Melissa Fernandez scored a 9.900 on beam to become the first Illini to earn both first team All-America status and advance to event finals at the NCAA Championships. (photo by Amy Pyle)
April 16, 2009
LINCOLN, Neb. - The Illinois women's gymnastics team took another step forward Thursday night at the NCAA Championships. Though the Fighting Illini didn't advance to Friday's Super Six team finals, they did fulfill their main goal entering the season of competing together at the NCAA Championships and even went a step further, as two Illini individuals claimed All-America honors, the most in a single-season in school history.
Sophomore Melissa Fernandez etched her name in the Illinois history books, tying for first place on the balance beam in the evening session to earn first team All-America status and advance to Saturday's individual event final on the event. She is the first Illini gymnast to earn either distinction at the NCAA Championships. Her score of 9.900 tied six other competitors in Thursday's second session.
"I was nervous before competing because warm-ups didn't go great for me, but I just took a deep breath and tried to think about all the work I've put in this season," Fernandez said. "I had one small mistake, but I knew it was a good routine when I finished. I'm looking forward to going up against some great competition in finals."
Junior Sarah Schmidt earned an All-America accolade of her own, tying for sixth place on floor in the evening session to earn second team honors. With both Fernandez and Schmidt earning All-America distinction, it marks the first time Illinois has had more than one All-American in a season. Nancy Thies was an AIAW All-American on bars in 1976, before the NCAA sponsored the sport, and Allison Buckley was a second team All-American on beam last season, the first Illini to earn the status at an NCAA Championship.
Team-wise, Illinois counted a fall for the first time in nearly two months and struggled to a score of 195.050, finishing sixth in the six-team session and 12th overall at the Championships. Still, the Illini have nothing to hang their heads about, as the 2009 season took the program one stop closer to the top.
"Our major goal all year was to compete at the NCAA Championships and finish in the top 12, and we did that," Head Coach Bob Starkell said. "Of course we would have liked to compete a little bit better tonight, but it doesn't take away what we've accomplished this year. Our program took another big step forward tonight. Now we'll be even more motivated for next year and will have even higher goals to reach for thanks to this experience."
The Illini started the night on the uneven bars, posting a score of 48.875 as all six routines scored between 9.7 and 9.8. Schmidt and junior Nicole Cowart led the way with identical 9.800s, which tied for 18th. The Orange and Blue then moved to the beam, where Cowart got things started well with a career-high tying 9.825. However, the next two competitors, Lashlee Morris and Kelsey Joannides, both suffered falls, meaning the Illini would count a major break for the first time since the Kentucky meet in late February. Senior Julie Crall finished her career with a 9.700 and then Buckley's 9.850 and Fernandez's first-place 9.900 routine wrapped-up the rotation strong, but the damage was done as the team posted a 48.575 score on the event.
After a bye, Illinois moved to floor where it turned in the best event score of the night, 48.900. Schmidt's 9.850 led the way and earned her second team All-America status, while Buckley (9.825), Cowart (9.750) and senior Lindsey Smith (9.750) also turned in solid routines. The Illini finished on vault in the fifth rotation, counting another major break en route to a 48.700 team score. Senior Marijka Botterman wrapped-up her stellar Illinois career with a 9.850 and Buckley matched her with a 9.850 of her own to lead the Orange and Blue.
The top three teams from each of Thursday's preliminary sessions advanced to Friday's Super Six team finals. In the early session Georgia (197.450), Florida (19.375) and LSU (197.325) advanced, while Alabama (197.025), Arkansas (196.950) and Utah (196.625) moved on out of the evening session.
The all-around champion was also crowned on Thursday as Georgia's Courtney Kupets took the overall title with a 39.800, including a perfect 10.0 on beam. Illinois' Buckley turned in a solid all-around performance of 39.300 to finish 19th in the field of 46 all-arounders.
"Overall, this experience is going to be huge for our team," Fernandez said. "To experience this environment and level of competition will only drive us to work harder. We saw today that can compete with teams at this level and next year we'll be even hungrier to get back here and perform better."
The top four individuals on each event from each of Thursday's sessions, including ties, will compete in Saturday's event finals at 6 p.m. Check fightingillini.com for photos and more information on the NCAA Championships.