URBANA – Less than two-tenths of a point separated No. 4 Illinois from Penn State at the Big Ten Men's Gymnastics Championships.
Less than two points proved the difference between finishing third and finishing second.
Not that it mattered. UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki's team had its sights set on first place.
"We did quite well except for one event," Hayasaki said. "But if you make mistakes in even one event, you could drop from first place to fifth or sixth or seventh. That's how competitive the conference is."
The Illini were in control through four rotations after posting high scores in the pommel horse – an event they have struggled with this season – and the still rings. But Illinois fell apart on the parallel bars and finished fourth with 214.125 points. Ohio State placed first with 217.275 points. Michigan had 216.00 and the Nittany Lions 214.275.
"We just lacked focus after we hit the pommel horse event," Hayasaki said. "We thought we could have one of the best competitions of the year after we hit that, and we didn't concentrate on the parallel bars after that."
Illinois put together a number of strong individual efforts despite the disappointing team performance. Senior All-American Leo Oka earned fourth in the all-around, and senior Linh Hoang was fifth. Sophomore Forest Flodin took sixth on the pommel horse and senior Greg Cook ninth on the high bar.
"We felt prepared," Hoang said. "We were confident, and we thought that we could win it. Of course, the team was disappointed."
Illinois will look to rebound today at the NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio. Standing between Illinois and its first national championship since 1989 are 11 other schools, including No. 1 Oklahoma.
"We like where we're at right now," Hayasaki said. "We've been training well the last week-and-a-half, and our consistency is better across the board. We feel like we can contend for a national title."
The Illini have worked a lot on the parallel bars this week in practice. Illinois opens on the bars today.
"That was something they wanted to do," Hayasaki said. "I asked the team where they wanted to start, and they all agreed that they wanted to start on the parallel bars. They want to start there and prove that they can improve on what they did before. That's the right kind of attitude to have."
Performing well in that event would get Illinois off to a solid start.
"That's a good event to start with. The sky is the limit if we go out and hit that event," Cook said
Illinois has some recent history on its side.
"Penn State finished sixth in the Big Ten Championships last year, and then they ended up winning at the NCAA Championships," Flodin said. "I think we're in excellent position to do the same thing."