Starkell led the Illini to the best season in program history in 2009.
May 20, 2009
Get behind the scenes of Illinois Gymnastics with Illini Ink - the weekly women's gymnastics journal. In this week's edition, head coach Bob Starkell recaps the remarkable season.
Hello Illini Fans!
As the season has come to an end, I have had time to reflect on this year's accomplishments. Of course, on the surface anyone would be able to tell that we made some great strides and reached new heights in 2009. All year, this team was very determined on achieving their main goal...making it to the NCAA National Championships as a team. This was no light feat as it had never been done before in the history of Illinois Gymnastics.
With the start of preseason, I knew this would be a special team. Everyone gave 100 percent in order to build off of last year's accomplishments. Each team member exemplified a work ethic that gave them the greatest opportunity for success in all facets of being a student-athlete. They went above and beyond in school, conditioning, and taking care of their bodies. Above all, they were willing to make sacrifices. These gymnasts really believed they had what it took to conquer their goals.
When asked numerous times by the media which one or two people made the difference, I had no trouble in saying this year's success was a TOTAL team effort. As team event and meet records were being broken on a somewhat regular basis, each gymnast seemed to be achieving their personal bests as well. Even with some minor injuries that popped up during the beginning of the season, there was no shortage on individuals willing to step up. There was no question that this Illinois team was on a mission.
The year had so many highs, but for me it was the month of March that provided the most excitement. The State of Illinois Classic was the first obstacle as we needed to rest two or three gymnasts to get prepared for our conference championships. The meet was in Chicago and we decided that we would have five all arounders compete. This really showed the flexibility and strength of our squad as they hit 22 of 24 routines and came close to breaking a school record. There is no doubt that this meet built the extra confidence needed to excel at Big Tens.
Since this year's Big Ten Championships were held in Champaign, there was already built in excitement. Even though we started with an average bar set and the nerves were running high on beam, the last two events provided an experience of a lifetime. Each competitor performed to their highest ability and lifted the team from fourth place after two events, to a second place team finish. We broke team and individual records on floor and finished with a "stick-fest" on vault for another school record. For myself, this was a true testament to the team's will to succeed. I couldn't have been more proud as we had more people on the awards stand than ever before. To achieve a school record at a championship meet with a four-judge panel exceeded my expectations, but probably not the team's.
With Big Ten's being such a high, I was a little concerned with trying to duplicate it at NCAA Regionals. With the team being seeded in the top 18 for the first time ever and heading to Seattle, I knew we could fare well. Most teams would probably not look forward to being shipped over two time zones but we had been there in February and the random selection had us with the same rotation of events that we had there two months before. We could not have been more thrilled to be going to the University of Washington!
Regionals are always a stressful meet because ultimately if you don't do well, the team is done for the year. With the team's confidence at an all time high, there was no question we were going to have the opportunity to stretch our season further than we ever had before. Floor was our first event, and after Marijka started us off with a near perfect routine, it was all smooth sailing from there. When we headed to vault, the team repeated its Big Ten vault superiority by sticking its last five vaults. This team was on fire! Bars were excellent and we knew that heading to beam, anything short of mere disaster would be our ticket to NCAA Nationals. The team not only handled the pressure, but they ended up breaking the school record on beam! What a remarkable experience with an overload of emotions. When looking back, my strongest feeling was I couldn't be more excited for this team. They had achieved their ultimate goal...they were heading to Lincoln, Nebraska as a team to compete in NCAA Nationals!
The NCAA National Championships were definitely memorable. To have the opportunity to represent our fine institution at the highest level was a great honor. It was a top-notch event and I think the arena looked better with a little orange and blue being present. Having two All-Americans, double the amount from last year, and our first ever First Team All-American, were definitely big milestones for our program. Additionally, it was such an honor to receive NCAA Head Coach of the Year. I credit my team as they worked so hard and that enabled us to accomplish what we did. For my assistants, they both received National Assistant Coaches of the Year, which is so special because our peers vote them on. This year's success was a total team effort for all those involved and I couldn't be more proud to be an ILLINI. I'm looking forward to even bigger things in the future!