2004 Women's Gymnastics Season Preview
As head coach Bob Starkell heads into his fifth season at the helm of the Fighting Illini, he is still trying to put all the pieces together for the team to reach its true potential. Despite the loss of four four-year letterwinners to graduation, Starkell has a good blend of youth and experience returning and appears to have those pieces in place for Illinois to have its best year yet under his leadership.
The Orange and Blue return eight letterwinners from last year's 7-12 team that finished just shy of an NCAA Regional berth. But more importantly, the Illini are entering this season healthy and well prepared thanks to changes to their off-season workouts. "We had different conditioning this year, and our practices are structured a lot differently from last year," explained senior Kara Kapernekas. "Everyone has their head in the right place and knows that our goal is to do well at Big Tens and qualify for regionals and then nationals."
With the changes in training, combined with strong leadership and loads of talent, the Illini appear to be well on their way to accomplishing the goals they've set for themselves.
The 2004 Illini will only go as far as their co-captains, senior Kara Kapernekas and junior Ashley Williams, take them. Kapernekas and Williams were outstanding last season. Both competed at the NCAA South-Central Regional meet as all-arounders, both were second team All-Big Ten selections, and both broke the school all-around record at different points in the season. Williams, who hails from Northport, Alabama, was the 2002 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and had the team's top four scores of the season on bars, an event in which she placed fourth at the Big Ten Championships. Kapernekas, who took home the team's Most Outstanding Gymnast and Most Consistent Beam awards last year, tied the school floor exercise record with a 9.950 vs. Iowa and twice scored a 9.925 on beam.
Starkell feels that the experience his two leaders gained at the NCAA Regional meet last season will do wonders for this year's team. "One thing Ashley and Kara have that their teammates don't, is that they've been to the first round of the NCAA Championships," said Starkell. "After their experience there last year, hopefully they can show the young people what it takes to get there and that this group is just as talented as the teams that were there."
In addition to the co-captains, senior Sara Dumich and juniors Jessica Cole, Margaret Dann and Lauren Newcomb will also bring loads of leadership and experience to the squad. Dumich was very consistent on floor for the '03 Illini, Cole tied the vault school record, Dann gave the beam team a solid lead-off option and Newcomb, now healthy, will likely be an all-arounder after competing only on vault last season. But the key to this year's success could be the sophomore class of Emily Earle, Kim Kirzow and Katie Wild. All three were limited last season due to injury, but Starkell feels that if they can stay healthy and make contributions this year, the Illini will be headed for a successful season.
"Our upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) have already established themselves as gymnasts and our freshmen have been a pleasant surprise, which is why I feel this year's sophomores will be one of the keys to this season," Starkell said. "Last year as freshman, they were hit hard by the injury bug, which limited them in training and competition. If those three can step up and make solid contributions this year, it will go a long way to the success of this team."
Other keys to the season will be consistency and staying healthy. Not only were Illinois' scores up and down last season, but several injuries forced Starkell to shuffle the line-up nearly every week. "Consistency is something that keeps ringing in my mind from last year," said Starkell. "We were always changing lineups. We want to bring the same stuff that we're doing in practice into competition. If we can put the same people out there every week, then our scores should become more consistent."
Second year assistant coach Kim Mazza agrees. "It's all about consistency and performing under pressure for the team," said Mazza. "Those are the things that need to get done in order for the team to accomplish its goals in postseason competition."
Starkell feels that this year's freshman class of Cara Pomeroy, Danye Botterman and Melissa Singer have been a "pleasant surprise" and that each could make big contributions to this year's squad.
Pomeroy, an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada native, is a three-time Canadian National uneven bars champion. She should have a big impact on beam, vault and especially on bars, where she is expected to be one of the team's top performers. "On bars, I expect Cara to be right there with Ashley Williams, who is our best bar worker right now," said Starkell of Pomeroy.
New Lenox, Ill. native Botterman was the 2001 Level 10 Illinois State floor and vault champion. For the Illini, she is expected to contribute on those two events right away, and may even compete all-around before the year is over. "Danye could be one of our top two vaulters this year, but she also adds a strong floor routine because she tumbles extremely well," Starkell said of Botterman. "The one thing we didn't really expect was for her to have such a strong presence on bars and beam. It wouldn't surprise me if she gets the opportunity to compete all-around this year."
