Women’s gymnasts win unofficial state title despite injuries

At the end of its regular season, the No. 16 Illinois women’s gymnastics team thought it had everything figured out.

Going into the State of Illinois Classic on Saturday in Chicago, the lineup was pretty much set in stone with junior Nicole Cowart, sophomore Allison Buckley and freshman Kelsey Joannides being the only all-around competitors.

But with senior Julie Crall and sophomore Melissa Fernandez out with last-minute minor injuries, head coach Bob Starkell was forced to switch up the lineup. He put gymnasts in events they usually don’t compete in, leading the Illini to have a season high five all-around competitors.

The Illini rose to the challenge, defending their unofficial state championship title with a score of 196.450, their second-best score of the season and the second-best score in school history, to beat Northern Illinois (194.925), Illinois Chicago (194.800) and Illinois State (193.275).

“This meet really showed us that we can switch things up at the last minute and still compete at a top level,” Cowart said. “Now we feel more prepared for the coming meets because we are ready for anything.”

On the uneven bars, Sarah Schmidt led the Illini with a title-winning and career-high tying score of 9.900. The Illini posted their second-best score of the season (49.125) in the event.

Despite missing the top two beam performers, Crall and Fernandez, and an uncharacteristic fall by Cowart, Ilinois tied its school record of 49.150, set earlier this season, on the beam. Buckley tied for the event title, equaling her personal-best and the second-best score in school history with a 9.925.

“I fell on the beam tonight because I just lost my focus, but this was one of those meets where I could afford to make a mistake because everybody else performed so well,” Cowart said.

Schmidt continued leading the team on the floor, where she posted her career-best of 9.925 and took her second title of the evening. Illinois had its top score of the season on the floor with a 49.325.

With five all-around competitors, Illinois took the first four places, with Botterman, Joannides and Schmidt all posting career-bests. Botterman came away with the title (39.350), tying the fifth-best all-around score in school history.

“I don’t usually compete in the all-around, and I think that I just did so well because the team was doing so well,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said that one of the fun things about this meet was that the Illini knew a lot of the opposing gymnasts from high school club teams. She also said that this meet really proved that Illinois was the best team in the state and that Illini can only hope for a similar performance next week so that they can prove themselves as the best team in the Big Ten.

“This meet was very similar to our one against Iowa where just everybody performed really well,” Starkell said. “If we perform at this caliber the results will definitely be good for us next week at the Big Ten Championships.”