Illinois falls to Penn State in top-five meet

Graduate+student+Danny+Graham+competes+in+the+rings+event+during+the+meet+against+Ohio+State+at+Huff+Hall+on+Jan.+23.+The+Illinois+mens+gymnastics+team+fell+to+Penn+State+on+Sunday+in+a+narrow+loss.

Cameron Krasucki

Graduate student Danny Graham competes in the rings event during the meet against Ohio State at Huff Hall on Jan. 23. The Illinois men’s gymnastics team fell to Penn State on Sunday in a narrow loss.

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

The No. 4 ranked Illinois men’s gymnastics team faced No. 5 Penn State on Sunday in a battle between two of the nation’s best teams. The teams were ranked close enough in team total and in all six events for head coach Justin Spring to predict a close meet, but the final result turned out to be much closer than Spring thought it would be. The final score was 399.30-399.15 in Penn State’s favor — a margin of victory by just .15 points.

It’s not just the close margin that makes this loss tough to swallow, but it’s also the fact that the Illini led the Nittany Lions for almost the entire meet and carried a 1.75 point lead into the final rotation. But a strong Penn State performance on high bar, coupled with a series of Illinois mistakes on parallel bars, sealed Illinois’ fate in this meet.

“We were much closer going into the last rotation than I thought we should’ve been and they got through high bar better than we got through P bars,” said Illinois head coach Spring. “That’s all it was and it makes for a really tough loss.”

Although Illinois outscored Penn State on high bar by nine-tenths of a point, Penn State outscored Illinois by 3.4 points on parallel bars, more than enough for the Nittany Lions to edge out the Illini for the win.

It was a close meet all afternoon, with one team outscoring the other on four events by less than a point. Despite a shaky start to the meet on pommel horse, Illinois managed to put that behind them and built a lead over the next few events. But they couldn’t close out the meet.

“I’m happy that we managed to put that aside and worked to get the lead on the other events, but parallel bars was definitely our low point,” said junior all-arounder Hamish Carter. “We were riding the momentum of the meet all the way through and right at the end, the opposition clinched the win. It’s tough.”

“It’s a reminder to our team that every tenth matters,” Spring said. “We felt like we were having a decent meet because we had pretty decent events in between (pommel horse and parallel bars) but it’s those two events that really cost us.”

Despite the loss, Illinois claimed four event titles plus the all-around title. Carter won with his second consecutive all-around title as well as his first high bar title of 2021. Junior Michael Fletcher, also competing as an all-arounder, won his first event title of 2021 on pommel horse with a career-high 13.700. Sophomore Evan Manivong and graduate student Danny Graham continue to dominate on vault and still rings respectively, winning their third consecutive event titles in those events.

In addition to setting a career-high score on pommel horse, Fletcher also set a career-high on floor exercise, as did sophomore Ian Skirkey and freshman Will Hauke. Hauke also set career-high scores on pommel horse, parallel bars and high bar while fellow freshman Logan Myers set a career-high on still rings. Junior Clay Mason Stephens on high bar and sophomore Dylan Kolak on vault round out the remainder of the career-high scores set by Illini gymnasts against Penn State for a total of 10.

Moving forward, Illinois will face Iowa in two weeks for what is possibly the last ever meeting between the historic Big Ten rivals; the University of Iowa expected to discontinue its men’s gymnastics program after the season ends. Illinois was originally scheduled to face Michigan next weekend, but because of a spike in COVID-19 cases throughout Michigan’s athletic program, that meet has been postponed and will likely be made up virtually after the Iowa meet.

@B_RadZimm