CHAMPAIGN – If re-establishing Illinois'' men''s gymnastics program as one of the nation''s best is a two-step process, the first part was completed with a flourish Friday at Huff Hall.
Illinois stormed from behind in the final four events and claimed its conference-best 23rd Big Ten championship. But it is the Illini''s first title since 1989, snapping the league''s longest drought.
"It''s been a dream of mine since I came here," senior co-captain Bob Rogers said. "But to see the team evolve from what it was my freshman year, and to be such an integral part of it, means so much to me."
Illinois was last in the six-team conference meet a year ago. But injuries have stayed away while several younger gymnasts have developed into regular contributors, and the Illini have the nation''s No. 1 ranking heading into the NCAA Championships in April at the Assembly Hall.
Making a national statement will have to wait. First, the Illini wanted the Big Ten to know.
"Of course, the season''s not over. But right now we''re going to celebrate," Rogers said. "We''ll get back to earth and start worrying about NCAAs after the weekend."
The weekend got started on the right foot for Illinois, which will have eight athletes competing in today''s individual event finals (7 p.m. at Huff).
Sophomore Justin Spring took second in the all-around, nearly upsetting the nation''s top-ranked gymnast in that event, Ohio State''s Randy Monahan, who won by 0.075 points.
Illinois started slowly, and after one rotation the Illini were in last place. After two rotations, the Illini were fifth.
But that''s nothing new for Illinois, which shoved aside disappointing efforts on the parallel bars and high bar to begin a midmeet surge.
"We''re used to it now," Spring said. "Maybe it takes that. We always say we''re motivated going in, having the No. 1 ranking. But it takes something against us to really get this team in a frame of mind to hit routines."
It started on floor exercise, with Illinois posting a school-record score of 37.475. The Illini then moved to pommel horse, where they''re ranked No. 1, and set another school mark with a score of 38.400.
"We were down a little bit and we knew if we wanted to win the meet, we needed to turn things around," Rogers said. "For us to do that says so much about this team."
The momentum carried Illinois into the lead after four events.
"The first two events were not what they should be," UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "Maybe nervousness, no question. And the parallel bars is a hard event to start on. Once we got over those two events, we started to pick it up. And we knew we had a great pommel horse team."
Illinois closed out second-place Penn State in the vault, triggering a celebration long before the final results were announced.
"This is just unbelievable," senior Mike Filla said. "All the seniors have been trying to prove this for so long now. We''ve always known we had the talent, but it''s finally a dream come true."
Illinois'' 221.975 tied a school record (since a new scoring system was implemented in 2001). Fourth-ranked Penn State had 220.100 and third-ranked Ohio State was next at 218.425.
In tonight''s event finals, Adam Pummer will compete in floor, vault and high bar; Spring is in floor, vault, parallel bars and high bar; Rogers will compete in floor and pommel horse; Ben Newman is in pommel horse and still rings; Ted Brown and Filla will compete in pommel horse; Scott Wetterling is in still rings and vault; and Peter Shostchuk will represent Illinois in parallel bars.
You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.