Gymnastics is in the Illini spotlight this weekend, with Kim Landrus' women hosting an NCAA regional meet on Saturday and Justin Spring's men in Iowa City on Friday and Saturday for the Big Ten Championships. A look at the major storylines, courtesy staff writer JEFF HUTH.
1. Feeling at home
For the 25th time in program history and the ninth straight year, the Illinois women qualified for an NCAA regional. This time, they won't need to leave town. The No. 22 Illini are hosting a regional for the first time, with five teams joining them at the Assembly Hall (4 p.m.). The top two teams in each of six regionals across the nation will qualify for the NCAA Championships April 20-22 in Duluth, Ga. Led by No. 2 Oklahoma, the Champaign Regional includes five Top 25 squads, It would be an upset if the tradition-rich Sooners don't advance. They've qualified for nationals each of the last eight years, finishing second in 2010 and third in 2011. Illinois is the fourth seed in this regional, but it proved a year ago that seedings don't mean everything. In 2011, as the No. 3 seeds in the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Regional, the Illini finished second to reach nationals for the second time ever. They did so by the hold-your-breath margin of 0.075 point over third-place Penn State. "We have to ... know that every little tenth (of a point) matters," UI coach Kim Landrus said. "It's been proven to us several times this year that it comes down to as little as a quarter of a tenth. So we need to go out there and make sure that we get all those fine details. We stick our landings, get our handstands, do all the little things to get us in a position to qualify."
2. Shot at history
It’s been more than three decades since a men’s gymnastics team won four straight Big Ten titles. Justin Spring’s Illini can end that drought this weekend in Iowa City, Iowa. By winning the team crown, which will be decided Friday, the three-time defending conference champs would be the first school to earn four in a row since Fred Roethlisberger’s Minnesota Gophers won five straight from 1976 to '80. Sure, that’s impressive, but the granddaddy of all Big Ten title streaks in this sport belongs to Illinois. Remarkably, Charlie Pond’s Illini once won 11 in a row (1950-60). “We always try to compare ourselves to some of the greater teams in Illinois history,” Spring said, “and we’re very proud and humbled to be even in an opportunity to win a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship.” To do so, the No. 4 Illini might need to be at the very top of their game, especially without defending NCAA parallel bars champ Tyler Mizoguchi, who was dismissed from the team last month. No. 1 Penn State stands in the way and already has defeated Illinois once this season when the teams met in a dual Feb. 18 at State College, Pa. “I think people definitely are considering us a contender, but Penn State is ranked higher than us right now and I think they absolutely are a very strong team,” Spring said. “And nobody’s going to give us the fourth win. I think it’s going to be a very close showdown between Penn State and us.”
3. Dynamic duo
For Spring, it's scary to ponder just how close Illinois came to not having its two best gymnasts this season. The third-year head coach held his breath for months while awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on three-time NCAA champion Paul Ruggeri's bid for a fifth year of eligibility via a medical hardship waiver. "I had a lot of anxiety around that time because I knew you can't replace Paul with anyone," Spring said. "Paul, at his best, is unbelievable." Spring's wait to determine the availability of Ruggeri's fellow U.S. National Team member, C.J. Maestas, was even longer. After signing with Illinois out of high school two years ago, Maestas failed to meet UI entrance requirements due to his ACT score. Maestas spent that year working out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center while also working on his academics. The latter paid off admission to the UI this school year. "I'm very proud of the way he's come in, especially through the way he had to fight just to get into school," Spring said. It's hard to imagine Illinois being the serious contender it is for Big Ten and NCAA titles without both these athletes on board, Ruggeri is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA in high bar and No. 2 in vault; Maestas ranks No. 2 in still rings and No. 5 in floor exercise. It's their versatility, however, that elevates Illinois to a top-tier level. Both are ranked in the top four nationally in all-around.
4. Kelsey's on the case
By winning a Big Ten title as a freshman, Kelsey Joannides set the bar extraordinarily high early in her Illini career. At times, it was tough to meet the subsequent lofty expectations. "Coming off a stellar freshman season, I think there was some pressure to pick up where she left off," Landrus said. "Plus, she is a business major, and her classes were extremely difficult her sophomore year. It just seemed as if she had to juggle a few more things her sophomore year." But true talent has a way of shining through. Last year, the then-junior became an All-American for the first time in her career. "And she has finished it off (during) her senior year with really a bang," Landrus said. No one at the 2012 Big Ten meet would argue the point. Joannides won her second league title, in balance beam, and tied for third in the all-around with a career-best score of 39.400. She is the Illini's first two-time Big Ten champion in women's gymnastics since the conference began sponsoring the sport in 1982-83. Entering regionals, Joannides ranks seventh nationally in balance beam and 20th in all-around. But Landrus wouldn't necessarily consider beam to be Joannides' best event. After all, she's also won a Big Ten title in vault. "On any given day it could be any event," Landrus said. "Her season highs are pretty close on all four events. I would really consider her an all-arounder."
5. Classy seniors
If the Illini men leave Iowa City with the Big Ten team crown, it would be business as usual for a handful of the team's members. What's not usual, of course, is to end a career with four conference titles. Yet, senior All-Americans Anthony Sacramento and C.J. Padera are positioned to do just that after contributing to each of Illinois' previous three league championships. Fifth-year seniors Ruggeri and Champaign native Kyle Moe, as well as true senior Devin Regan, didn't compete in all of the previous three Big Ten meets, but they too were team members throughout this title run. If anyone should know how difficult it is to win this conference, it's the current UI coach. A four-time NCAA champion and 12-time All-American, Spring ended his Illini career with one Big Ten team crown. "I think that's a big testament to the guys," Spring said of his seniors. "It really has been a dynamic class." Sacramento is a two-time All-American in still rings. "He has really been just a rock for us on rings his whole time," Spring said. "So naturally strong, and I've seen him work so much on refinement this year." For most of his UI career, Padera has been a valuable all-around point producer and last year earned All-America honors in parallel bars. "He's what I would call the definition of a gamer," Spring said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a more consistent gymnast on all events."