The Illini made their first ever appearance at the NCAA Championships, where sophomore Melissa Fernandez earned first team All-American honors on beam.
May 5, 2009
A First For Everything: Illinois made its first-ever team appearance at the NCAA Championships, finishing in sixth place in the evening preliminary session. With the national appearance, the Illini finished at No. 12 in the final national rankings, the highest final national ranking in school history.
All-American Girls: Sophomore Melissa Fernandez became Illinois' first NCAA first team All-American by tying for first place on balance beam in the evening session of the team prelims of the NCAA championships with a score of 9.900. Fernandez went on to compete in the individual event finals, where she took seventh (9.8375) among the eleven beam competitors. Junior Sarah Schmidt also earned All-American honors, tying for sixth place on floor in the evening session to earn second team honors. It marks the first time that Illinois has had more than one All-American in a season.
Coaches Sweep National Awards: Illinois head coach Bob Starkell was named National Coach of the Year and assistants Kim Landrus and Amy Kruse were named co-Assistant Coaches of the Year by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches for Women (NACGC/W) at the NCAA Championships.
Buckley Wins Beam at Regional: Sophomore Allison Buckley shared the West Regional Beam Title with an individual school record score of 9.95. Her score tied Stacy Redmond (1995) at the top of the individual record books. Buckley is just the third Illini in school history to earn an individual regional title, joining Nancy Thies (1976 and '77) and Cara Pomeroy (2004).
Duo Claims Big Ten Titles: Freshman Kelsey Joannides won the 2009 Big Ten Vault title with a career-high 9.925 and junior Sarah Schmidt shared the Big Ten Floor crown with a school-record tying 9.950 to give Illinois multiple event champions at the conference meet for the first time since 1990.
A Program on the Rise
By advancing to the 2009 NCAA Championships, Illinois continued its gradual climb towards becoming one of the nation's elite teams. When this year's senior class of Marijka Botterman, Julie Crall, Kim Kruk and Lindsey Smith started their careers four years ago, the Illini program hadn't finished in the top half of the Big Ten in 15 years and had reached regionals only four times since 1990. During the last four years, Illinois has improved its Big Ten and regional finishes each year and has continued to climb up the national rankings. Take a look at the program's progress over the last four years:
Year Big Ten Regional Final Nat. Rank 2006 7th 4th 25 2007 3rd 4th 20 2008 2nd 3rd 15 2009 2nd 2nd 12
Illinois Competes at NCAA Championships
Illinois made its first ever appearance at the NCAA Championships in 2009, taking sixth place in the evening session with a score of 195.050 and 12th overall at the championships. The young Illini struggled, as they counted a falls on beam and vault, but gained vaulable experience for the future.
Despite the team stuggles, the program still took several steps forwards as Melissa Fernandez became the first Illini in history to compete in an NCAA event final and take home first team All-America honors, doing so on the balance beam. She tied for the event title during team prelims with a 9.900 and finished seventh in the final with a 9.8375. Sarah Schmidt also earned second team All-America honors on floor, tying for sixth on floor (9.850) during Illinois' session.
Illini Take Second At West Regional to Earn First Ever National Bid
The Illini took second place behind No. 2 Utah at the West Regional Championship in Seattle, earning one of the two coveted qualifying spots to the NCAA Championships. Allison Buckley took home a share of the beam crown with an individual school record-tying score of 9.95 to lead the Illini to a 196.700 team score, just .05 off the school record set two weeks earlier at the Big Ten Championships. Buckley received a spot on the podium in three events, taking first on beam, second on vault (9.90), and fourth in the all-around (39.425). She led Illinois to the team record on beam (49.200), while Kelsey Joannides and Melissa Fernandez tied for fourth on beam with 9.875s. Buckley and Marijka Botterman (9.850) were the top Illini vaulters, leading the Orange and Blue to their third best score of the season and in school history (49.175). Botterman led Illinois on bars (49.100), taking third place with a career-high 9.900, and Sarah Schmidt paced the Illini on floor (49.225), finishing sixth with a 9.875. Joannides joined Buckley on the all-around podium with a 39.300 to take sixth, while Nicole Cowart finished seventh with a 39.150.
