2013 Illini Men's Gymnastics Season PreviewDecember 8, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The reigning national champion Fighting Illini men's gymnastics team will open the season ranked first in the country as the squad begins its quest to defend its NCAA title and secure its fifth straight Big Ten crown.
Head coach Justin Spring returns for his fourth season at the helm after garnering National Coach of the Year honors for the first time in his career and Big Ten Coach of the Year recognition for the third consecutive season. He and his assistants, 2012 National and Central Region Assistant Coaches of the Year Ivan Ivankov and Daniel Ribeiro, will look to guide the Orange and Blue to another historic season.
"This year is going to be unique in that, beginning in March, the format will change to a five-up, five-count system," Spring said. "I think we have the potential to step up in that format, rise to the occasion at Big Tens and the NCAA Championships and make another run at a very good season. Our team is not going to be throwing up the highest start values at every meet, but we will make sure to be the most consistent team all year. That can go a long way in the postseason when the pressure is on."
The Illini return four of seven All-Americans from last year's championship squad, including seniors Yoshi Mori (AA, PH) and Austin Phillips (HB) and juniors Chad Mason (PH) and Jordan Valdez (HB).
The squad also will feature 10 of the 15 gymnasts who contributed countable scores during team finals at the 2012 NCAA Championships. Together, those 10 athletes were responsible for 15 of the 24 scores counted by the Orange and Blue.
Mori will look to be a major contributor throughout 2013. The pommel horse and all-around All-American competed in the pommel horse final at both Big Tens and NCAAs and was consistent throughout team finals at the NCAA Championships, turning in countable scores on all five apparatuses on which he competed.
Valdez, an All-American on high bar and one of two 2013 team captains, has been a solid performer throughout his Illini career, contributing regularly on high bar, parallel bars and vault. The Louisville, Colo., native advanced to the high bar final at Big Tens and NCAAs, finishing third and fifth in those competitions.
Mason returns after a breakout performance at the 2012 NCAA Championships, where he finished first on pommel horse during prelims and fourth during team finals. The 2012 All-American was instrumental in Illinois' comeback during the team competition, leading the pommel horse squad to a school record-breaking performance that helped erase a more than two-point deficit to claim the national crown.
Phillips rounds out the list of returning All-Americans after a solid year during which he advanced to the high bar final at Big Tens and NCAAs and competed regularly on parallel bars and high bar.
The other returning scorers from the 2012 NCAA Championships include 2013 senior captain Vince Smurro, who scored on floor, Josh Wilson and Alex Varga on vault, Cole Smith on pommel horse, Mike Wilner on rings and Cameron Rogers on parallel bars.
The Illini also boast a list of skilled newcomers, including 2011 junior national parallel bars and rings champion Max Mayr, two-time junior national team member Joey Peters, former Georgia vault and floor state champion Fred Hartville and 2011 Junior Olympic National Championship pommel horse bronze medalist Logan Bradley. They, along with redshirt freshman Jacob Tilsley, who spent 2012 on the sidelines due to injury, will look to make an immediate impact for the Orange and Blue.
Senior Malcolm Brown, junior Andrew Margolis and sophomore Nick Sacramento will look to crack the lineups on various events throughout the season as well.
Maestas, a three-time All-American and four-time U.S. senior national team member, will miss the 2013 season due to a tricep injury sustained during practice. In his first season at Illinois, the Corrales, N.M., native won the conference all-around crown to earn Big Ten Gymnast and Freshman of the Year honors before capturing the NCAA title on rings, securing a runner-up finish at NCAAs and earning All-America status on rings, pommel horse and in the all-around.
2013 Illini Event Breakdown
Although the Orange and Blue said goodbye to two-time Big Ten floor champion Paul Ruggeri along with C.J. Padera, who contributed one of Illinois' four countable scores during NCAA Team Finals last season, the Illini return two of their four floor scorers from the 2012 NCAA championship team, including Smurro and Mori. Fellow floor veteran Varga will look to be a major contributor as well. Wilson, Rogers and newcomer Hartville will compete for spots in the lineup and look to solidify the floor squad.
