Men’s gymnastics team places fifth in NCAA Championships



By Jeff LaBelle

In one weekend, the Illinois men’s gymnastics team changed everything – school records, season highs and most importantly, perceptions.

“In the last two, three weeks we came to grips with things – we did our sets in practice and we were able to do them again when it counted,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to come, but we put pressure on the guys to do this and they got it done.”

Last Wednesday, its story was simple – they were a young and inconsistent team, certainly not title contenders. But by Friday, with their fifth-place finish in the NCAA Championships in hand, the Illini stood tall among the country’s best. When the weekend was all over, word got around that the Illini had even put a scare into the eventual national champion, Penn State.

“They didn’t know what we were capable of and at one point it looked like we were taking over,” junior Chris Silcox said. “One of the things that got me was when a couple guys from Penn State said, ‘You guys scared us a little bit.’ Coming from the National Champions, that was, oh, I guess I don’t know the word for it – how about amazing.”

Led by Wes Haagensen’s 9.600 on floor and 9.650 on high bar, the Illini (217.300) finished behind Penn State (221.000), Oklahoma (220.200), Stanford (218.450) and Michigan (218.400) in Friday’s Super Six, the final day of team competition at the NCAA Championships.

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In Friday’s finals, the Illini set new marks in floor exercise (a school record) and in their team score (a season-high), breaking fresh records that had been set less than a day earlier in the qualifying session. Even though neither was enough to bump the team into the top three in finals, Hayasaki couldn’t be happier with how his team performed. They met all his expectations.

“I have to say everybody was a star this weekend,” Hayasaki said. “Certainly our freshmen did a great job, and what a great job our juniors did – for Chris (Silcox) to become an All-American the first time in his junior year and for Wes (Haagensen) to get second in All-Around. This sophomore group, too – everybody was amazing.”

The Illini shot out of the gates on rings (37.200), moved to vault in the second rotation (35.500) and competed on parallel bars (35.600) before peaking on the floor exercise.

Hayasaki believes that this weekend’s performance is an indication that the Illini are headed in the right direction. With an incoming recruiting class, the expected development of current gymnasts over the summer and no graduating players, Hayasaki is excited for the future.

“There’s a lot of talk about how good we’re going to be next year with this recruiting season going on right now,” Hayasaki said. “We’re not going to lose anybody and we’re adding guys. I feel very good about this. There’s no doubt, as a coach, I’m very happy right now.”

Haagensen earned second in the All-Around and along with Silcox, Tyler Yamauchi and Chad Wiest, advanced to the individual event finals on Saturday. All said, the Illini pulled in five All-American honors Saturday.

Assistant coach Justin Spring, who helped lead the Illni to a second place finish in last year’s Championships, said this performance was inspiring.

“I think this weekend was just a big eye opener for this young team,” Spring said. “It really puts in perspective that anything can happen. This team is fully capable of being a national champion next year with a few new guys coming in. I’m so impressed with the way they all put it together. To get two season highs in two days, I’m so impressed.”

Along with Haagensen, three other Illini gymnasts – Silcox (9.650), Yamauchi (9.650) and Wiest (9.550) – helped combine for the second school record in as many days on floor exercise.

Silcox, who’s 9.350 on high bar was the team’s second highest in finals, said that the weekend was something he’ll remember.

“Everybody thought we were going to do terrible,” Silcox said. “They were counting us out from the beginning. But we kept saying throughout the (qualifying) meet that there would be no tomorrow. It was do or die. It was really gratifying once we put it together.”