell was awarded Big Ten co-Coach of the Year, the third time in his career he has been honored with the award.

“The nice thing about this recognition is that it is awarded by my peers. But this award reflects the team and their work this season as well as the two excellent assistant coaches,” Starkell said. “They do everything I ask of them and make me look good.”

Starkell’s award was in addition to four Illini being selected to All-Big Ten teams. Buckley and first-time selections Fernandez and senior Sarah Schmidt were honored as first-team selections. The honor was Buckley’s second first-team nod — she garnered the distinction in 2008 ­— and third overall all-conference selection. Senior Nicole Cowart was awarded a second-team All-Big Ten selection, her second in a row, after receiving a first-team nod in 2007.

“These honors are so special because it’s all of the other coaches that vote on them,” Cowart said.

“Four selections really speaks volumes for the team and the work we’ve done this season. And we’re really happy for Bob. To win in back to back years is amazing. It just shows the direction he and the great coaching staff have been able to take us and this program.”