Illinois men’s gymnastics receives first loss and learning lesson

By Daniel Collins

The No. 2 Illinois men’s gymnastics meet against No. 1 Oklahoma on Friday was dubbed “The Perfect Dual.” Both teams entered with records of 10-0, but things went far from perfect for the Illini in Norman, Oklahoma

Illinois trailed the entire competition in its 457.300-434.200 defeat. The floor exercise and all-around were the only titles won by an Illini gymnast. Junior C.J. Maestas posted a 15.900 on the floor, splitting the event title with Oklahoma sophomore Colin Van Wiklen. Freshman Bobby Baker, the only member of either team to compete for the all-around title, posted a score of 86.200.

While Maestas posted a top score on the floor, head coach Justin Spring left him out of all other events to provide the ailing gymnast with additional rest.

“He takes it personal when another team is beating us and he rises to the occasion and performs better,” Spring said of Maestas. “The attitude that comes along with that is one that the rest of the team has to embrace.”

This weekend marked the first away meet for the Illini since Jan. 24, when they defeated Ohio State, and their second outside the state of Illinois. The first two away competitions of the season were a meet against UIC and the Windy City Invitational, which were both held at the UIC Pavilion.

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Multiple members of the team said they only noticed three fans in the audience wearing orange and blue. Spring suggested that the change of scenery caused the team to compete with a lack of intensity.

“We brought an apprehensive, reserved competitive spirit,” Spring said. “Oklahoma did the exact opposite. They competed aggressively, had laser vision for stuck landings and got us.”

Baker and senior Jordan Valdez shared an uncharacteristic similarity in the meet — both participated in an event in which they posted a score below 13.000. Baker’s score came in the still ring event — he fell after getting tangled up during a dismount and scored a 12.700. Valdez fell twice in the high bar event and posted a score of 12.900.

“I got onto the high bar and I was pretty nervous,” Valdez said. “Normally I don’t have a lot of nerves, and when I do, I can get them to calm down and go away. But it was a different environment that was difficult to adjust to. It was something (the team) suffered from even after some good sets.”

Valdez wore a pair of grips against the Sooners that he hadn’t used yet in competition. He said he struggled with his old pair while competing for a senior spot on the U.S. national team at the Winter Cup in Las Vegas the previous weekend. He added that the idea of competing with new grips for the first time and the distraction of the crowd became a mental challenge for him during his high bar routine.

Illinois’ score of 434.200 was the lowest since it posted a 428.100 at the Windy City Invitational.

“It’s a valuable learning lesson for a team that hasn’t been challenged yet,” Spring said of the loss.

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