Illinois men's gymnastics fails to place at NCAAs

By Daniel Collins

The Illinois men’s gymnastics team started off the year 10-0, its best start since 2010, but finished with its worst performance at the NCAA Championships since 2002.

Despite injuries early on — sophomore Chandler Eggleston was ruled out for the year with a ruptured patella tendon and junior Fred Hartville missed the first four competitions with a minor knee sprain – the Illini were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in the coaches’ poll. ss

But it was all downhill from there.

In a matchup that was dubbed “the perfect meet,” No. 2 Illinois squared off against No.1 Oklahoma on Feb. 27 in Norman, Oklahoma, and lost by a score of 457.300-434.200.

“We competed conservatively and made (little) mistakes that we haven’t made all year,” said head coach Justin Spring after the Oklahoma loss.

But after being outdueled by a dominant Oklahoma team that eventually went on to win the NCAA Championship, the Illini never returned to top form.

The team fell to Stanford 21-9 the following week at home in a match-play format. In match-play there are no set lineups. Coaches choose which gymnasts they want to contend after the opposing team’s gymnast finishes his routine. Prior to the meet, there is a coin flip to determine the first apparatus and competing team. Spring introduced this style of play, and is pushing the NCAA to use it more often in order to create more of a head-to-head competition. In a typical gymnastics meet the teams compete simultaneously on different apparatuses.ss

Illinois would go on to split its next two meets with a home win against Nebraska (436.700-423.450) and a road loss to Michigan (435.750-428.500) to end the regular season 11-3.ss

The Illini finished second in a field of seven at the Big Ten Championship to start off the postseason. Freshman standout Bobby Baker was named Big Ten Freshman and Gymnast of the Year. Redshirt junior C.J. Maestas took home the floor title, Senior Jordan Valdez split the parallel bars title with Michigan’s Nick Hunter, Hartville won vault title and the Illini looked like they were bouncing back from a sub-par regular season finish.ss

Illinois’ next step was to head back to Norman, Oklahoma, to compete at the NCAA Championships. The Illini’s team performance was one that was not expected, as they finished outside the top six and failed to qualify for team finals for the first time since 2002. Hartville tore his Achilles tendon in warmups, and could possibly miss the entirety of next season.ss

In terms of individual achievements, Illinois didn’t leave Norman empty-handed. Maestas garnered four All-American honors and won the national high bar title. Junior Logan Bradley, freshman Bobby Baker and senior Mike Wilner garnered All-American titles as well.ss

Maestas — who will forego his last year of eligibility in order to move to the Olympic Training Center in an attempt to earn a spot in the 2016 games — Wilner and senior Jordan Valdez are among the top names departing from Illinois. Valdez was one of the favorites to win the national high bar title but dislocated his shoulder during individual preliminaries at the NCAA championships.

Those most likely to fill the roles of this departing class are Baker, junior Joey Peters, sophomore Tom Gibbs and freshman Tyson Bull.

Gibbs was considered the team’s top all-around competitor behind Maestas, Baker and Peters. And Bull, while he experienced a lot of falls this season when given the opportunity to perform, does possess a lot of talent on the high bar.

“I hope that’s the way it is,” Baker said about being one of the leading catalysts on the team. “I want to be (leader) for the incoming freshman.”

Spring believes the team’s incoming freshman can provide much needed depth.

“Nothing like coming off a tough finish at the NCAA Championships to get the guys super motivated and back in the gym,” Spring said. “We’re very excited.”

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