Three of the four gymnasts who contributed to the Illini's all-time highest pommel horse score return for another season after helping Illinois overcome a two-point deficit going into the final two rotations during NCAA Team Finals to win the 2012 crown. All-Americans Mori and Mason will look to lead the charge along with fellow 2012 NCAA finalist Smith and Rogers. Pommel horse specialist Brown, incoming freshman and pommel ace Bradley and redshirt freshman Tilsley will look to contribute as well.
Without the return of Maestas, Wilner, who also contributed a countable score during NCAA Team finals, will look to step up to the challenge and fill the role of anchoring a fairly inexperienced rings squad after the Illini bid farewell to three-time rings All-American Anthony Sacramento and Kyle Moe, a consistent 15.0 performer. With three major holes in the lineup, Rogers, Phillips, Margolis and newcomers Mayr and Peters will look rise to the occasion and return the Illini to rings success.
The Illini lost 2012 NCAA vault champion Ruggeri, who also is a two-time All-American and Big Ten champion on this apparatus. Despite the loss of a world-class vaulter and Maestas, the squad returns everyone else who competed on vault at NCAAs and will welcome incoming vault star Hartville, who will look to make a dramatic impact as anchor on this event in his first year with the Orange and Blue. The lineup also will feature veterans Mori and Varga and could include Tilsley, Rogers and Wilson.
Despite losing Ruggeri, a former NCAA champion and two-time All-American on this event, and Padera, a one-time Big Ten champion and All-American, Illinois boasts talent on parallel bars, led by veterans Phillips and Mori. Additionally, Valdez made significant upgrades to his routine from last season, and Peters and Mayr look to shine in their first year with the Illini.
The Illini took the biggest hit on high bar this season with the loss of Ruggeri, the 2011 Pan American Games high bar champion, 2009 U.S. high bar champion, two-time NCAA high bar champion and two-time high bar All-American. Ruggeri boasts the all-time highest score at Illinois on this apparatus and ranks second in all-time high bar titles. Despite his accolades, Ruggeri fell on this event during NCAA Team Finals last season, posting an uncounted score for the Illini. Maestas, another solid high bar performer, fell during NCAA Team Finals as well and did not contribute to the team score.
Returning All-Americans Valdez and Phillips, fellow NCAA scorer Mori and newcomer Peters will look to compensate for the loss of two talented high bar stars.
The Illini will debut their skills at their Orange & Blue Exhibition on Dec. 9 at Huff Hall alongside the women's team. The defending national champs will kick off the regular season with a dual meet on Jan. 12 at No. 15 UIC and will return to Chicago the following weekend (Jan. 19) for the annual Windy City Invitational, where they placed second out of six last season. The Orange and Blue will continue with invitational-style competition on Jan. 25 at the Metroplex Challenge in Dallas.
After a nearly two-week hiatus, select Illini will return to action to compete for U.S. national titles and spots on the senior national team at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge, Feb. 7-9 in Las Vegas.
The Orange and Blue will open their home slate with a dual meet against No. 10 Iowa, welcoming the Hawkeyes to Huff Hall on Feb. 16 for Gym Jam, which will be held in conjunction with the women's squad and will feature special promotions and events. The next weekend (Feb. 23), the Illini will travel to No. 8 Ohio State to face the Buckeyes before taking a two-week break in the schedule.
The Illini will host No. 4 Penn State on March 2. The following weekend, Illinois will welcome No. 7 Minnesota for a special match-play event, which will be an NCAA-sanctioned competition, aired on Big Ten Network and is the brainchild of Spring and Ribeiro.
"We're trying to create a fan-friendly, media-friendly gymnastics competition format that allows you to follow the progression of the competition," Spring said. "In order to do that, we're kind of getting rid of the athletes competing against the judges and making it more about the athletes competing against the athletes of other teams, like most sporting events. It's a head-to-head format, where both teams are on the same event. There is strategy involved, and it really brings out the traditional American sporting elements that we've come to love from football, basketball and baseball and brings them into the gymnastics world. I think people are really going to like it."
The Illini travel to No. 6 California the next weekend (March 16) before returning home on March 23 for Senior Day against No. 9 Nebraska.
Illinois will look to notch its fifth straight conference crown at the Big Ten Championships, April 5-6 in Minneapolis.
Less than two weeks later, the Illini will travel to State College, Pa., where they will look to defend their national title at the NCAA Championships, which will take place April 19-21 on Penn State's campus.