Illinois, Iowa to face off in last dual meet ever

Junior+Clay+Mason+Stephens+performs+his+parallel+bars+routine+during+the+meet+against+Ohio+State+on+Jan.+23.+Illinois+will+face+Iowa+this+Saturday.

Cameron Krasucki

Junior Clay Mason Stephens performs his parallel bars routine during the meet against Ohio State on Jan. 23. Illinois will face Iowa this Saturday.

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

On Saturday evening, the Illinois and Iowa men’s gymnastics teams will face each other in what might be the last ever dual meet between the historic Big Ten rivals.

Iowa’s athletic program was hit hard by the loss of revenue associated with COVID-19, leaving it unable to adequately support all 24 of its athletic teams. Men’s gymnastics was one of four teams Iowa chose to discontinue at the end of the 2020-2021 athletic year.

While Illinois head coach Justin Spring sympathizes with Iowa’s gymnasts and coaches, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a gymnastics meet both teams want to win.

“We’ve got to do our job against them just like nothing else is happening,” Spring said.

Iowa entered its final season ranked last in the preseason Big Ten Coaches Poll and returns only one All-American from last season: senior Bennet Huang in all-around. While Illinois has competed in three meets so far this season, Iowa has competed in only one: a dual meet against Minnesota two weeks ago. The additional meets Illinois has competed in and the experience that came with those meets could help the Illini against the Hawkeyes.

That being said, Iowa defeated Minnesota, 393.650-387.050, and Iowa’s gymnasts won four out of six event titles. Furthermore, 13 members of Iowa’s 15-man roster can perform on four or more apparatuses, with 11 capable of performing on all of them. Only two Iowa gymnasts competed as all-arounders against Minnesota: Huang and junior Evan Davis, both of whom won event titles in that meet. Junior Stewart Brown competed on five events and shared the floor exercise title with Huang.

“They can step up. They can surprise some teams,” Spring said. “If we come out and have a meet like we did against Penn State or even worse, we can open up some major doors for them to sneak in and take an unexpected win. We’re not taking anything lightly. They’re a good team, and we got to go out there and perform.”

Two weeks ago, Illinois lost to Penn State by a razor-thin margin of .15 points in their only loss of the season. The Illini led for almost the entire meet, but a rough rotation on parallel bars to end the meet was enough for the Nittany Lions to overtake the Illini.

Illinois was scheduled to face Michigan a week later, but that meet was postponed to Feb. 21 after Michigan paused all athletic activities due to COVID-19. Spring used the weekend off for team practices. While he’s pleased with what he saw, the team suffered a major setback during this time.

Within a matter of days, junior Léo Valentin tore his Achilles tendon and freshman Will Hauke suffered what Spring would only describe as a “hand injury.” Both were regulars for the Illini floor exercise lineup, though Hauke also was a regular on high bar.

Now both are out for the remainder of the season.

“It was pretty tough to see,” Spring said. “We’re still a strong team. We have some depth, and we’re gonna need it this weekend.”

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