Singer, who hails from Buffalo Grove, Ill., was named the 2003 IHSA Outstanding Senior Gymnast while leading Stevenson High School to its third straight state team title. The coaching staff feels she may be able to crack into the beam and vault line-ups. "Melissa has a lot of raw talent," said Starkell. "She has been progressing well this fall and we expect her to develop into a great collegiate gymnast. She's been one of the harder workers in the gym and could make an impact on both beam and vault."
The Illini will face 10 teams ranked in the pre-season top 25 coaches poll, including four teams in the top 10. Five of the seven Big Ten teams are ranked (#5 Michigan, #12 Iowa, #19 Penn State, #22 Minnesota and #23 Ohio State), and the Orange and Blue will also clash with #7 Florida, #8 Nebraska, #9 Arizona State, #14 Auburn and #16 Iowa State.
Starkell feels that getting off to a fast start will give the team some confidence and take away some of the pressure to score high later in the season. "We'd like to come in and start off really strong right away," said Starkell, "try and make sure we get ourselves in a good position early. Because of our off-season training program, I think we look a little bit more confident and stronger as a group and we should be able to perform really well right out of the gates."
The Illini open at Northern Illinois on Jan. 11 and head to Illinois-Chicago on Jan. 17 before opening at home on Jan. 25 vs. Michigan State. Other home dates for the Orange and Blue include #16 Iowa State on Feb. 14, Ball State on Feb. 21, Illinois State on Feb. 27 and the State of Illinois Classic on March 13. All home meets will be a Huff Hall.
An event-by-event breakdown of the 2004 Fighting Illini, along with comments from head coach Bob Starkell:
Vault has been a problem for the Illini in the past, mainly because of lack of difficulty. However, this year, the Illini have been working on more difficult vaults, which should result in higher scores. Junior Lauren Newcomb and freshman Danye Botterman will both have 10 start values, and if everything works out, sophomore Emily Earle could too, which would be a nice surprise. Add in juniors Ashley Williams and Jessica Cole, who holds the school record of 9.925 and was the squad's top vaulter last season, and the team should have five solid competitors on vault. Sophomores Kim Kirzow and Katie Wild, and freshmen Cara Pomeroy and Melissa Singer will all be in the mix to make line-up as well.
"Vault, traditionally, has been our weakest event, but I have a feeling that with Lauren Newcomb healthy again and Danye Botterman here this year, it should much improved over last season. One of our goals is to break the vault school record (48.900), we certainly have the resources to do that this year."
Consistency and depth will be the keys to this year's bars team. Williams returns as the squad's top performer last season. She won four bars titles and scored a 9.9 at the Big Ten Championships to tie for fourth place. Pomeroy is extremely talented on bars as well, and is expected to be right there along side Williams for the top score week-in and week-out. Senior Kara Kapernekas was a staple for the Illini on this event last season, and should a consistent performer this year as well. In addition to those three, look for Wild, Earle and Newcomb to see plenty of action, with Botterman, Cole, junior Margaret Dann and Kirzow adding depth to a bars team that was very thin a year ago.
"This could be a key event for us. We have three very strong routines in Williams, Pomeroy and Kapernekas. The test will be how consistent we can make the rest of the line up. Uneven bars could make the difference in how our season will go."
The Illini hope to find strength in numbers with this years beam squad. Kapernekas led the Illini on beam in 2003 with a pair of 9.925s and should continue to excel this season. Look for Pomeroy and Wild to step up and play key roles as well. Williams, Newcomb and Dann are expected to be regulars in the line-up. Dann will likely lead-off the beam line-up, a role that she excelled in last season. Botterman, Cole, senior Sara Dumich and Singer could all see action as well, making this years beam team as deep as ever.
"The one nice thing that we have this year that we didn't have in the past is depth on beam. At this time, we are fairly deep and could use a number of different line-ups. Kara Kapernekas has the potential to be the leader on this event, and we expect Cara Pomeroy and Katie Wild to be strong factors as well."
Floor was Illinois' best and most consistent event in 2003, and much of the same is expected in 2004. Kapernekas tied the school record with a 9.950 last season and is back to lead a talented floor crew. Fellow captain Williams will also be a constant on the event. Botterman, Earle and Newcomb are very dynamic, powerful tumblers, while Kirzow and Wild show a little bit more finesse in their routines. In addition, Dumich competed very well last season and has been doing really well in preseason.
