Senior Julie Crall looks to defend her Big Ten balance beam title as the Illini are vying for their first championship since 1990.
March 18, 2009
Follow the Action
TV: Live on the Big Ten Network (Jim Kelly, Eddie Umphrey and Elise Ray)
Live Stats: fightingillini.com
Tickets: $10 for Adults/$5 for Students at the UI Athletic Ticket Office or by calling 1-866-ILLNI-1
Illinois Championships Website: http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/w-gym/09BigTenChampionships.html
The Fighting Illini women's gymnastics team (17-7) hosts the Big Ten Championships this Saturday, March 21, at 2 p.m. CT. The Championships will take place at Huff Hall and be televised live on the Big Ten Network. Jim Kelly, Eddie Umphrey and Elise Ray will call the action.
Last weekend, the Illini took home the unofficial state crown by winning the State of Illinois Classic with the second-best score in school history of 196.450. Northern Illinois took second behind the Illini with a 194.925. Rounding out the field were Illinois-Chicago (194.800) and Illinois State (193.275).
This year's competition promises to be one of the most competitive in history, as all seven teams are ranked in the nation's top-27, including the top-five packed tightly together between 13 and 17. Penn State leads the way at No. 13 and is followed closely by No. 15 Michigan and No. 16 Illinois, while Minnesota and Ohio State are deadlocked at No. 17 in the rankings. Michigan State sits at No. 26 and Iowa is right behind them at No. 27. Minnesota (three victories) and Michigan (15 victories) have been the only two teams to win the Big Ten title since 1990, when Illinois won its first and only Big Ten gymnastics crown.
Breaking Down The Events
Vault: Penn State's Brandi Personett leads the conference on vault with an event RQS of 9.910, but Illinois' Marijka Botterman is right behind in second with a 9.885 RQS.
Bars: Rochelle Robinson of Michigan State tops all Big Ten gymnasts on bars with an event RQS of 9.870. Illinois junior Sarah Schmidt, last year's third-place finisher on bars, leads the Illini with a 9.850, ranking her in a tie for 5th in the conference. Junior Nicole Cowart is just behind with a RQS of 9.830.
Beam: Michigan State's Kelsey Morley leads the conference on beam with an event RQS of 9.900. Illini freshman Kelsey Joannides and sophomore Melissa Fernandez are the top Illini representatives on this event with a 9.850, ranking them fourth and fifth in the conference, respectively. Don't count out defending beam champion Julie Crall of Illinois, who has missed some time due to injury.
Floor: Brandi Personett of Penn State leads all Big Ten gymnasts on floor with an RQS of 9.920, but Illinois' Schmidt is close behind, sitting 3rd with an RQS of 9.880.
All-Around: Penn State's Personett, with an event RQS of 39.365, is also the top all-around performer in the Big Ten. Cowart, who places ninth in the conference with an RQS of 39.155, paves the way for the Illini all-arounders.
Last Year at Big Tens: Illini Take Second, Crall Wins Beam Title
Illinois finished second at the 2008 Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., its highest finish since winning the conference crown in 1990. The Illini scored a 195.750, their top score of the season, to finish behind No. 14 Michigan and ahead of No. 23 Penn State, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 22 Iowa, No. 25 Minnesota and Ohio State.
In addition to the team success, Julie Crall won the balance beam title with a career-high tying 9.000 on the last routine of the competition to take over second place from the Nittany Lions and lead the Illini to a season-high beam score (49.050). Allison Buckley was also impressive in the competition, garnering four top-10 finishes (BB-2nd, VT-4th, AA-4th, FX-7th). Lindsey Smith tied Buckley on vault with a 9.850, leading the Illini to their top event score of the championships (49.100). Sarah Schmidt tied a career-high on bars (9.900) to earn third place. In addition to the competition, Buckley was honored as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a First Team All-Big Ten selection.
Illini Big Ten Championship History
Over the years, the Illini have claimed one Big Ten title after bringing home the 1990 crown with a score of 188.750. This puts them in the same group as Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota in being the only four programs to win the conference championship. Since that win, Illinois' next best finishes have come the past two seasons, taking second in 2008 and third in 2007. Throughout the 26-year history of the meet, the Illini have won nine individual titles, with the last coming last year by Julie Crall on the balance beam.
Senior Marijka Botterman will go head-to-head with a familiar face in the Big Ten Championships. Marijka's younger sister, Kylee, is a sophomore on Michigan's squad. The two competed against each other at last year's Big Ten Championships and earlier this season at the Ohio State Quad meet, where they shared the vault title with 9.825s. Their other sister, Danye, competed for Illinois and graduated in 2007. Check out a feature story on Marijka and Kylee's "Sibling Rivalry" at www.BigTen.com.
Botterman Vaults Into Record Book
Senior Marijka Botterman broke Illinois' individual vault record on Feb. 15 against Ohio State with a 9.95. She shared the old record of 9.925 with Jessica Cole (2003) and Nicole Viernes (1996) already, but now sits alone at the top of the record book. Last weekend, Botterman stepped into the all-around role due to injury and responded with a career-best 39.350, tying the fifth best score in school history and taking first at the four-team State of Illinois Classic. The New Lenox, Ill., native is currently ranked 16th in the nation and second in the Big Ten Conference on vault (9.885 RQS), scoring no lower than 9.800 all season on the event. Botterman, who has emerged as one of the team's leaders and as one of the most consistent performers this year, now has eight titles on the season, including five on vault.
Illini In the Rankings
The Fighting Illini enter this weekend's meet ranked 16th in the GymInfo coaches poll, holding steady from last week, and fifth in the South Central Region. Illinois' No. 16 ranking in the preseason coaches poll marked the highest preseason ranking in school history. It is the second consecutive year and third time overall that the Illini have been in the nation's top-25 heading into a season, ranking 23rd last season and 25th back in 1999 to start the season.
