UI gymnasts show growth at regional

UI gymnasts show growth at regional

CHAMPAIGN – For a school that isn't sending its men's gymnastics team to nationals, Illinois sure has some major travel arrangements to make.

Missing by one spot of qualifying as a team for the NCAA Championships, the fourth-place Illini still advanced six individuals Saturday night during the East Regionals at Huff Hall.

That's by far the most a Yoshi Hayasaki-coached team has sent to nationals in the years his Illini haven't gone as a team.

"Probably the most we took was three or four," the 23rd-year Illini coach said. "I think it's a great accomplishment. For our young guys especially, it's really going to help us for next year."

Sophomore all-arounder Leo Oka led the parade of Illini making reservations for Lincoln, Neb., April 22-24. Setting or tying career highs in four of six events, Oka placed second in the all-around with a 57.800 total, also a career best.

"I'm just so happy right now," said Oka, who was second to Ohio State's Jamie Natalie (58.100). "Everything just went right for me."

Plenty of Illini could say the same. Teammates joining Oka at nationals include freshman Sean-Paul Crawford (floor exercise), senior Kyle Zak (floor exercise), junior Linh Hoang (pommel horse), and sophomores Eric Nishimoto (vault) and Greg Cook (parallel bars).

"There was surprise after surprise," Hayasaki said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Illinois, minus defending NCAA all-around champion Travis Romagnoli, came as close as it did to advancing its entire team. When Romagnoli broke his right hand four days before the Big Ten Championships, the shaken Illini limped to a sixth-place finish in the conference.

Hayasaki's hope was that, with more time to deal with Romagnoli's absence, his team would regroup and refocus. On Saturday night, the Illini responded by scoring 227.95 points, their third-highest total of the season. They finished ahead of Big Ten runner-up Iowa and a Michigan State team that was fifth in the Big Ten.

"They all stepped it up, knowing Travis wasn't here," said Hayasaki, whose Illini finished behind Ohio State (231.100), Michigan (231.050) and Penn State (229.050). "We put up a good fight."

Illinois set a school record for team score in the pommel horse (38.675) behind Hoang's 9.8. The previous mark was 38.20. Oka, with a 9.8 in parallel bars, matched Hoang for high score by an Illini.

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