Illini back on the mat

Daily Illini File Photo

Daily Illini File Photo

By Mike Czapar

The Illinois men’s gymnastics team is picking up right where they left off last season – among the elite. In a recent preseason ranking, the Illini clocked in at No. 2 behind familiar foe Oklahoma, and one spot ahead of conference rival and defending national champion No. 3 Penn State.

This year’s squad features eight returning letter-winners from last year’s team that placed third at the NCAA Championships.

Last year’s returnees include reigning high bar national champion junior Justin Spring and a trio of All-Americans -ÿjunior Adam Pummer, senior Ben Newman and senior Peter Shostchuk.

However, due to a foot injury suffered at practice, the Illini will be without Spring for the early portion of the season. Spring is expected to fully recover and return for the remainder of the season.

“There’s still a little uncertainty about how long I’ll be out,” Spring said. “I’ll be walking out of this boot-cast for the next couple weeks, and then maybe return to tumbling in a month. I just have to see how it goes.”

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    This season Illinois will look to its healthy upperclassmen to lead the charge, but also will rely on an injection of talent from its powerhouse freshmen class.

    Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said this year’s freshmen have big shoes to fill because of seniors graduating, but he knows they are up to the challenge.

    “Even though we did lose five seniors from last year’s third-place team, we picked up seven freshmen, Hayasaki said. “We feel this year’s team has a lot more depth than last year. We did have a few weak events last year, and we feel like we’ve not only filled those areas but strengthened the team all-around as well.”

    Illinois anticipate big things coming from a freshmen group that boasts an atypical amount of experience.

    Pummer said he is excited about what the new athletes will add to the team.

    “With our freshmen coming in, it adds a lot more confidence for us upperclassmen,” he said.

    “In the past few years we haven’t had a powerhouse freshmen class like we do this year. We’ve already made up for every routine from last year, and we’ve got even more strong all-around guys as well.”

    The Illini squad that wore the bull’s-eye of a No. 1 ranking for a good portion of last season is glad to be recognized in among top programs and looks forward to another season of intense competition.

    Spring said the Illini are excited to see how last season’s rivalry between Illinois and Oklahoma will play out this season.

    “We’ve got kind of a thing with Oklahoma from last year because of the big one-two rivalry, so we’re looking forward to see what the year is going to bring,” Spring said. “I think it’s better that we’re actually not No. 1 because of what happened last year when we were going into nationals No. 1. I think it makes the team have a goal in mind.”

    The Illini will kick off preseason action this Friday at Huff Hall in the annual mixed-pairs competition against the women’s team.

    “We want to get out there and have a good start on the season this weekend at our mixed pairs,” Hayasaki said. “We have a very exciting group and a very talented group, so we’re looking forward to getting started.”