"Floor is going to be probably our strongest event, especially considering the number of different routines we have and how strong our tumbling and choreography is. Meet in and meet out, this could be our most consistent event."
Williams, who has competed all-around in 26 of her 27 collegiate meets, and Newcomb will likely see the most opportunities as all-arounders. Williams holds two of the top-five all-around scores in Illinois history, while Newcomb has yet to compete all-around in her UI career. Botterman and Wild could also have some all-around opportunities during the season. Kapernekas, who holds the UI record of 39.375, won't be able to compete all-around because of a back injury that is keeping her from vaulting. However, she will still be a key factor on the other three events.
2004 Men's Gymnastics Season Preview
The Fighting Illini enter the 2004 season with high hopes for the program's first national title since 1989, and why wouldn't they? Veteran head coach Yoshi Hayasaki's third-ranked Illini return four All-Americans and all but one athlete from a young team that finished fifth at the 2003 NCAA Championships. Even better, is the fact the Illini will be hosting this year's NCAA Championships right in their own back yard at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
"Hosting the NCAA Championships will give our gymnasts the opportunity to showcase their gymnastics at home at the Assembly Hall," said Hayasaki, now in his 28th season at the helm of the Illini. "Our guys are very excited about the chance to compete at home and have been looking towards this season for some time. We have a very experienced team and we feel the timing is right for this to be a very special year where we can contend for the title."
The core of that experience lies with the six returning seniors, who are led by Scott Wetterling and Bob Rogers. Both individuals were All-Americans last season, Wetterling on high bar and Rogers on floor, and both will need to have similar success this season for the Illini to flourish. Wetterling, a Pennington, N.J. native, will likely compete all-around in several meets this year and is very strong on rings, vault, parallel bars and, of course, high bar. Rogers, a team co-captain from West Allis, Wisc., competes on three events, the floor exercise, pommel horse and high bar, excelling on all three.
The other co-captain is Casey Hayasaki, Yoshi's son. Casey is a pommel horse specialist who made huge improvements last season and is expected to make a big impact this season on horse, the Orange and Blue's best event. Other seniors include Nick Hand, who will likely compete on floor, rings and high bar, Erik Garnett, who saw action on five events and picked up three individual parallel bars titles last season, and Mike Filla, a pommel horse specialist.
The Illini have a wealth of experience to go with the large senior class. Sophomore Justin Spring, a native of Burke, Va., is one of the most exciting and dynamic young gymnasts in the country. An All-American on floor exercise and parallel bars last season, Spring competed for Team USA at the World University Games this past summer, advancing to the finals on floor. After showing his spectacular abilities on floor, vault, parallel bars and high bar during his rookie campaign, Spring could see some action as an all-arounder this year.
"Justin is just tremendous," said Hayasaki of his talented sophomore. "He's already shown that he is spectacular on four events (FX,V, PB, HB), but he's starting to show more maturity and he's getting stronger. Justin should be our top performer and could be an All-American on every event other than pommel horse and rings."
Another outstanding sophomore is Adam Pummer. The Allentown, Pa. native was the team's top all-arounder in 2003, finishing 11th at the NCAA Championships. The experience he gained as a freshman should benefit him this year, as he vies to become one of the nation's top all-arounders.
Big Ten pommel horse champion Ben Newman and two-time All-American Peter Shostchuk also bring loads of past success with them. Newman will make a huge impact both pommel horse and rings during his junior season, and may also crack the line-up on vault and parallel bars. Shostchuk, another junior who was limited last season due to injury, will be seeking his third straight top-4 pommel horse finish at the NCAAs and is also expected to shore up the parallel bars line-up.
There are only two newcomers to this year's squad, sophomore Ted Brown and senior Jason Suchy. Brown is pommel horse specialist who transferred to Illinois from Springfield College in Mass. Brown took second on the horse at the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) and was named the league's Rookie of the Year, in addition to being named Springfield's Courageous Athlete of the Year. Suchy is a late addition to the team who could contribute on the still rings.
Overall, Hayasaki is pleased with how his team progressed in the off-season and is confident that they can get off to a fast start when they open the season this Saturday at the Windy City Invitational in Chicago.
