No. 3 Illini to open Big Ten schedule against Ohio State

Junior+Clay+Mason+Stephens+prepares+to+perform+during+competition.+Stephens+will+return+to+compete+for+the+Illini+tomorrow+after+recovering+from+an+ACL+tear.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Clay Mason Stephens prepares to perform during competition. Stephens will return to compete for the Illini tomorrow after recovering from an ACL tear.

By Bradley Zimmerman, Staff Writer

After starting its season with a victory over Northern Illinois last weekend, the No. 3 ranked Illinois men’s gymnastics team is set to begin Big Ten competition with a home meet against Ohio State Saturday afternoon.

Ohio State, opening its season against Illinois, finished its 2020 campaign with a 6-4 record in head-to-head competitions, but with a 1-2 record against Big Ten opponents. Checking in at No. 5 in the preseason Big Ten Coaches Poll (out of seven teams), Ohio State is not ranked nationally, but close enough behind No. 3 Illinois in the Coaches Poll for Illinois head coach Justin Spring to call tomorrow’s meet an “even matchup.”

The majority of the Buckeyes’ roster this season are upperclassmen that include 2020 All-Americans Luke Smigliani (pommel horse), Angel Leon (horizontal bar) and Jesse Tyndall (floor exercise and horizontal bar). Leon and Tyndall were further named Ohio State’s 2021 B1G Gymnasts to Watch by Ohio State head coach Rustam Sharipov.

“They certainly have some weapons, some guys who can hit really big numbers for them,” Spring said. “But we’ll see if they’re ready to hit consistently.”

There’s a lot of knowledge that Spring is missing as to what kind of team Ohio State is. Illinois hasn’t faced the Buckeyes since March 2019 when the Illini lost a close meet 406.600-404.000. At the time, many of Spring and Sharipov’s current veterans were either sophomores or freshmen. The teams’ meet last season was canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic took shape, and COVID-related difficulties left Ohio State unable to compete last weekend.

“I don’t know where they’re at,” Spring said. “We may have a meet like we did against NIU and we’ll walk all over them. Or it could be a battle to the finish, the last routine. Who knows?”

Spring and his gymnasts agreed that the NIU meet was not their greatest. Because NIU was a less challenging opponent, Illinois’ gymnasts had the liberty to attempt difficult routines with high start values, but they had several falls in the process. Such errors would cost Illinois in a Big Ten competition, so Spring is scaling back the routines for Ohio State. The team practices in the week after the NIU meet left him feeling much better about the state of his team and their ability to compete against Ohio State.

“We really put in some good work and I saw some of the best energy I’ve seen in the gym in the last two months. And that came with some better hits. That was really exciting to see,” Spring said. “We still got some holes here and there, but I have a much better feeling about how we prepared for this week.”

Last weekend, junior all-around gymnast Michael Fletcher made his return to competition after tearing his ACL between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Tomorrow, it will be Clay Mason Stephens’ turn. Stephens is another junior all arounder making his own comeback from an ACL tear that occurred 11 months ago, and he will start off his 2021 season on three events.

Stephens is expected to contribute heavily to the Illini this season, as is Hamish Carter, yet another junior all arounder. For their expected roles, Spring named Stephens and Carter as Illinois’ B1G Gymnasts to Watch for 2021. Although limited to naming two gymnasts to watch, Spring said that Fletcher could’ve easily been named one as well.

@B_RadZimm