Illini men’s gymnastics prepare for Big Ten road trip

By Kieran Hampl

The No. 8 Illinois men’s gymnastics team made it clear heading into the season that it expected to make a deep run at the end of the year through the Big Ten and the national championship.

Despite plenty of expectations, this does not mean the Illini are overlooking any of their opponents. This includes Minnesota and Nebraska, who the Illini will compete against this weekend in Minneapolis.

“Minnesota is a tough team, they’re going to be good … and are definitely not going to be taken lightly,” redshirt sophomore C.J. Maestas said.

The Illini will not have the home-gym advantage, which proved to be crucial in a victory over then-No. 3 Ohio State last weekend.

“With Ohio State coming to Huff Hall for us, the crowd is always on our side. Going to Minnesota, at least in the past, their crowd is huge,” senior Jordan Valdez said. He added that the best way to account for this is to create as much team energy as possible.

Another challenge the Illini are going to take on is the travel schedule they will face this weekend. A long drive to Minneapolis creates a very tight turnaround for the players. The coaches have posed this as a challenge for the players, saying that if they can handle this, then they can handle anything.

This week in practice, a lot of players have been doing additional numbers and routines to prepare for the upcoming Winter Cup in Las Vegas from Feb. 20-22, which will give players an opportunity to clinch a national team birth.

“Joey (Peters), Chandler (Eggleston), and C.J. will be doing a huge number of routines on Thursday … which is not ideal at all to have a great showing at the Minnesota meet, but it’s best for them to compete at Winter Cup with a format like that,” head coach Justin Spring said.

With this weekend’s format of having five gymnasts compete on each event as opposed to the usual six, Spring said it could be anyone’s competition. The five-man lineups mimic the Big Ten and national tournaments.

Despite both Minnesota and Nebraska not being ranked as highly as Ohio State or Michigan, this meet will allow the Illini to continue to practice putting emphasis on consistency and try to hammer down as many little details as possible.

“In an 18-man team where we can only send 15 guys, the most consistent guy will be in the lineup every weekend,” Valdez said.

To practice consistency, the Illini have not only been doing routines but receiving scores in practice in hopes of cementing the tiny details into their performances.

Starting in March, the event format will become similar to that of the NCAAs, where there are five scores and five athletes. This creates challenges for the coaching staff trying to maximize the team’s score as much as possible.

“We are already trying to figure out who that’s going to be, and how we can still maximize their final score for us while still always pursuing that consistency that we are looking for,” Spring said.

Despite performing well and having high expectations, Spring has emphasized the big picture of winning in the end.

“Our mission is to not beat most of the Big Ten but to be Big Ten champions.”

Maestas reiterated Spring’s emphasis by talking about how the team focuses on each individual meet and takes everything on a daily basis instead of getting ahead of themselves. He also said weathering the difficulties of a long season requires a certain amount of toughness.

“It’s just overcoming that soreness, overcoming that mental setback and just knowing this is my job and this is what it is going to take — we signed up for this,” Maestas said.

Kieran can be reached at [email protected]