Southeast gymnasts open season Sunday

Saturday, January 3, 2009
NATE BILLING ~ Associated Press
Southeast Missouri State's Sandra Blake competes in the floor exercise during the regional NCAA women's gymnastics meet last year in Norman, Okla. Blake is among three seniors on this year's team.

The Southeast Missouri State women's gymnastics program keeps getting better and better.

You'll get no complaints from Tom Farden.

The Redhawks have reached lofty heights -- both in the gym and in the classroom -- during Farden's five years as coach.

Farden expects that trend to continue in the 2009 season that begins Sunday at Illinois State. The first of five home meets is Jan. 17 against Illinois-Chicago.

"It's been a lot of fun building the program and realizing the goals we have," Farden said. "It's been steady progress."

That progress includes two NCAA team regional berths in the past three years, after the program's previous appearance came in 1997.

It also includes two consecutive academic national championships, as awarded by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women.

Southeast earned the most recent prestigious academic honor by compiling a team grade-point average of 3.82, which led the nation.

"A big goal of ours every year is to be academic national champions," Farden said. "We always recruit young ladies who are strong athletically and academically. We want them to be true student-athletes.

"This first semester, 14 of our 17 athletes posted a perfect 4.0 [GPA], so we're actually ahead of where we were last year."

The Redhawks finished last season ranked 30th nationally. The campaign was capped by a strong showing at the NCAA South Central Regional, where Southeast finished ahead of then-No. 19 Arizona State to place fifth among six teams.

"We had a real solid performance," said Farden, whose 2007 squad was No. 22 nationally at one point for the program's highest ranking in more than a decade.

Once again this season, Southeast will strive to have the nation's best GPA and to return to the NCAA regionals, where only 36 teams make the grade.

"Getting to the NCAAs is never easy because there are so many variables," Farden said. "But that's always our goal."

Considering the Redhawks lost just one senior from last year and 15 of their 17 squad members are returning athletes, another regional berth seems a solid possibility.

Southeast brings back most of its top gymnasts, led by Sandra Blake, one of only three seniors on the roster.

Blake, a standout since she her freshman season, tied for fifth in the all-around at last year's regional.

"We've been fortunate to have an athlete of Sandy's caliber," Farden said. "She's a real leader."

Also back are three juniors who, like Blake, have been among Southeast's premier performers since their freshman seasons.

Jena Nguyen, Rikara Turner and Bryanna Wong joined Blake as individual regional qualifiers in 2007, when the Redhawks did not make the field as a team.

Other returning gymnasts are seniors Jennifer Dinan and Starlyn Schwartz; juniors Amber Garlotte, Jacqueline Heath and Kelley Krengiel; and sophomores Lauren Dinan, Brianna Gaddie, Kara Gibbons, Erica Moore, Amanda Schoenbaum and Christina Sundgren.

Schwartz, Garlotte, Heath, Krengiel, Gaddie and Lauren Dinan were all in the regional rotation.

Farden also expects contributions from freshmen Emily Mann and Christa Soekamto.

"I think we're set up to have the best year since I've been here," Farden said.

Blake is confident of it.

"I think this will be our best season ever," she said.

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