No. 8 Illinois to host top-10 match against No. 3 Nebraska

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

The No. 8 Illinois men’s gymnastics team will return to Huff Hall on Saturday for a top 10 match against No. 3 Nebraska.

“They’re a pretty solid team. They really don’t have a weak event,” said Illinois head coach Justin Spring. “They’ve got some veterans (who) have been in their program for a while and are doing great things. Their freshmen are pretty outstanding.”

Nebraska, under eleventh-year head coach Chuck Chmelka, is 1-0 in dual meets this season, defeating Iowa last Sunday, while finishing in second place in the Rocky Mountain Invite hosted by Air Force. Last season, five Nebraska gymnasts received All-American Honors. Four are still competing for Nebraska.

This season, Illinois placed third at the Windy City Invite hosted by the University of Illinois Chicago and is 1-1 in dual meets, with their loss occurring last Friday against Minnesota. Although Illinois led Minnesota through the first five rotations of the meet, the meet came down to the final rotation, with Illinois on parallel bars. Illinois scored 63.650. For comparison, Minnesota scored 70.150 on the same event.

“We spent a great deal of time trying to get our guys ready to handle parallel bars, which is going to typically be an event we’re closing on or toward the end of the competition,” Spring said. “That pressure is going to be building. We’ve got to prepare our guys better to handle those tough situations.”

Injuries are partially to blame for Illinois’ parallel bars performance against Minnesota. Sophomores Clay Mason Stephens and Michael Fletcher are both out for the season and junior Jordan Kovach was kept off parallel bars with an elbow injury. These three gymnasts are, according to Spring, the team’s first, third and fourth-best parallel bars specialists.

“It’s not just losing a guy. You’re losing a guy and replacing him with a guy that was three spots out of lineup,” Spring said. “It showed up tremendously against Minnesota.”

After getting back to Champaign-Urbana, Spring ran the team through back-to-back days of parallel bars practice to prepare for Nebraska. To defeat Nebraska, according to Spring, Illinois has to gain a lead over Nebraska early and then maintain that lead for the remainder of the meet, including parallel bars.

A critical event for Illinois to win is pommel horse. Illinois beat Minnesota on pommel horse by three points, but Nebraska is ranked No. 1 as a team in the event, and Nebraska senior Charlie Giles, a 2019 All-American, is ranked No. 2 as an individual. After the strong showing on pommel horse against Minnesota, Spring is hopeful Illinois can defeat Nebraska on both pommel horse along with still rings to achieve the early lead.

“We just need to do our job and closeout on parallel bars and high bar,” Spring said. “We have to make up some ground early on pommel horse and rings, and then don’t give it away on the last two events. If we have a decent lead going into those final two, I think we’ll be able to hold it if we can just do our job.”

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