Men’s gymnastics aim for National Title

By Mike Czapar

The No. 2 Illinois men’s gymnastics team will kick off the first stage of the 2005 NCAA Championships tonight at 7 in West Point, N.Y. As one of only 12 teams that qualified for Nationals, the Illini will look to improve upon last year’s thid-place finish and take home the first gymnastics National Championship since 1989.

The Illini have been ranked in the top three all year, despite struggling from numerous injuries. With a strong core of returning athletes from last year’s squad, Illinois has a legitimate chance at taking home the title.

Senior Nick Hand said this year’s team is the best he has seen in his previous three years at Illinois and is looking forward to competing at nationals this year.

“This team is way more talented than any of the teams I’ve been on in the past,” Hand said. “I think we are definitely poised to win this weekend and to establish Illinois as a powerhouse in gymnastics in the years to come.”

The Illini have been led all year by a unique mix of talented younger athletes and the leadership of their four returning All-Americans: seniors Ben Newman and Peter Schostchuk and juniors Justin Spring and Adam Pummer.

Schostchuk, a three-time All-American, said the team looked strong during the last weeks of practice and is confident in Illinois’ ability.

“The last two weeks of practice have been great, and guys have been working harder than I’ve ever seen before,” Schostchuk said. “The most important thing we need to do is hit our routines – and we’re capable of hitting. Everything looks pretty good going into this weekend.”

The Illini also expect high scores out of Pummer and Spring, who have been ranked highly in their individual events all season and who both took gold medals at the 2005 Winter Cup. Spring’s performance at the Winter Cup led to his selection on the National Team and an eventual silver medal on the high bar at the 2005 American Cup.

Spring said Illinois has focused its training efforts much more on the individual in hopes of mentally preparing the team for competition.

“We branched away from team training and had guys work on what they needed to do to hit their routine,” Spring said. “I think our confidence is at an all-time high right now, and I think it’s going to transfer into the meet.”

The Illini’s biggest rivals this weekend will be Big Ten Champions Ohio State, as well as No. 3 Oklahoma. As usual, the Big Ten showed its presence nationally, making up six of the 12 teams competing at the NCAA Championships.

The 12 teams have been split into two groups, and the top three finishers in each group will qualify for the second day of finals. After the team competition has ended, the top 10 individuals will compete on the third day for individual titles.

Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said the three-day championships are mentally and physically grueling, but is confident that Illinois is prepared.

“We’re not going to go all out on the first day because all we need to do is make three,” Hayasaki said. “We need to possess the mental strength to focus throughout the long competition.”