Illinois men’s gymnastics to compete at NCAA Championships

Illinois’ Bobby Baker jumps onto the vault during the meet against Stanford at Huff Hall on Friday, March 6.The Illini lost 21-9.

Head coach Justin Spring is confident that his No. 5-ranked Illinois men’s gymnastics team has enough talent to make a strong run at the NCAA Championships this weekend in Norman, Oklahoma.

For him, the two biggest factors that will determine the Illini’s fate are execution and overcoming nerves.

“That’s the hardest part of my job,” Spring said of coaching mental toughness, “The team just needs to develop that belief.”

The tournament takes place April 9-11. The first two days consist of team competition, and the final day is for individual competitions. The 12 teams are split up into two groups on the first day — a day session and night session. Illinois, who posted a qualifying average of 436.213, will compete in the night session.

Spring believes that coming in ranked No. 5 can help take a little pressure off of the team.

“A team who has something to prove is a little bit more empowered to go after it than a team who is supposed to win or a team that is supposed to be the best,” Spring said.

One of the more composed gymnasts on the team this season has been Bobby Baker. The freshman is coming off a solid showing on March 27-28 at the Big Ten Championships in State College, Pennsylvania. Baker finished second in the all-around competition and won Big Ten Gymnast and Freshman of the Year honors.

“I’m not as much of the nervous type as other people,” Baker said. “Once the first day (of competition) arrives, then maybe.”

Baker has just finished recovering from a head cold that slightly limited his practice leading up to the championships. His sickness is one of the many illnesses and injuries that have been hovering over the Illini all season.

Regardless of the minor setback, Baker said he feels prepared enough to execute some of his best routines.

Even though Illinois had a regular season record of 11-3, the numbers are a little misleading in terms of the team’s championship-winning potential. The team’s three losses were against No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Stanford and No. 4 Michigan. The Illini also finished second in the Big Ten Championship behind No. 3 Penn State by six-tenths of a point.

“Having the 10-0 winning streak at the beginning of the year made us really confident in our routines, but the couple loses leading up to Big Tens shook us up a little bit.” Baker said. “At the Big Tens, we didn’t take routines for granted, but we didn’t focus on all the small things that could’ve made a difference.”

The last time the Illini won the NCAA Championship was in 2012. Those who still remain on the team from that championship year are redshirt junior C.J. Maestas and seniors Mike Wilner, Jordan Valdez and Jacob Tilsley.

Maestas, who was named NCAA still rings champion that year, said he is eager to end his career at Illinois the same way that it started.

“I’m really hungry for a championship,” Maestas said. “I was talking to Jordan (Valdez) and Mike (Wilner) when we were walking in, who were a part of that (NCAA Championship winning) team with me that year, and it was almost like deja vu.”

Besides not having sophomore Chandler Eggleston, who is out for the year with a ruptured patella tendon, the Illini are at full strength and Spring will submit his best lineup.

“Ranked first or ranked fifth, it doesn’t matter,” Spring said. “They know they’ve done the work, they know they left no stone unturned.”

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