Illini welcome National Champs to Huff Hall

By Mike Czapar

After competing in the solemn atmosphere of the USA Gymnastics 2005 Winter Cup in Las Vegas, the No. 2 men’s gymnastics team is looking forward to returning to the rowdy sea of orange at Huff Hall this weekend. Tomorrow at 7 p.m., the Illini will take on defending national champion, No. 5 Penn State, in a meet that features some of the top gymnasts in the nation.

The Nittany Lions return twelve members from last year’s championship team, including defending NCAA all-around champion and 2004 Olympian junior Louis Vargas.

Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said Illinois looks forward to another tough meet and is ready for a re-match of last year’s NCAA championships.

“We always go into meets with the idea of no let-downs every weekend,” Hayasaki said. “We put up our best effort every weekend, and this meet is no different. Penn State is the defending national champion, so we know what they’re capable of – they’re going to bring a great team.”

Junior Justin Spring said the Illini have not forgotten last year’s loss to Penn State at home in the NCAA championships and will have extra motivation to perform well this weekend.

“We’re still pretty riled up from last year when they came into our house and beat us at nationals,” Spring said. “Even though we’re not totally at full strength because of injuries, I think we’ll be fine as long as we have guys step up and hit their routines. If you look at the team scores, we have the advantage as long as we perform like we can.”

With long-term goals in mind, the Illini may be resting a few athletes who are experiencing mild soreness from competition. Junior Adam Pummer said the slight lineup changes are not serious and are aimed at ensuring athletes are healthy when it really matters.

“The only reason why we might not get guys in the line-up this weekend is if we want to rest them to make sure they’re healthy at the end of the year,” Pummer said. “It’s nothing serious, it’s more of making sure they don’t risk injuring themselves further – that would cause them to miss more competitions.”

Illinois will enjoy its last meet at home before hitting the road for the west coast when it will travel to Oakland for the Pacific Coast Invitational and then Pennsylvania for a dual meet with Temple.

Hayasaki said matching up against strong teams every week is a challenge for the Illini, but emphasized the process of recovering from injury and improving each meet.

“Just like in any sport, it’s tough to go head-to-head with great teams every weekend,” Hayasaki said. “We’re about halfway right now in our season, and we want to build off every meet so that we’re one hundred percent healthy and mentally ready by the time Big Ten championships come around. Certainly, we have not yet revealed our full potential at a meet yet.”