Illini men’s gymnasts use dual meet to test lineup

It’s experimentation week for the No. 2 Illinois men’s gymnastics team.

Saturday at Huff Hall, Illinois will have a dual meet against No. 13 UIC, which the Illini defeated by nearly 15 points earlier this season at the Windy City Invitational. Illinois’ top all-arounders are resting after competing at the 2012 U.S. Winter Cup Challenge, and now it’s time to see how the back-up gymnasts fare in the spotlight.

“It’s kind of like when the relief quarterback comes in and goes, ‘This is my time to show people that I’m not just a back-up guy, I can and deserve to be in the lineup,’” Illinois head coach Justin Spring said.

Many of Illinois’ gymnasts competing this weekend have not made the lineup yet this season, and some freshmen have never made the lineup. Earlier in the week, Spring was undecided about the exact lineup. He expected senior Devin Regan, junior Malcom Brown and sophomore Cole Smith to compete, possibly along with freshmen Josh Wilson and Nick Sacramento for the first times in their collegiate careers.

“It would be very important to compete,” Wilson said. “I’m just looking to contribute to my team and be a part of this strong team we have.”

Spring is eager to see how the gymnasts compete in pressure situations. They try to recreate meet environments during practice, competing in their exact events and simulating crowd noise in the background. But nothing compares to real competition, Spring said. Now, he will be able to learn how some of his gymnasts handle competition.

“You can have someone really step up to the challenge and be like, ‘Wow, he’s a gamer, he can compete very well under pressure,’” Spring said. “And then you have some people that struggle with that, and it’s a little heavy for them.”

Once the coaching staff sees how the athletes compete, it will be able to work with their strengths and weaknesses, Spring said. He hopes to give everyone a chance to start so nobody is put into the lineup for the first time at Big Ten’s or NCAA’s if starters are sidelined by injury.

Saturday’s dual meet marks a turning point, ending the week of rest from Winter Cup and bringing all gymnasts into full collegiate focus, Spring said.

“This week is going to be mostly (about) hitting our numbers, getting that consistency back up,” freshman Mike Wilner said. “And guys who are coming off Winter Cup can get back in shape and see what happens from there.”

Spring thinks competing in Huff Hall again will help the gymnasts relax, although the crowd probably won’t be as big as last time, when Illinois’ faced No. 1 Oklahoma.

“The first home meet that we had there was so much energy in the crowd,” Wilner said. “It was a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to be back there for UIC.”