"I think we are ahead of schedule as we head into the season and I feel good about the progress we made in the off-season," Hayasaki said of his squad. "Overall, in terms of consistency, difficulty level, strength level and execution of skills, I feel we are better than we were last year. I think this team could be just as good or better than the 1998 team that placed third in the nation."
"This is the most cohesive and united team I have seen in a while," he added. "They have set high goals for themselves and have the motivation and desire to achieve them."
At the Windy City Invite, the No. 3 Illini will by joined by top-ranked Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 6 Iowa, No. 8 Minnesota and the hosts, No. 14 Illinois-Chicago. The Orange and Blue will then travel to No. 5 Penn State on Jan. 17 before opening their home schedule by hosting Minnesota at Huff Hall on Jan. 25.
The Illini will also play host to UIC on Feb. 14 and Temple on Feb. 27 before welcoming the Big Ten Championships to Huff Hall on March 19-20 and the NCAA Championships to Assembly Hall on April 2-4. Tickets to the 2004 Big Ten and NCAA Championships are on sale now at the UI Athletic Ticket office and can be purchases by calling 1-866-Illini-1, or logging onto www.fightingillini.com.
An event-by-event breakdown of the 2004 Fighting Illini:
Sophomore Adam Pummer returns as the team's top all-arounder from last season. Pummer finished 11th at the NCAA Championships as a freshman and posted the top UI all-around score over that last three seasons with a 54.575 vs. Oklahoma. Senior Scott Wetterling was the only other Illini all-arounder in 2003. He has increased difficulty this season, and should make a big impact in the all-around. Sophomore sensation Justin Spring is the other likely all-around candidate.
Depth Chart: Pummer, Spring, Wetterling
Floor will be a very strong event for the Orange and Blue, with a pair of All-Americans returning in Spring and senior Bob Rogers. Pummer is also very strong on the event, making for a very solid back half of the line-up. Other expected to make an impact on floor are seniors Nick Hand, Erik Garnett and Wetterling, in addition to sophomore Anthony Russo.
Depth Chart: Spring, Rogers, Pummer, Hand, Russo, Garnett, Wetterling
Junior Peter Shostchuk is a two-time All-American on the event, and he, along with Big Ten pommel horse champion Ben Newman and Bob Rogers anchor a phenomenal core. Newcomer Ted Brown, a transfer from Springfield College (Mass.), and 2003 pommel horse regulars Casey Hayasaki and Mike Filla round out a solid line-up. The three all-arounders could all also crack the pommel horse line-up and will add depth.
Depth Chart: Shostchuk, Newman, Rogers, Brown, Hayasaki, Filla, Pummer, Wetterling, Spring
After struggling on the event all of last season, the rings will be the key event for the 2004 Fighting Illini. Wetterling and Newman are the top two performers from last season and both have added strength and difficulty to their routines. Hayasaki will depend heavily on his other all-arounders, Pummer and Spring, to provide depth on the rings. Hand, and newcomer Jason Suchy will round out the line-up.
Depth Chart: Wetterling , Newman, Pummer, Spring, Hand, Suchy
Vault should be a strong event with the three all-arounders leading the way. Spring, Pummer and Wetterling are dynamic and powerful vaulters, and anyone of them could be an All-American on the event this season. Also strong on vault is Garnett, Russo, Newman and Filla.
Depth Chart: Spring, Wetterling, Pummer, Garnett, Russo, Newman, Filla
The all-arounders again will anchor this event for the Orange and Blue. P-bars All-American Spring will lead the way along with Wetterling and Pummer. Garnett and Shostchuk are also very solid p-bars performers. Newman, Russo and junior Matt Michalek will also be competing to make the p-bars line-up.
Depth Chart: Spring, Pummer, Wetterling, Shostchuk, Garnett, Newman, Russo, Michalek
High bar could be Illinois' second best event after the pommel horse. The top four of Wetterling, Spring, Pummer and Rogers is as good as any in the nation. Wetterling finished third at the NCAA Championships last season and Spring advanced the finals. The big question mark is who will step and fill the other two spots to ease the pressure on the top four. Garnett, Russo, Hand and Michalek are all in the mix for those final two spots.
Depth Chart: Wetterling, Spring, Pummer, Rogers, Garnett, Russo, Hand, Michalek