Julie Crall could vie for a spot at the NCAA Championships
Aug. 16, 2007
Champaign, Ill. - There are several sports at Illinois primed to make that next major jump up the ladder this coming season, perhaps none more so than women's gymnastics.
Illinois finished the 2006 season ranked in the top 25 and moved into the top 20 in '07. The Illini also claimed their first individual conference champion since 1999 when Cara Pomeroy claimed the title in the uneven bars last season. Illinois also placed third as a team at the Big Ten Championship.
The Illini must replace Pomeroy, but have their second straight stellar recruiting class coming in. "We had a great surprise in our freshmen last year," said head coach Bob Starkell. "We knew they were going to be good, but we weren't sure they were going to contribute as much as they did right away. Nicole Cowart and Sarah Schmidt competed all-around the majority of the season, excelled and had a great showing at the Big Ten Championship.
At the heart of that optimism will be junior Julie Crall. The Cincinnati native earned Second Team All-Big Ten in 2006 and `07, and became one of the top all-arounders on the club. She won six event titles, including four in her favorite event, the balance beam. She also earned the University of Illinois Newcomer of the Year.
Unfortunately, Crall suffered an Achilles' tear warming up before floor exercise near the end of the season and missed the stretch run. Understanding what she could mean for the top end of the season meets, Starkell has been careful not to hurry her rehab along.
"We're trying not to push her too fast," Starkell said. "We are going to try pace ourselves in a way so come November, we can evaluate her condition and see where she fits in at that point."
Although Crall came to Illinois as a beam and floor exercise specialist, she has become a top notch all-rounder. "We train most of our athletes on the all-round when they first come in because we're never quite sure who can take the opportunity when given," Starkell said. "Julie was someone we had aspirations for in the all-round, but she advanced faster than we anticipated.
"When I first saw her, I thought she was the athlete with the most room for growth," he added. "She was the athlete that had all the intangibles of grace and style and a presence about her that we thought the judges would like. With her personality, it wasn't going to be a great adjustment coming to college. I thought she would strive on it and open up to competing."
Crall started in gymnastics at the age of three, mostly to emulate her older sister. "I have to admit I thought about quitting because it was a lot of hard work," Crall admitted. "But I pushed through it and it has been worth it."
It's that same perseverance that helped her transition to college. As a freshman, she placed fifth in the all-round at the NCAA South Central Regional with a score of 38.950, narrowly missing a spot at the NCAA Championships.
"It's definitely scary at first because you don't know what to expect," Crall said of the all-around. "But once you go in and excel at it, it makes you want to do it over and over again."
Who knows what would have happened had Crall been able to compete at Big Ten's and NCAA Regionals in `07. "I've always wanted to make it to nationals," she said. "I came close as a freshman. Hopefully I can fulfill that goal in the next two years.
The Illini themselves have high aspirations. The Illini had their best Big Ten finish (third) since winning the conference in 1990 and tied for its best team finish at Regionals (fourth) last season. Freshman Nicole Cowart was fourth in the all-around Big Tens and was named First Team All-Big Ten. Senior Michelle McGrady was second on the vault at the Regionals.
"Slowly but surely we've been inching our way up," Starkell said. "That has been the process of trying to bring in the right student-athletes -- people that fit into our system and love and enjoy the University of Illinois. The last two years of recruiting have gone extremely well and jump started our program. Hopefully in the next two years we can build on that and go a little bit further."
To help achieve that, Starkell has bolstered the schedule, going head-to-head with the powerful SEC. Early in the season, for instance, the Illini face Alabama, a team that is a perennial top-six team nationally.
"Our conference competition is extremely strong," Starkell said. "It's been getting better the last three years nationally. In showing we can be competitive with the top schools in the conference; we believe we can compete with some of the top teams nationally."