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Graceful ascent: Redhawks look to resume climb of national rankings
Southeast returns talent from last season's team that had the school's highest ranking since 1999.
The Southeast Missouri State gymnastics team experienced its most successful season since 1997 last year.
And, despite having no seniors on the roster, fourth-year head coach Tom Farden doesn't expect the 2007 Redhawks to take a step back.
"I'm very optimistic," Farden said. "I expect really good things from this group."
The Redhawks begin the journey that Farden hopes results in their second consecutive NCAA regional berth on Saturday with a 7 p.m. home tri-meet against Illinois-Chicago and Centenary.
Last year Southeast qualified for regionals as a team for the first time since 1997 as the Redhawks were one of 36 squads across the nation to earn regional berths.
In addition, Southeast finished 2006 ranked 35th nationally. The Redhawks were also rated 35th once earlier in the season. Both rankings represent the program's highest since 1999, when Southeast was 30th.
"Our goal is not only to get back to regionals, but to do better once we get there," Farden said. "Getting an NCAA berth is difficult at any level, but I think it's a very realistic goal.
"I think we're stronger than last year, with more potential. We don't have any seniors, but we've got a great blend of returning talent and strong freshmen."
Southeast returns most of its top gymnasts from last season, led by sophomore Sandra Blake, the 2006 Midwest Independent Conference gymnast of the year and newcomer of the year.
Blake also was Southeast's top individual finisher at the South Central Regional in Fayetteville, Ark., tying for ninth place on the vault. She placed 15th in the all-around.
"Everybody is really excited about the season," Blake said. "Getting the whole team back to regionals is definitely our goal, and maybe getting a few to nationals."
Other competitors back from a year ago are juniors Danyelle Aber and Alison Ezell, and sophomores Maureen Grimaldi, Starlyn Schwartz and Jennifer Dinan.
Ezell led Southeast in the all-around at the regional meet with a 12th-place performance. Aber is still a few weeks from returning to competition after she suffered a serious knee injury late last season.
Farden, the 2006 Midwest Independent Conference coach of the year, has high hopes for the Redhawks' six freshmen.
Farden expects most if not all of the rookies -- Amber Garlotte, Jacqueline Heath, Kelley Krengiel, Jena Nguyen, Rikara Turner and Bryanna Wong -- to be key contributors.
"I say this every year, but this is our best freshmen class," Farden said. "Right now freshmen are making up 12 of our 24 routines, so that's half our lineup.
"Making the NCAAs last year really helped our recruiting. Now recruits are coming to us."
Farden likes the Redhawks' schedule, with also features home dates Jan. 27 against Kent State, Feb. 17 against nationally ranked BYU, Feb. 24 against Texas Women's and March 13 against Illinois State. All home meets are at Houck Field House.
Among Southeast's notable road meets are Feb. 9 at Missouri and March 23 at Arkansas in a competition that also includes Missouri.
"It's a very good schedule, with some great home opponents" Farden said.
The coach expects Saturday's opener to be tough, as Illinois-Chicago beat Southeast three times last year, including finishing ahead of the Redhawks at the South Central Regional.
"Illinois-Chicago is a perennial regional qualifier, and Centenary is also a good team," Farden said. "It should be a really good opening meet."
2007 Southeast schedule
* Jan. 13 -- Illinois-Chicago, Centenary, 7 p.m.
* Jan. 19 -- at Illinois State Quad (Illinois-Chicago, Centenary), 7 p.m.
* Jan. 27 -- Kent State, 1 p.m.
* Feb. 2 -- at Wisconsin-LaCrosse Invitational, 6 p.m.
* Feb. 9 -- at Missouri Invitational, 7 p.m.
* Feb. 17 -- BYU, 7 p.m.
* Feb. 24 -- Texas Women's, 7 p.m.
* March 10 -- at Texas Women's Quad (Kentucky, Bowling Green), 7 p.m.
* March 13 -- Illinois State, 1 p.m.
* March 17 -- at Centenary, 4 p.m.
* March 23 -- at Arkansas Quad (Missouri, Texas Women's), 7 p.m.
* March 31 -- at Midwest Independent Championships, Chicago, TBD