Team time

Team time

URBANA – He coaches the best collegiate gymnast in the country, a guy who is a two-time NCAA champion and a seven-time All-American.

All this, and Travis Romagnoli is only a junior.

So why does Illinois coach Yoshi Hayasaki flinch when he hears talk that his team, which placed third in the NCAA Championships last year, should win it all in 1999?

Because Hayasaki knows from experience one gymnast – even one of truly extraordinary talent like Romagnoli – can't win an NCAA team title. Not alone.

Exhibit A: Charles Lakes, a 1988 Olympian and the only Illini ever to score a perfect 10 in an event.

"He was probably one of the best gymnasts in the country at that time," Hayasaki said, "and we didn't even make it to the finals."

Not even close, in fact. In 1984, when Lakes won the NCAA high bar and was a two-time All-American, Illinois placed ninth in the team standings. In 1985, with Lakes again an All-American, the Illini placed 11th.

"One gymnast cannot do the job," Hayasaki said.

Apparently, his peers agree, judging by the Illini's No. 6 ranking the preseason coaches' poll.

Sixth? Kind of an eye-opener considering Illinois, which opens Saturday at the Windy City Invitational, returns defending all-around champion Romagnoli, fellow All-American Kyle Zak and all but three letter winners from its 1998 NCAA third-place squad.

But Hayasaki said he can understand the reasoning.

"No question why they ranked us sixth is the departure of the seniors," said Hayasaki, who lost valued point producers Yuval Ayalon, Jon Corbitt and Brad Panozzo. "If you look at it from the outside, I can understand why they put us sixth, even though we finished third."

Hayasaki and his Illini, however, have the benefit of viewing things from the inside. And just because the Illinois roster is tilted heavily toward underclassmen doesn't mean it is an inexperienced and unproven group. Perhaps Hayasaki's peers have overlooked the fact that five of six UI sophomores had a hand in the third-place NCAA finish.

"This is a special group," Hayasaki said of sophomores Greg Cook, Eric Nishimoto, Leo Oka, Jonathan Ham and Matt Gill. "They have an attitude. They have a good work ethic. We had to use a lot of freshmen last year, and they came through for us."

Neither is it likely rival coaches know much about junior all-arounder Linh Hoang. A nonqualifier as a freshman, the Vietnam native got his collegiate feet wet last season. Now he's turning flips – and heads – in practice. In the UI's annual mixed pairs meet last month, Hoang recorded the top men's scores in the pommel horse and floor exercise.

"He's a very good talent," Hayasaki said. "I think this year he's going to surprise a lot of people."

A year ago, Hayasaki surprised some by talking about reaching the NCAA finals and even winning it all. Pretty bold talk, given that the group hadn't made it out of the NCAA regionals the year before. But Hayasaki thought it necessary.

"I felt they had to have the highest goal they can possibly have to strive for that entire season, so there's no letdown," the 23rd-year UI coach said. "No matter what happens, we're still shooting for the national championship."

It turned out to be a wise message. With this mind-set, the Illini shrugged off a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Big Ten meet and went on to take the rest of the NCAA by surprise.

"That was a bump in the road last year," Zak said of the UI's Big Ten stumble, "and we were able to bring it together as a team."

This year, Hayasaki hasn't said a peep about winning it all. Hasn't had to.

"Because I know that's what they're thinking about," he said. "I think they know that's where they want to be. And I don't really have to remind them."

Little else has been on the Illini's minds since coming close.

"Coming off last year, we essentially set our goal to be national champions," said senior all-arounder Kurt Hettinger of Tuscola. "It's not unrealistic at all. Now we know what it takes to get to the finals: the kind of mind-set you have to have, the kind of training that it takes, and the kind of almost complete focus that it takes to get there.

"And now we're able to set ourselves early on that pace."

Clearly, last year's performance whetted the Illini's appetite for more. Almost a dozen gymnasts remained on campus over the summer to train together. No small commitment, given that so many come from far-flung hometowns in Canada, Texas, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The hunger to improve even took on a literal meaning for the Illini who helped out at Hayasaki's summer camps.

"In between sessions, we were skipping meals and training," Hettinger said. "So the hunger was there early."

And what better example to feed off of than that of the remarkable Romagnoli? As a freshman, the Aurora, Ontario, native tied for third in the NCAA all-around, finished third in the NCAA vault and won the Big Ten vault.

Last season, the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year added five All-America awards to his resume, including wins in the NCAA all-around and vault. Only Lakes has recorded a higher all-around score in UI history – and that by a mere 0.02 points.

"He sets the standard for all of us," Hettinger said.

The highest current standard, in fact, in collegiate gymnastics.

"Definitely there's more pressure now," said Romagnoli, aware he's established an awfully tough act to follow. "But it's not a bad thing. You don't have to look at it as a do-or-die. It's another opportunity."

But this is not just another opportunity for Illinois to win its 10th NCAA team title and first since 1989. By all appearances, it's one of their best opportunities if Romagnoli gets the necessary help.

"The team title involves everybody," he said.

"That's something we learned last year," Hettinger said. "You still need three or four other guys that can step up and hit the same caliber set that he does."

Championship quest

Led by reigning all-around champion Travis Romagnoli, the Illini men's gymnastics team looks to have its best chance since the late 1980s of winning an NCAA team title. A look at coach Yoshi Hayasaki's UI teams that finished in the top three at the NCAAs:

Year, Big Ten, NCAA, Comment

1988, First, Second, Three Illini were All-Amricans, including David Zeddies in all-around

1989, First, First, Ninth NCAA title in program's history, first since sharing title in '58

1998, Fifth, Third, Behind Romagnoli, bounced back after disappointing Big Ten showing