Illini Take Second At Big Tens Once Again
Illinois posted a school record score of 196.750 at the 2009 Big Ten Championships at Huff Hall, but it wasn't enough to earn the Illini their first conference title since 1990, as the Orange and Blue finished runner-up for the second straight year behind Michigan. Illinois made a late charge with team records on their final two events, floor (49.500) and vault (49.375), to put pressure on the Wolverines, who finished with a 197.075. Following the competition, head coach Bob Starkell was honored as co-Big Ten Coach of the Year along with Penn State's Steve Shephard. It is the second time that Starkell has received the honor, with the first coming in 2005.
In addition to the team success, Sarah Schmidt shared the floor title with a school record tying 9.950 and Kelsey Joannides won the vault crown with a personal-best 9.925, giving the Illini a Big Ten Champion for the third consecutive year and multiple winners for only the fourth time in program history. Allison Buckley (9.925) and Marijka Botterman (9.900) finished fourth and fifth, respectively, behind Schmidt on floor to help lead the Illini to the team event record. Nicole Cowart finished right behind Joannides on vault with a career-high 9.900 to take second and pace the Illini to the team vault record. Joannides and Melissa Fernandez paved the way for the Illini on beam (48.925), tying for second with 9.875s. Joannides tied the third best all-around score in UI history of 39.375 to garner a fifth place finish, while Cowart took eighth with a career-best 39.275 and Buckley finished 10th with a 39.250.
Records Were Made to be Broken
The 2009 Fighting Illini made several significant marks on the all-time Illinois record books, breaking school records in overall team score and in three of four events. The Orange and Blue posted the top four team scores in school history in 2009 and posted six scores on program's all-time top-10 list. The record coming into the season was a 196.300, but the team surpassed the record mark with scores of 196.700 against Ohio State on Feb. 15 and 196.750 at the Big Ten Championships on March 21. Illinois squad holds the top-five team vault scores in the record book, including the new record of 49.375 at the Big Ten Championships. They moved past the old floor record (49.450) at the Big Ten Championships with a 49.500, and passed the old beam record (49.175), which had been tied twice earlier this season, at the West Regional with a 49.200.
In addition to the team records, several gymnasts placed themselves on top of the individual record books. Marijka Botterman took sole possession of first place on the all-time vault list with her near-perfect 9.950 on Feb. 15 against Ohio State. Sarah Schmidt joined four other performances at the top of the individual floor record book with her 9.950 at the Big Ten Championships. Allison Buckley tied the school beam record with a 9.950 at the West Regional championship, after posting two 9.925s earlier in the year. Several individuals notched spots in the top-10 all-around list this season, with Buckley leading the way with 39.425 to sit in third, behind the second place mark that she set in 2008 of 39.450. Kelsey Joannides tallied a 39.375 to sit in a tie for fourth, while Botterman scored a 39.350, seventh on the list. For complete Illinois performance lists, see page 4.
Much of Illinois' improvement in 2009 can be traced to the balance beam. After struggling on beam a year ago, the Illini used off-season training to become one of the nation's elite on the event. Allison Buckley's individual record tying 9.950 led Illinois to the school beam record (49.200) at the West Regional championship, after tying the old mark (49.175) twice earlier in the season. The Illini were ranked in the top-15 nationally all season and were the top beam team in the Big Ten Conference with an average of 48.850, after finishing the 2008 campaign 30th nationally with a 48.304 average.
The Orange and Blue topped the 49.0 mark six times on the season, which only happened one time last year. The Illini returned both 2008 Big Ten Beam Champion Julie Crall and 2008 beam All-American Allison Buckley, but most of the Illini's success on the balance beam was aided by the addition of freshman Kelsey Joannides and rock-solid performances of Melissa Fernandez, Nicole Cowart, and Lashlee Morris.