Illinois ranks 11th in the nation and first in the Big Ten on the balance beam and is also ranked 16th nationally on floor, 18th on bars, and 19th on vault. Marijka Botterman currently sits second in the Big Ten and ranks 16th nationally on vault (9.885), while sophomore Allison Buckley ranks sixth in the conference on vault. Freshman Kelsey Joannides is fourth in the conference on beam (9.850) and 35th nationally, while sophomore Melissa Fernandez is fifth in the conference rankings on beam. Junior Sarah Schmidt is the top Illini on floor (9.880) and uneven bars (9.850), ranking third and fifth in the Big Ten, respectively. Junior Nicole Cowart is the top Illinois performer in the all-around, ranking 41st in the nation.
After struggling on the balance beam a year ago, the Illini have used off-season training to become one of the nation's elite on the event. Illinois has tied the school beam record twice this season with a 49.175, first at Washington on Feb. 21 and again last weekend at the State of Illinois Classic. The Illini are currently ranked 11th in the nation and first in the Big Ten conference with an RQS of 49.040, after finishing the 2008 campaign 30th nationally with a 48.304 average.
The Orange and Blue have already topped the 49.0 mark five times this season, which only happened one time last year, at the Big Ten Championships. The Illini return both Big Ten Beam Champion Julie Crall and beam All-American Allison Buckley, but this year the Illini's success on the balance beam has been aided by the addition of freshman Kelsey Joannides and the steady improvements of Melissa Fernandez, Nicole Cowart, Lashlee Morris, and Sarah Schmidt.
Buckley Back to Form
Sophomore Allison Buckley, a 2008 All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, looks to finally be back to form following off-season surgery that had limited her throughout the early part of the season. The Schaumburg, Ill., native has competed in the all-around in each of the past six meets, taking home the title twice, including a season-high 39.350 against Ohio State on Feb. 15. Last weekend, she tallied her second consecutive 9.925 to win the beam title and scored a 39.250 in the all-around. Her 9.925 beam mark against at the Illinois Classic and UIC tied her career-best, as well as the the program's second-best score in history. Buckley now has 26 career-titles, tying her four sixth among UI's career event title leaders. She also holds four of the top-5 all-around scores in school history, including the second-best mark of 39.450.
Joannides Excels Early in Career
Freshman Kelsey Joannides has made a case for Big Ten Freshman of the Year this season. The Frederick, Md., native has competed in the all-around in each meet for the Illini, capturing her first all-around title on Feb. 6 in Chicago. Last weekend, she posted a career-best 39.325, the 10th best score in UI history, to take second behind Marijka Botterman's career-best 39.350. She now has three runner-up finishes (Penn St., Iowa, & IL Classic) and one third place finish (Michigan St.) in the all-around. She also tied a career-best 9.90 on floor last week to take second after winning her first floor title against UIC the week prior. Joannides has also captured the beam title three times this season, each with a score of 9.850. She is currently ranked 35th in the nation on beam (9.850) and 48th in the all-around (39.085).
Junior Nicole "Suki" Cowart has been one of the most consistent Illini performers all season. She has competed in the all-around in every competition this year for the Orange and Blue, topping the 39.0 mark seven times. Cowart set a new career-high (39.250) to help lead the Illini to a school record score against Ohio State. She ranks among the top-100 nationally on bars (60th) and in the all-around (41st). Cowart now has 12 career titles, including four each on floor and in the all-around.
Schmidt Is Smokin'
Last weekend, junior Sarah Schmidt won the floor title with a career-high 9.925, tying the fifth best individual score on floor in UI history. She also took home the bars crown with a career-high tying 9.900, and set a new personal-best in the all-around (39.275) to take third. Schmidt was named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week by the conference (Jan. 19) after winning two individual titles with career-high scores of 9.900 on both bars and floor to lead the Illini in their upset over Penn State. Those scores were the highest in the conference that week on the two events. The Hartland, Wis., native also tallied her career-high on vault (9.825) against the Nittany Lions. Schmidt has been Illinois' most consistent bars and floor performer this season, ranking among the best in the conference in both events. She now has 16 career event titles, including nine on the uneven bars and six on floor.
This past fall, Schmidt had the opportunity to perform alongside several Olympic greats, including Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, when the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars came to Champaign in November.
The injury bug had limited several Illini in the early part of the season, but the Orange and Blue had been healthy for the past several weeks, until sophomore Melissa Fernandez and senior Julie Crall sat out last week's competition with injuries. Both are expected to compete on all their events in the Big Ten Championships this weekend.
Record Setting Day Against the Buckeyes
The Illini scored a school record 196.700 in the "Pink Meet" victory against Ohio State on February 15, shattering the previous record of 196.300, set in 2004. After posting the program's best vault score in history at Missouri on Feb. 15 with a 49.175, the women came back with a 49.225 against the Buckeyes to break the school record for the second time in a three day span. Senior Marijka Botterman led the Illini charge on vault, tallying an individual school record of 9.95. The Orange and Blue went on to tie the third-best bars score in program history (49.25), led by Botterman and junior Sarah Schmidt, who shared the event title with 9.875s. Sophomore Melissa Fernandez led Illinois on beam (48.975), taking the event crown with a 9.9. Illinois equaled the school's sixth-best floor total (49.250) in the final rotation to take firm hold over the UI team score record.
Up Next: NCAA Regionals
Illinois has clinched its sixth-straight regional bid and is in good position for a top-18 finish, meaning it would be one of three seeded teams in each of the six regions. Official regional assignments won't be announced until Sunday, March 29, after the completion of conference championships across the country.