Women's Gymnastics
#23 Illini Square Off Against #17 Penn State in Happy Valley

Junior Melissa Fernandez and the Illini take on the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday at 6 p.m. CT.
Junior Melissa Fernandez and the Illini take on the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday at 6 p.m. CT.

Feb. 3, 2010

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Week 5
#23 Illinois at #17 Penn State

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 // 6 p.m. CT // Rec Hall // University Park, Pa.

The Meet
No. 23 Illinois travels to Happy Valley to take on No. 17 Penn State in a Big Ten showdown on Saturday, Feb. 6. The meet between the top two teams in the Big Ten preseason poll is set to begin at 6 p.m. CT at Rec Hall. Last season, the Illini and Nittany Lions squared off in a dual meet early on and again at the Big Ten Championships. The Orange and Blue bested PSU in Champaign, 195.500-192.925, with Nicole Cowart winning the all-around title and Sarah Schmidt posting scores of 9.900 on both the uneven bars and floor exercise to take home the event crowns. At the conference meet, the Illini placed second with a school-record score of 196.750, finishing just in front of third-place Penn State (196.525). Saturday's contest will be Penn State's first dual meet of the year.

Scouting the Nittany Lions
Penn State has one victory and three runner-up finishes on the season, with its best score (196.025) coming last week in a second-place finish at its home triangular against No. 1 Alabama and No. 23 Minnesota. At that meet, freshman Sharaya Musser was Penn State's Ann Carr award winner for being PSU's top performer in all three of her events. The Nittany Lions boast the fifth-best vault average (49.144) in the nation and rank in the top 25 on bars, beam and floor. Like the Illini, PSU has improved its team score with each meet this season.

Senior and two-time All-American Brandi Personett leads the Nittany Lions with the top vault average (9.925) and second-best floor exercise average (9.900) in the country. She also ranks 32nd in the all-around (38.980). Other standouts for the Nittany Lions include sophomore Whitney Bencsko, who is 25th in the nation on vault (9.844), and sophomore Natalie Ettl, who is 22nd on bars (9.831).

A Look Back
Illinois posted solid performances across the board on Jan. 30 to overcome Iowa at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena, 195.225-192.950. The Illini turned in their highest season total of the year, tallying a 48.650 or better in every event, and picked up their first meet victory of the season. The Orange and Blue have improved their overall team score with each meet this season.

Illinois got things rolling on bars, where they turned in a 48.925 and had six of the top eight performers. Junior Melissa Fernandez notched a career-high 9.850, and senior Sarah Schmidt matched it with her season high (9.850) to tie for first with Iowa's Rebecca Simbhudas, who won the all-around. The Illini performed best on the balance beam with a total of 48.950, paced by season highs (9.875) from both Buckley and Fernandez, who matched Simbhudas for the top spot. Junior Lashlee Morris (9.750), Cowart (9.750) and Schmidt (9.700) also tallied season highs to round out the Illini scoring on the event. On floor exercise, Schmidt captured the crown with a 9.825, which tied Simbhudas and led the Illini to a 48.700.

Seniors Gaining Momentum
Senior Nicole Cowart delivered her best performance of the season against Oklahoma, and fellow senior Sarah Schmidt followed it up the next week with her best showing of the season at Iowa. Cowart picked up her fifth career all-around title with a season-best score of 39.150, marking her 13th career individual title. The Greenwood, Ind., native turned in season highs on vault (9.850), beam (9.750) and floor (9.825) and tallied a season-best all-around (39.150) against the Sooners. Schmidt tied for the top spot on bars (9.850) and floor (9.825) against Iowa, while posting a season-high 39.025 in the all-around. The Hartland, Wis., native now has 19 career event titles, with 10 on bars, eight on floor and one in the all-around.

Fernandez Finishes First
Junior Melissa Fernandez picked up a pair of event titles against Iowa, giving her seven career crowns. The Eudora, Kan., native notched a career-high 9.850 to earn her first-ever bars title and added a season-high 9.875 on beam to tie for first. She also smashed her career high in the all-around with a 39.200, nearly fourth-tenths of a point improvement from her previous best of 38.825.

Buckley Earns Big Ten Honors
Buckley was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week by the conference for the week of Jan. 18 after winning two event titles in the triangular meet at Nebraska. She finished each event with a score of 9.750 or better, while taking home the top spot in the all-around (39.275) and the balance beam (9.850). She also was the highest Illinois finisher in two other events, placing second on vault by tying her a career high with a 9.900 and third in the floor exercise with a 9.775. For the season, the Schaumburg, Ill., native has won five of Illinois' 10 individual event titles, giving her 32 for her career which is tied for fifth on the UI all-time list.

Illinois Career Event Title Leaders
1. Nancy Thies (1976-77) - 58
2. Cara Pomeroy (2004-07) - 41
3. Denise Lamborn (1987-90) - 38
4. Heather Singalewitch (1987-90) - 34
T-5. Allison Buckley (2008-pres.) - 32
T-5. Kim Berres (1996-99) - 32

Fresh Faces
Head coach Bob Starkell welcomes five new faces to the team this season in freshmen Elise Gill, Macy Hyatt, Jaclyn Kantecki, Abbie Leber and Alina Weinstein. Kantecki and Weinstein made their debuts at the Oregon State quad meet, and both newcomers contributed in their first collegiate competition. Kantecki counted her only two routines (vault and bars), while Weinstein turned in the third-best Illini beam score. Kantecki counted all three routines at Nebraska, scoring 9.800 on vault, 9.650 on bars and 9.325 on floor and scored for the Illini on bars (9.725) against Oklahoma. Against Iowa, Kantecki posted the second-best vault (9.750) and tied Weinstein for the fifth spot on bars (9.675). Hyatt debuted at the Nebraska triangular, where the Orange and Blue counted her 9.600 on vault, but was recently sidelined by an injury to her elbow suffered during practice.

Tough Tests Early
According to the latest GymInfo poll, three of Illinois' opponents from its first three meets are currently ranked in the top 10 in the nation, with Oklahoma coming in at No. 2, Oregon State at No. 5 and Nebraska at No. 10. In total, Illinois has nine opponents currently ranked in the Top 25 on its season schedule.

Big Ten Preseason Poll
Illinois was picked second by the conference coaches in the inaugural Big Ten preseason gymnastics poll, just behind early favorite Penn State. Each coach also selected two of their gymnasts to form a 14-member Gymnasts to Watch List, which included Melissa Fernandez and Allison Buckley.

Illini in the Rankings
Illinois began the season ranked 13th in the GymInfo Preseason Coaches Poll, marking the third consecutive year the program has earned its highest preseason ranking in school history. It is also the fourth time overall that the Illini have been in the nation's top 25 heading into a season, ranking 16th last year, 23rd in 2008 and 25th back in 1999 to begin the season. The Illini returned to the Top 25 this week, checking in at No. 23 after just missing the rankings last week at No. 26. After weeks one and two, the Illini were ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively. Allison Buckley leads the Illini in the individual rankings, holding the second best vault average in the region and tied for 13th-best in the nation.

Coming Up Next
Illinois has a pair of meets next week, with the IGI Chicago Style Invite on Friday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. and a dual meet against Michigan State at Huff Hall on Sunday, Feb. 14. at 2 p.m., which is the third annual "Think Pink" meet for breast cancer awareness.

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