Junior Melissa Fernandez is one of three returning All-Americans for the No. 13 Fighting Illini this season.
Nov. 18, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Illinois women's gymnastics team will head into the 2010 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.
"Every coach tries to improve each year, so it is an honor and a privilege to be acknowledged with the preseason ranking because it comes from my peers," head coach Bob Starkell said. "They still feel we have a strong team, which leads to more widespread attention and expectations for our program. We are returning a lot of our combo routines from last season, so we are generally at the same strength as last year along with the addition of our freshmen."
Illinois is coming off its most successful season in program history after making its first-ever appearance at the NCAA Championships and finishing at No. 12 in the final national rankings, the highest final national ranking in school history. The coaching staff was honored for their efforts, as Starkell was named National Coach of the Year and assistants Kim Landrus and Amy Kruse were named co-Assistant Coaches of the Year.
This season, the Illini return 19 of 24 routines along with three All-Americans in senior Sarah Schmidt and juniors Melissa Fernandez and Allison Buckley. Fernandez became Illinois' first NCAA first-team All-American at last year's championships, while Schmidt earned second team honors and also was the 2009 Big Ten champion on floor exercise. Buckley was a second-team All-American in 2008 and took home the West Regional Beam Title in 2009. In addition, senior Nicole Cowart, a 2008 NCAA Championship all-around qualifier, and sophomore Kelsey Joannides, the 2009 Big Ten vault champion, are back along with five gifted freshmen.
Five-time defending national champion, Georgia, was voted as the No. 1 team in the nation. The rest of the top five included No. 2 Utah, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 UCLA. Five other Big Ten schools appeared in the top 25, led by Penn State at No. 11 and followed by Michigan (No. 12), Ohio State (No. 18), Minnesota (No. 22) and Michigan State (No. 24). Iowa received votes in the poll and sits just outside the top 25. A total of 10 opponents on Illinois' schedule this season are ranked in the top 25.
The Illini kick off competition at the annual Mixed Pairs Exhibition on Sunday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. alongside the Illini men's team at Huff Hall. Regular season competition begins on Friday, Jan. 8 in Corvallis, Ore., at the Salbasgeon Suites Invitational against No. 10 Oregon State, Air Force and Alaska. The home opener takes place on Saturday, Jan. 23, when the women compete against No. 9 Oklahoma at Huff Hall.