CHAMPAIGN – For the past month, it was as if Illinois'' men''s gymnastics team were writing the script and sending it to the printer.
The Illini were ranked No. 1 in the country. They got to host the Big Ten Championships and promptly took the team title. This weekend, they had the opportunity to host the NCAA Championships, and on the most important day of the season, they posted a school-record score of 222.225 in Saturday''s team finals.
Ultimately, though, it wasn''t quite the ending they''d hoped.
Penn State held on to claim its 11th crown, the most of any team, with a 223.350 score, and Oklahoma edged the Illini for second at 222.300.
Illinois'' third-place finish was its best since taking third in 1998, but it was two spots shy of the prize the Illini had their eyes on.
"I told Justin (Spring) right after the meet, ''I''m hungry, and it''s not physically,'' " Illinois junior Ben Newman said. "We''ve tasted standing up on the podium finally. Unfortunately we fell a little short. We had a good meet, but we just didn''t have the meet that we wanted to."
Illinois established school records in the vault (37.650) and pommel horse (38.450) but couldn''t overcome a handful of missteps.
Unlike Friday, when the Illini posted season lows on parallel bars and high bar, they didn''t have one event that proved to be their downfall. They beat their season average in five of the six events, falling short only in still rings.
"We had a good day," UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "Any other competition, we could have beaten all these teams with a score like 222. I don''t think we should be ashamed. We did a great job throughout."
There were plenty of highlights. Adam Pummer had a career-high 9.65 on vault, and Mike Filla and Scott Wetterling matched theirs. Spring''s parallel bars routine was sensational, a career-best 9.725. His high bar was almost as good (9.675), and Bob Rogers came through on floor exercise with a career-high 9.4.
But a few of the Illini were shaky in their best events.
Newman took a big step on his dismount from the still rings, where he''s ranked eighth nationally, and finished with a 9.0, his second-lowest score of the season. Pummer, ranked ninth in parallel bars, had a nonscoring 8.45 after stalling and nearly coming off. And Spring, in the running for the all-around trophy with two events remaining, stumbled on his final pass in floor exercise – he''s ranked No. 1 – and received a 9.0, nearly more than 0.6 worse than his average.
It wasn''t much, but in the NCAA Championships, it makes a difference.
"It''s always said the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins, and that''s exactly what happened here today," Spring said. "We had our ups and downs, but we came back. In the end, we had to count a few falls (in team scoring), and that''s what did it. I think we had an overall strong performance."
Penn State finished second at the Big Ten Championships last month at Huff Hall, but the Nittany Lions put it all together Saturday.
They started strong, scoring a meet-best 36.850 on parallel bars. Only Oklahoma could get within one point of that total.
"That was really a huge difference in this meet because we came out of parallel bars with outstanding routines," coach Randy Jepson said.
Penn State''s Luis Vargas, a member of the Puerto Rican national team, earned the all-around title with a score of 56.475.
Five Illini are headed to today''s 2 p.m. individual event finals after finishing among the top eight Saturday. Spring will compete in vault, parallel bars and high bar; Pummer advanced in floor and vault; and Newman, Rogers and Peter Shostchuk are in pommel horse.
You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.