No. 3 Illini defeat Buckeyes in Big Ten opener

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Sophomore Evan Manivong competes in the vault event during the meet against Ohio State on Saturday.

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

The No. 3 Illinois men’s gymnastics team competed in its first Big Ten meet of the season when they faced Ohio State on Saturday in Huff Hall. Though the Illini fell behind on their first two events, they rallied on their remaining four events to win 402.550-396.250, improving to 2-0 on the season.

Compared to their meet against Northern Illinois a week ago, the Illini performed much better against the Buckeyes, improving their team score by almost 18 points. According to Illinois head coach Justin Spring, part of this can be attributed to the difference in competition; Northern Illinois was a less challenging opponent than Ohio State, which led to a different competitive environment.

“The speed, the intensity, the energy were all tripled from last weekend. I think we compete better like that, when we’re feeling a little bit on edge,” Spring said. “We had about a 63% hit ratio (against Ohio State), which is a big jump from last weekend. This was a big step in the right direction.”

Five Illini came away with event titles, either winning them alone or splitting them with a teammate. Junior Ian Skirkey, a 2020 All-American on pommel horse, won his first title of the season in that event. Sophomore Evan Manivong claimed his second vault title of the season, doing so with a career-high score. Graduate student Danny Graham continues to dominate on still rings, but he had to share the event title with senior Jordan Kovach, who picks up his first of the season. Junior all-arounder Hamish Carter won his first all-around title of the season along with a parallel bars title. Carter also set a career-high score on high bar, good enough for a runner-up finish. Sophomore Connor McCool, a 2020 All-American on floor exercise, also continued his success there with a runner-up finish.

Making his debut for Illinois was junior Léo Valentin, who competed on floor, vault and parallel bars. Unfortunately, Valentin was injured during his parallel bars performance and while he appears to be OK, Spring will not know until Monday whether Valentin can compete against Penn State next Sunday. Fellow junior Clay Mason Stephens made his return to the Illini following a redshirt 2020 season and a torn ACL, competing on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar. The highlight of Stephens’ return was a second place finish on parallel bars behind Carter.

Though Illinois came away with the win, the team had its struggles, especially on floor exercise and pommel horse to start the meet. Ohio State outscored Illinois on floor exercise by a full point and added to their lead on pommel horse in the next rotation. Entering the third rotation, Ohio State led Illinois by 1.4 points, something Spring said should never happen.

“That really comes down to our floor team underperforming. We are so much better on floor,” Spring said. “We gave away a lot there and we gotta be better on pommel horse, too. I was a little worried after the first two, but we really turned it on. We performed much better than I expected on vault and parallel bars, and we performed on rings as I thought we would.”

Illinois also struggled on high bar to end the meet. Illinois led Ohio State by three points entering the final rotation, but half of Illinois’ high bar lineup fell during their routines. Spring was worried they might blow the lead, but Ohio State’s own struggles on high bar and parallel bars preserved Illinois’ lead and even allowed it to grow, securing the victory for Illinois.

But finishing a meet that way is unacceptable to Spring.

“We cannot finish a meet with three falls like we had on high bar if we’re gonna beat Penn State or Michigan,” Spring said, referring to the team’s next two opponents. “We got to be better at closing.”

In the next week, Spring wants to run the team through floor exercise and high bar routines in the hopes of starting and ending their Penn State meet better than the way they did against Ohio State. Spring also hopes to eliminate the falls from the team’s routines to achieve a final team score that pushes 410 points.

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