Sophomore Melissa Fernandez earned first team All-America honors on the balance beam by taking a share of first place in the evening sesssion of the NCAA Championships with a score of 9.900. She then went on to finish seventh (9.8375) of 11 competitors in the event finals. She hit all 14 of her beam routines on the season and scored at least a 9.825 in 10 of those 14. The Eudora, Kan., native tied the second best beam score in UI history of 9.925 early in the season to win the event against Missouri. She finished in a tie for second on beam at the Big Ten Championships with a 9.875 and tied for fourth (9.875) at the West Regional Championship on beam. She finished the year with five titles on beam. Overall, Fernandez hit 36 of her 38 routines on the year, as she was also a constant contributor on vault and bars, including a sixth place finish on vault at Big Tens with a career-high 9.875.
Botterman Vaults Into Record Book
Senior Marijka Botterman broke Illinois' individual vault record on Feb. 15 against Ohio State with a 9.95. She already shared the old record of 9.925 with Jessica Cole (2003) and Nicole Viernes (1996), but now sits alone at the top of the record book. A second team All-Big Ten selection, Botterman took fifth on floor at the Big Ten Championships with a career-high 9.900 and third on bars at the West Regional with a career-high 9.900. Botterman stepped into the all-around role at the State of Illinois Classic due to injuries and responded with a career-best 39.350, tying the fifth best score in school history and taking first at the four-team competition. She finished the season ranked 21st in the nation on vault (9.885 RQS), scoring no lower than 9.800 all season on the event. Botterman, who emerged as one of the team's leaders and as one of the most consistent performers during her final season, had eight titles on the year, including five on vault.
Buckley Bounces Back
Sophomore Allison Buckley, a 2008 All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, regained her stature as one of the premier gymnasts in the conference after offseason surgery limited her early in the season. The Schaumburg, Ill., native tied the school beam record (9.95) at the West Regional to share the title honors, and also finished second on vault (9.90) and fourth in the all-around with her season-high and third best score in Illinois history of 39.425. She competed in the all-around in each meet during the second half of the season, taking home the title twice, including a 39.350 against Ohio State on Feb. 15. At the Big Ten Championships, she finished fourth on floor with a career-high tying 9.925, ninth on vault (9.850), and tenth in the all-around (39.250). She tallied two consecutive 9.925s on beam to take the title at the State of Illinois Classic and against UIC. Buckley now has 27 career-titles, placing her sixth among UI's career event title leaders. She also holds five of the top-7 all-around scores in school history, including the second-best mark of 39.450. Despite the early injuries, she was still named second team All-Big Ten.
Kelsey Starts Career with a Bang
Freshman Kelsey Joannides had a stellar freshman campaign that culminated in an impressive postseason. Joannides won the Big Ten Vault title with the second-best score in school history of 9.925. She also tied the third best all-around score in UI history of 39.375 to finish fifth at the Big Tens, while taking runner-up on beam with a personal-best 9.875. Joannides went on to finish in the top-10 on three events at the West Regional, taking fourth on beam (9.875), sixth in the all-around (39.300), and ninth on vault (9.825). 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. She also tied a career-best 9.90 on floor at the State of Illinois Classic to take second after winning her first floor title against UIC the week prior. Joannides, a second team All-Big Ten selection, also captured the beam title three times this season, each with a score of 9.850. She finished the year ranked 34th in the nation on beam (9.860), 49th in the all-around (39.140), and 63rd on floor (9.850).
