Illini men’s gymnastics hopes to bring home national title

Jordan Valdez performs the high bar routine against Ohio State at Huff Hall on Sunday, Jan. 26rd, 2014.

By Kieran Hampl

The No. 5-ranked Illinois gymnastics team hopes to top the field this weekend at the 2014 NCAA Championships. 

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Illini boarded the bus to Ann Arbor, Mich., with a practice day scheduled for Wednesday, before the three-day event begins. 

The team, which placed fourth at the Big Ten Championships, is looking to increase its hit percentage heading into the biggest event of the year hoping to accomplish their preseason goal of winning a national championship. The Illini last won the title in 2012. 

Illinois will compete in the afternoon session on Thursday against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Stanford, No. 8 Iowa, No. 9 California and No. 12 William and Mary. The top three teams from each session will advance to Friday’s team finals. On the first day, the Illini will be competing against Iowa, which is the only team in their group they’ve already competed against this season, compared to the night sessions, where they’ve competed against all six teams. Despite not being familiar with the early opponents, unlike other sports, scouting will not play a role and the Illini will only be focused on their individual performances.

“It’s a competition against yourself, you have to do the routine that you have done 100 times already this year,” head coach Justin Spring said.

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    As a team, the Illini are ranked in the top 10 in the country on every apparatus heading into this event. Junior Jordan Valdez leads the nation on high bar and is fifth on parallel bars, freshman Chandler Eggleston is currently No. 2 on floor exercise and fourth on vault. Sophomore C.J. Maestas comes in at No. 3 on both still rings and in the all-around. 

    The Illini had two full weeks of practice to get ready for the finals. Besides just trying to perfect their sets, they have also placed a ton of emphasis on mental preparation. The coaches created mock meets in order to get the gymnasts ready for the pressure they will be facing before each routine.

    “It is a lot of mental preparation outside of the gym,” senior Chad Mason said. “I am always thinking about my set.” 

    With the competition starting Thursday, Spring has stopped telling the team they must handle the pressure. They know what they need to do to be successful this weekend and the statistics have proved they can win if they go out and hit their routines.

    “The guys don’t have to do anything extra special this weekend, no one needs to do something that they have never done before,” Spring said. 

    The national champion team will be named in Friday’s finals. Also, the top 10 athletes from each individual event will compete in the individual championships on Saturday. 

    For an Illini team that came into the season with high expectations, this is its chance to prove how good it can be.

    Kieran can be reached at [email protected].