Junior Alina Weinstein is one of two returning All-Americans for the Illini along with senior Kelsey Joannides.
Jan. 12, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Coming off the most successful season in school history, the Illinois women's gymnastics team will look to carry that momentum into the 2012 season and find continued success under head coach Kim Landrus. In 2011, the Illini wrapped up the year ranked No. 11 following their second-ever appearance at the NCAA Championships. Illinois also matched its highest regional finish with a second-place showing in Tuscaloosa, placed third at the Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis and set the school record for team score (196.975) and beam (49.375). The Orange and Blue have a new look to the team, but still set similar goals.
"Every year we set goals for our team, and this year they are very similar to years past," Landrus said. "This team is hungry to win a Big Ten Championship and be a two seed going into the NCAA Regional. Both of these goals we have yet to accomplish, and it will take a consistent team effort to be able to realize them."
The Illini lost two of the most decorated gymnasts in school history following the graduation of standout all-arounders Allison Buckley and Melissa Fernandez, who combined for seven of the 11 All-America honors in school history. Illinois also lost its leadoff on floor and a two-year beam performer in Samantha Perino, meaning it will need to replace 10 routines from a year ago. Despite the loss of those seniors, the Illini still return 14 routines, eight letterwinners, two All-Americans in senior Kelsey Joannides and junior Alina Weinstein, and a Big Ten champion in sophomore Amber See.
"Losing a strong senior class, consisting of two All-Americans, is always a challenge," Landrus said. "However, this team is up to the challenge and ready to debut routines that haven't been seen yet. The talent level is present, so as a team, we will need to step up to the plate and deliver. Our core returnees have done an excellent job of continuing to elevate their performance. I expect Kelsey, Alina and Amber to lead the pack, and if everyone else follows in their footsteps, it will be an exciting season."
After having the interim tag removed over the summer, Landrus will remain at the helm for the Illini along with bars coach Jay Santos, who was promoted to Associate Head Coach, and new assistant coach Rodney Gust, who will serve as the vault and floor coach for the Illini. Volunteer assistant coach Jess Bartgis, who spent time at Pittsburgh and Iowa State, also will help the coaching staff with coordinating floor music and choreography along with assisting on beam and floor. Along with the new faces on the coaching staff, the Illini also welcome six newcomers to the squad.
"This team will be different than last year," Landrus said. "Several individuals will be looked at to step into roles in which they have not yet had the opportunity to do so. It will be exciting to see how they emerge as performers."
The youthful Illini will benefit from six home meets in Champaign, the most since 1986, which includes the programs first-ever NCAA Regional at the Assembly Hall on April 7. Illinois will open the season at Huff Hall for the first time since 2001, as it will host Minnesota on Saturday, Jan. 14.
"We are more than thrilled to be hosting one of the six NCAA Regionals," Landrus said. "Regionals is one of those meets where the team all comes together and puts their best out on the floor. The competition is second to none with a certain level of adrenaline and excitement that is different from the regular season. To be able to experience this prestigious event at home will be a memory that will forever be with them.
"We also are excited to start the season at home. Competing at Huff is indescribable and having our season opener as our home opener is something no one on the team has done yet. I am confident that they will use it to their advantage when they step out to compete."
The senior class includes Kelsey Joannides and Hannah Welker, who will provide sound leadership for a young squad. Joannides, who was selected to the Big Ten Preseason Watch List, earned her first career All-America honors by tying for seventh on vault at the NCAA Championships to pick up second-team accolades along with being named second-team All-Big Ten in 2011. She also was tied for second on the team with seven individual titles and was the runner-up on beam at the Big Ten Championships. Welker did not compete last year, but will look to make an impact in her final season.
"We have a small senior class this year, but one that will be very impactful to our overall performance," Landrus said. "Kelsey has a wealth of experience and should be a team leader on the competition floor. Her preseason training picked up where she left off last year in April. Her consistency and clean lines, along with her `strive for perfection' attitude will make for a successful senior season.
"Hannah looks to have a break out year after getting minimal competition time throughout her first three years. She is doing very well in the gym, and we expect her to bring that same gymnastics to the floor when it is show time."
All four members of the junior class, Alina Weinstein, Jaclyn Kantecki, Elise Gill and Macy Hyatt, have seen time in the lineup and will be highly relied upon during the season. The class will provide key contributions and is expected to take another step this season.
Weinstein, who was named the team's Most Improved Gymnast a year ago, is the other Illini on the Big Ten Preseason Watch List and will be an important Illini all-arounder. She garnered second-team All-America honors on floor after tying for eighth at the NCAA Championships and hit 47-of-52 routines in 2011. She also competed in the all-around at 13 meets, including at nationals, won the first three event titles of her career and posted career highs on vault, beam and floor.
"Alina has worked hard to sharpen and clean up her routines to elevate her scores on each event," Landrus said. "In 2011, she was a consistent performer for us, but still had areas to improve on to reach her full potential. I expect that she will use what she learned last season to be a key all-arounder for the Illini."
Kantecki, who competed on vault and bars at all 14 meets and hit 27-of-28 routines a year ago, will again find herself on those events and has a chance to contribute on beam and floor. She also won her first career individual title on bars and hit both her routines at the NCAA Championships last season.
"Jaclyn could make a big difference for our team this year," Landrus said. "She is talented and has the skill level on all four events. With continued training and increased competitive experience on beam and floor, I am eager to see her increase her role within the team. It should be an exciting year for her."