Schmidt Is Smokin'
Junior Sarah Schmidt earned second team All-American honors on floor by finishing sixth in the evening session at the NCAA Championships with a score of 9.850. Schmidt also shared the 2009 Big Ten floor championship with a school record tying 9.950, after taking home the floor title the week prior at the State of Illinois Classic with a 9.925. She also took home the bars crown at the Illinois Classic with a career-high tying 9.900, and set a new personal-best in the all-around (39.275) to take third. Schmidt took sixth at the West Regional on floor with a 9.875. She 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 was Illinois' most consistent bars and floor performer this season, ranking 18th nationally on floor (9.890) and 45th on bars (9.850) at the conclusion of the regular season. A second team All-Big Ten honoree, Schmidt led the team with nine event titles on the season, including four on the uneven bars and five on floor.
Performing with the Stars: In November of 2008, 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's Assembly Hall.
Junior Nicole "Suki" Cowart was one of the most consistent Illini performers all season. She took runner-up at the Big Ten Championships on vault with a career-best 9.900 and eighth in the all-around with a personal-best 39.275. Cowart then went on to tie for sixth on bars (9.850) and take seventh in the all-around (39.150) at the West Regional. She competed in the all-around in every competition this year for the Orange and Blue, topping the 39.0 mark nine times. A second team All-Big Ten pick, Cowart ranked among the top-100 nationally on vault (93rd), bars (57th) and in the all-around (40th). Cowart has 12 career titles, including four each on floor and in the all-around.
Record Five Illini Named to All-Big Ten Teams
Five Fighting Illini gymnasts - Marijka Botterman, Allison Buckley, Nicole Cowart, Kelsey Joannides and Sarah Schmidt - were all named second team All-Big Ten in 2009. With five athletes on the combined all-conference teams, Illinois had the most selections in school history and the most of any Big Ten team this season.
Illini In the Rankings
The Fighting Illini finished the season ranked 12th in the nation, the highest ranking in the history of the program. At the conclusion of the regular season, Illinois ranked 13th in the nation on the balance beam, 15th on floor, 17th on bars, and 19th on vault. Marijka Botterman ranked 21st nationally on vault (9.885), while sophomore Allison Buckley ranked 59th with a 9.850 RQS. Freshman Kelsey Joannides fiinished 34th nationally on beam (9.860), while sophomore Melissa Fernandez sat right behind her in the national rankings, also with a 9.860 RQS. Junior Sarah Schmidt was the top Illini on floor (9.890) and uneven bars (9.850), ranking 18th and 45th in the nation respectively. Junior Nicole Cowart was the top Illinois performer in the all-around, ranking 47th in the nation.
Conference Best 11 Illini Named Academic All-Big Ten
All 11 upperclassmen from the Illinois women's gymnastics team were named to the Academic All-Big Ten team. The 11 honorees are the most by any Big Ten gymnastics team in 2009 and are the second-most in school history to only the 2001 squad that had 12 Academic All-Conference selections. The Illini honored are seniors Marijka Botterman (communications), Julie Crall (business administration), Kim Kruk (Spanish/biology) and Lindsey Smith (kinesiology), juniors Nicole Cowart (accountancy), Sarah Schmidt (kinesiology) and Laura Woolf (agri-accounting), and sophomores Allison Buckley (Kinesiology), Melissa Fernandez (Kinesiology), Lashlee Morris (Kinesiology) and Samantha Perino (Psychology). All four seniors are three-time honorees, while Cowart earned recognition for the second straight year.
Starkell Adds Three For 2010
Illinois coach Bob Starkell and his staff signed three gymnasts to National Letters of Intent for the 2009-10 season in November of 2008. Macy Hyatt (Kennesaw Mountain HS, Atlanta, Ga.), Jaclyn Kantecki (Queen of Peace HS, Burbank, Ill.), and Alina Weinstein (West Windsor Plainsboro HS South, Plainsboro, N.J.) will all join the Fighting Illini next season. Hyatt is a two-time Level 10 Nationals qualifier, placing 10th on vault in 2006. Kantecki is also a two-time Level 10 National qualifier, placing eighth in the all-around, fifth on floor and ninth on bars in 2008. Weinstein is a four-time Level 10 National qualifier, placing 11th in the all-around in 2008. She is a former J.O. National Team member and Elite National Qualifier (2004).