Year in review: Illinois men’s gymnastics 2015-16

By Annabeth Carlson

After battling through injury at the tail end of the year, the Illinois men’s gymnastics team came in runner-up at the Big Ten championships and finished fourth in the country at the NCAA championships.

The climax of Illinois’ season proved to be sophomore Brandon Ngai’s ascension through the pommel horse rankings. With a score of 15.450 on the apparatus at the NCAA championships, Ngai became the youngest national champion — across all sports — in history.

The now 17-year-old first came to Illinois when he was a week away from turning 16. After not winning a single pommel horse crown during his freshman campaign, his NCAA title capped off a sophomore season in which he won nine.

“Next year, we’ll have about three incoming freshmen that are really good on horse,” Ngai said. “I can take a lot of the things I’ve learned from this year and apply that to them and push to be the best pommel horse team in the country by a long shot. My goal for next year is to be up there on the podium with four other guys in orange.”

Freshman Alex Diab was also a key contributor to both of Illinois’ top-five finishes. The five-foot-two all-arounder had an outstanding freshman season, taking home the Big Ten still rings title and being named an All-American on high bar.

Ngai’s and Diab’s seasons were ones of consistency and growing success, but the team’s year would not mirror that of its budding stars.

Illinois began its season 7-0, defending its Windy City Invitational title, before picking up its first loss against Big Ten rival Penn State by one point (430.200-429.200).

The rest of the year, Illinois could never recapture its rhythm.

“You can’t have a national championship team every year,” head coach Justin Spring said. “But what you can do is try to foster a culture and environment where guys are at least maximizing (their potential) every year. And I think that’s what we had.”

In the meet following Illinois’ loss to Penn State, sophomore Chandler Eggleston — who sat out the 2014-15 season due a torn patella tendon in his right knee — won both the individual floor exercise and vault title for a third consecutive competition.

Eggleston was named an All-American during his freshman year, and after going through a grueling rehabilitation process on his right knee, he looked as if he was on pace to regain his All-American status and contend for his own individual national titles.

But that turned out to be the peak of his season. In the week before Illinois’ next competition, the sophomore sprained his ankle that would encumber the rest of his season.

The North Carolina native wasn’t the only Illinois gymnast to be hampered by injuries. The 2015 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year, sophomore Bobby Baker, also battled injury.

Baker was off to a hot start just like Eggleston but was suspended for two meets during the middle of the season for violating team rules.

Using those three weeks to train and work in upgrades, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year bounced back in his return meet.

Baker won the title on vault, parallel bars and in the all-around against Air Force and California, helping Illinois post a school-record score of 442.300.

A few weeks later, he broke his right ring finger during warmups against eventual 2016 NCAA Champion Oklahoma and would never regain his pre-injury form.

“Bobby and Chandler had a rough, long year because they just weren’t ever really 100 percent,” Spring said. “But again, they fought. They kept training, they kept pushing. I’m really proud of the guys for not letting injuries be the end of a season.”

Spring said that he has put the 2015-16 season in his rearview mirror and is already focused on making another run at a national title. The coach added that the next three months will be instrumental for his team’s health and for his incoming recruits.

“Honestly, this is one of the more exciting times throughout our training season,” Spring said. “It’s a great time to sit back and look at that passion and energy that’s inside Kenney Gym. And I think we’ve got it.”

[email protected]