Men’s team placed fifth in memorable NCAAs

By Jeff LaBelle

Commentary from author: When the men’s gymnastics team celebrated its fifth-place finish at the NCAAs, I thought back to the first time I saw their smiles.

It started when I asked Justin Spring, a 2005 graduate who worked as an assistant coach this season, if the still rings were difficult. Before I could regret the question, Spring hoisted me a few feet off the ground into a set of nearby training rings. It was just far enough from the ground so my feet could dangle comfortably, like a weakling.

As I looked around Kenney Gym, it filled with smiles. Guys gathered to ask how my arms were feeling, whether or not I had ever worked out before. They joked with each other and I heckled back, sort of. In April, though, after their grand achievement, joy spilled over them times ten compared to that. Their smiles. Their intensity. Doing everything it took to get what they wanted – that’s what made this team a success.

They helped each other overcome slow starts and the slips, rips and sprains during the year to meet every team goal they had. During NCAA weekend and ever since, those same smiles have electrified their season.

Next year, with no graduates and a promising recruiting class, the Illini have much to anticipate.

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Commentary by: Jeff Labelle

This article was republished May 7.

In one weekend, the Illinois men’s gymnastics team changed everything – school records, season highs and most importantly, perceptions.

“In the last two, three weeks we came to grips with things – we did our sets in practice and we were able to do them again when it counted,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to come, but we put pressure on the guys to do this and they got it done.”

Last Wednesday, its story was simple – they were a young and inconsistent team, certainly not title contenders. But by Friday, April 13 with their fifth-place finish in the NCAA Championships in hand, the Illini stood tall among the country’s best. When the weekend was all over, word got around that the Illini had even put a scare into the eventual national champion, Penn State.

“They didn’t know what we were capable of and at one point it looked like we were taking over,” junior Chris Silcox said. “One of the things that got me was when a couple guys from Penn State said, ‘You guys scared us a little bit.’ Coming from the National Champions, that was, oh, I guess I don’t know the word for it – how about amazing.”

Assistant coach Justin Spring, who helped lead the Illni to a second place finish in last year’s Championships, said this performance was inspiring.