Gill is expected to see more action this season after competing on vault at the first four meets of 2011 and counting her score three times. She also exhibitioned on vault six times and on floor nine times.
"Elise is set to have her best season yet as an Illini," Landrus said. "Her stand-out events are vault and floor, in which she has been training extremely well. Her hard work is really beginning to pay off and it'll be great to see her step on the competitive floor consistently this year."
Hyatt competed on bars at seven meets last season and counted her score each time. She again will be in the bar lineup and will vie for a spot on beam.
"Macy has made great strides over the past two years," Landrus said. "Last year, she competed in the bar lineup for a little over half the season. We are looking for her to add beam to her list this year, along with being a consistent performer on bars."
The sophomore class has three members in Sarah Fiedler, Elizabeth McNabb and Amber See. All three are expected to make the lineup this year and will continue to gain experience while playing crucial roles during their second season.
"Our sophomore trio learned a lot as freshmen and have really carried these lessons into their sophomore campaign," Landrus said. "These three will be essential to the success of the team as their strengths complement each other well."
See, who was the Big Ten vault champion in her debut season, made an immediate impact a year ago and will attempt to build on her success. She competed on floor at every meet, tallied a career-high 9.925 on the event, which tied the sixth-best mark in school history, and hit 11-of-11 vaults and 7-of-7 beam routines. She also won five individual event titles during the season, tied for fourth on floor at the Big Ten Championships and was twice named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
"After coming off a stellar freshmen campaign, Amber will be looked upon to continue her eye-catching gymnastics again this year," Landrus said. "Her unique vault and crowd-pleasing floor routine will be favorites amongst our fans. She will also play the important leadoff role on beam, along with having the opportunity to compete all-around at times."
Fiedler, who combined to hit 21-of-23 routines on bars and beam last season, will be back on both those events along with filling a void in the floor lineup.
"Sarah will add more to her resume this year as she will once again be a solid contributor on bars and beam," Landrus said. "In addition to these two events, we are excited that she will also be a key person in our floor lineup."
McNabb, who exhibitioned twice on vault, bars and beam in 2011, will be part of the beam lineup and is working to make it on the other three events.
"Liz will look to break into the lineups this year after being very close her freshmen season," Landrus said. "Her consistency on beam has earned her a spot in the beam lineup. I also look for her to contribute on the other three events throughout the season."
Six Illini newcomers are featured on the 2012 Illini roster, but only three will have the opportunity to compete for the Illini due to preseason injuries. Kelsi Eberly (Landisville, Pa./Hempfield), Jordan Naleway (Vernon Hills, Ill./Vernon Hills) and walk-on Carolyn Cozza (Western Springs, Ill./Lyons Township) will see action for the Illini while Sunny Kato (Chino Hills, Calif./Newport Harbor) and Gabriella Nguyen (Goshen, Ind./Lincoln Park) are sidelined with ACL injuries and Nikki McGarel with an elbow injury.
"Our freshmen class had some unexpected setbacks and untimely injuries, so unfortunately, Nikki, Sunny, and Gaby will continue to recover throughout the 2012 season," Landrus said. "We will look to Kelsi, Jordan and Carolyn to bring in consistent routines and depth to the squad. The transition from club gymnastics to college gymnastics is sometimes a difficult one, so we are continuing to work on this element with them. Their success will depend heavily on this adjustment."
"Kelsi will bring steady routines to the competitive floor and should have an impact on vault, beam and floor along with being a backup on bars. She has worked extremely hard in the gym and is looking forward to the team element of college gymnastics. Jordan is expected to make an impact in the bar lineup and provide depth on the other three events for the Illini. She has been steadily improving over the last couple months, and with a little more time, she will be relied on to be able to step in and compete any event necessary. Carolyn is a vault specialist who has been working daily to improve her entry and technique."
Coach Landrus' Event-by-Event Breakdown:
"Vault is an event in which we will steadily improve on throughout the year. We need to continue to increase our depth and skill level so that we have our best vaulting down the stretch. Our girls are committed to doing this and are working very hard in the gym. We have some very dynamic vaults with Kelsey and Amber leading the way. Both of these individuals have been Big Ten vault champions and are expected to continue their success in 2012. Elise, Alina, and Jaclyn will also be very influential to our vault performances on a weekly basis."
"We return five competitors who saw action in the bar lineup in 2011. This experience will bode well as they continue to work on the details that will bring in the high scores. Look for the juniors and seniors to lead the pack on this event with the freshmen and sophomores seeing action along with providing depth to the bar squad."
"Beam is the event that `mind over matter' comes into play more than any other event. We have reworked the beam squad with Amber expected in the lead off position. In addition, several of the routines have been altered to gain that extra tenth needed to elevate our routines. It'll be neat to see the changes by each individual and how that will lead to the overall beam performance this season."
"Losing half of our floor lineup will prove to be the most difficult event to replace the holes left by our graduating class. It's been neat to see individuals step up in the preseason to fill these voids. Expect to see Elise, Sarah, and Hannah make their debut on floor. With the addition of these routines, combined with our returnees Amber, Alina, and Kelsey, we are excited to see the new look on floor. Execution will be key as floor is all about presentation, power and dance."
"Once again, we will rely on a couple all-arounders to lead the way. Both Kelsey and Alina will be looked on once again to provide steady performances on all four events. Amber could also see time in the all-around throughout her sophomore season."