Tate: UI doesn''t horse around in comeback
CHAMPAIGN – When your name is Peter Shostchuk, you ask people to pronounce it quickly and not worry about it.
But his name would have been Mud – at least in his own mind – if he didn''t come through Friday night at the Assembly Hall.
"We''ve bounced back in these difficult situations all year," the 20-year-old Illini junior said. "We knew the last two events, floor exercise and pommel horse, were our best. We never panicked."
Ponder this circumstance: Illinois entered the two-day NCAA Men''s Gymnastics Championships ranked No. 1 based on a scoring system (take a deep breath) that incorporates a team''s top four regular season scores, with a minimum of two on the road, throws out the high, adds in the conference score twice, and then divides by five.
That isn''t really pertinent here, but you needed to know.
To have a chance to justify that ranking, Illinois had to finish in the top three from Friday night''s six-team qualifying session. After four of six events, with their orange-clad followers alternately cheering and holding their breath, the Illini stood fourth with only third-place Minnesota within reach.
Even after sophomore Justin Spring turned in a spectacular 9.725 performance in the floor exercise – arguably the most eye-popping show all day and night – Illinois led the Gophers 180.7 to 180.525. Not much breathing room. Cal and Ohio State were too far ahead to catch.
That''s when Shostchuk did his thing. He climbed aboard the pommel horse and drilled a blistering 9.6, the best on a four-man UI score of 37.825.
So inspired were the Illini that all six individual scores were 9.1 or better.
While the Illini were wrapping it up, Minnesota was dealing with the more difficult parallel bars, and four of the Gophers'' six scores were worse than 8.7.
Illinois lives to fight another day. Forget Friday''s scores. They don''t carry over. This isn''t the shot put, where the qualifying toss in the state meet counts from the previous day. For whatever reason, the Illini had a bad day. But they''ll arrive today with no handicaps.
"This was one of those days when we didn''t click," UIcoach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "Maybe it was jitters, I don''t know. Our best guys fell in the high bar (Spring and Scott Wetterling)."
Actually, Illini troubles began earlier in the parallel bars, an event whose scores indicate it must be the most difficult. Understand now, Illinois entered with a No. 1 rank in this event (for clarification on what it takes to be No. 1, see above, and be sure to multiply by five).
Leadoff man Ben Newman set a bad pattern when he slipped and fell off the bars, and Adam Pummer hurt his hand in an effort that left him disappointed. Nobody reached 9.0 ahead of Shostchuk, the sixth Illini in line.
"I went through the set, and I was doing fine until just before my double-front dismount. I lost control (score: 8.2)," he said. "When that happens, you feel like you''ve let everyone down. But not everyone hits their routine every time. In big events, people fall."
Time to regroup
Illini troubles carried from the parallel bars right through the next event, the high bar. Fortunately, after a second straight weak effort, the Illini received a 15-minute timeout.
"That''s when we got together and talked," Shostchuk said. "We were having a bad day, and we had to turn it around. We felt good because we had the floor exercise and the pommel horse coming up. We came through."
Once the competition ended, there was time to reflect on all that took place Friday.
With all six events going at once, the NCAA meet is a circus of unimaginable dismounts, astonishing strength and uncanny balance.
If you see Spring''s floor exercise for the first time, you''d have to view it several more times, preferably in slow motion, to comprehend all the flips and twists and explosions.
Compare his specialty with Kenny Battle''s best dunk, or weigh him in against Dee Brown''s most blistering breakaway, and they''re yawners in comparison.
Spring will lift you out of your seat on the rings, and he isn''t even tops in that event.
The quality of this competition is unlike anything seen in this community. These guys do things with their bodies that no athletes in any other sport come close to.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.