Gymnasts expecting good show in tourney

Illinois gymnast Wes Haagensen performs on the horizontal bar during the meet against Iowa at Huff Hall on March 3. Haagensen took first on the horizontal bar with a score of 9.4. Beck Diefenbach

Adam Babcock

Illinois gymnast Wes Haagensen performs on the horizontal bar during the meet against Iowa at Huff Hall on March 3. Haagensen took first on the horizontal bar with a score of 9.4. Beck Diefenbach

By Jeff LaBelle

If the workout sessions are any indication, the Illinois men’s gymnastics team is fully prepared for the Big Ten Championships that start today and continue through Saturday.

Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said his team has worked hard the last few weeks to put the finishing touches on its routines and are excited for the opportunity to prove its worth in Minnesota.

“We feel good about it,” Hayasaki said. “We’ve had very good training the last couple weeks and it’s been solid this week. As far as training is concerned, we’re ready for the Big Ten Championships. We just have to make sure the guys stay composed and are staying cool about the whole situation. Just because it’s Big Tens doesn’t mean they can get all hyped up. They have to focus on their routines.”

The possibility exists that any team competing this weekend could stumble their way out of the national picture.

Although the Illini are currently ranked seventh, they’re aware how heavily Big Ten performances weigh toward their advancement to nationals.

“The better we do here the better start we’ll have at NCAAs,” junior all-around performer Wes Haagensen said. “If we do well, we’ll go up against an easier setup of teams at NCAAs. Pretty much everyone’s hoping for that. The better we do the higher our ranking will be.”

Only the top 12 teams nationally advance to the NCAA Championships and those standings are decided only after conference championships have been completed.

Therefore, a poor showing this weekend in the Big Ten Championship could hurt the Illini’s chances to make the national cut.

“I think we should be okay,” Hayasaki said. “We’re ranked seventh right now, so unless something disastrous happens at Big Tens, I’m completely confident we’ll be at nationals.”

Because higher-ranked teams have the option to choose their first event in the national championships, the Illini hope to rank within the top six teams after this weekend.

“We don’t want to be a lower ranked team because then we’ll be forced to start on an event we don’t feel comfortable with,” Hayasaki said. “We don’t want to finish low simply because we don’t want to start out on pommel horse. It’s our weakest event. That’s the advantage of ranking higher.”

Junior Jon Drollinger, who suffered a shoulder injury in the team’s final dual meet of the season against Illinois-Chicago, is expected to be back in the still rings rotation, albeit with a simplified routine.

The Illini will put out their best lineup, led by Haagensen and junior Tyler Yamauchi, who has been ranked in the top ten nationally on still rings and is the team’s top vault performer.

Freshmen Chad Wiest and Luke Stannard, who holds the Illini’s top score on pommel horse this season, will help take on some of the toughest talent in the sport.

“Big Ten teams are always strong and it’s always competitive,” Hayasaki said.

“To win the Big Ten Championships is just as hard as winning the national championship. Whoever wins here can be the national champion. Yes, we’ll have to hit. Yes, we’ll have to do our best to beat these teams. But that’s nothing new,” he said.