When Justin Spring’s gymnasts won the 2012 NCAA title, there was legitimate optimism that the Illini could continue to thrive in that thin stratosphere. They were ranked No. 1 going into this season.
But as we saw with men’s tennis (NCAA champs in 2003), men’s basketball (2005 runners-up) and volleyball (2011 runners-up), even a Perfect Storm will break up and weaken.
And for all the excellent work of Yoshi Mori, Mike Wilner and others, the Illini gymnasts haven’t been the same since C.J. Maestas, sophomore all-around star from Corrales, N.M., dislocated his elbow in a workout and tore 85 percent of his triceps from the bone. This required reattachment surgery in early December, causing him to redshirt and delay competition until late summer.
Even with a national ranking of No. 6, the four-time Big Ten champions will drive to Minnesota on Wednesday knowing they’re rated behind three conference members in the league showdown next Friday and are now a distant long shot in the upcoming NCAA Championships at top-ranked Penn State on April 19-21.
“C.J. was the first in a series of unfortunate events this season,” Spring said. “Within two weeks of his triceps injury, we lost four all-arounders. It was like losing your entire starting lineup in basketball for two to six weeks. I had never seen anything like it. During winter break, I tried to make out a lineup, and we didn’t have enough athletes to avoid forfeitures.
“We are healthy now except for C.J. and Jordan Valdez (junior high bar All-American) who dislocated his ankle. These are injuries too severe to come back from, timingwise. With that said, we are still a talented team, and we led Penn State going into the last event (March 1). We closed that out with a rough high bar.”
For the youthful, fourth-year Illini coach and former Olympian, it hasn’t been easy to accept this season’s slippage. After some prodding, he acknowledged a team meeting Monday “was explosive.”
“I don’t want to get into team politics, but I had a very intense conversation with my team. It seems like I’ve been doing too much, and they haven’t taken ownership in the task this season. It’s like we kind of went through the motions in the gym.
“I think we felt a team culture shock Monday. I wouldn’t call it a shift yet, but it was a pretty explosive meeting. Yes, I kind of threw the week of training back on them.
“Previously, the questions have been, ‘Do we have to do that?’
“That’s the wrong question. That’s the bare minimum. It should be, ‘What else do I have to do to get better?’ But that’s not the question I was hearing. So I’m sick of spoon feeding. I asked them what they think they need to do, and they wrote up their training plan.
“It’s pretty lofty and intense. And they pulled down the national banner (at Kenney Gym). This isn’t last year’s team anymore.”
One difficulty with a revamped team is where to set the level of difficulty for each athlete in the six events. How do you reach limits without making mistakes?
“It’s like asking, ‘How do you build confidence without cockiness?’ That’s the tricky thing that coaches deal with all the time,” Spring said.
“We’ve been very inconsistent, and you can chalk it up to many things. I don’t think we ever got out of the rut of winning the national championship. We lost a couple of our best guys and somewhere along the way lost the intensity that we brought to our practices.
“It is easy to work hard when you know you’re going to win. When you’re more of a long shot, it’s hard to make sacrifices, especially after you’ve won the big show. It’s been a very tough team culture change this year, and I’ve mentioned it after every meet.”
One problem is a new scoring system that Spring supported. No longer can the coach enter six athletes in an event and eliminate the two lowest scores. It’s now “five up, five count.” One fewer contestant and no dropped scores.
“This change was part of our campaign to create greater understanding for our fan base,” he said. “In recent years, the audience would get lost when you’re dropping scores. What other sport allows mulligans? Other sports don’t allow you to drop someone’s horrible performance.
“The point is, you have to show up and compete because all scores count, and you can’t toss out two bad routines. This makes every routine a buzzer-beater, and it has increased the intensity in our sport.
“This unforgiving format has been the demise of us in recent meets. There was one routine that prevented us from beating Nebraska, Cal and Iowa. One routine. We’ve pushed to compete at levels that are very hard for some of our guys, and yet we don’t want to water it down because we want to stay competitive in the field. We have been fighting that all year.
“Penn State is so deep and strong that they are comfortable in their routines with few misses. Their main battle is like ours last year, that of monotony where you’re trying to tweak that 99th percent.”
Change is good
Spring has become a national spokesman favoring a dramatic change in gymnastics scoring. The Minnesota match here March 8 was a test case, with Illinois winning 21-9 in what amounted to match play as five Illini took the floor opposite individual Gophers in each of six events. It still required subjective scoring, but it was more easily understood.
“Every gymnastics meeting my whole life has been about how to fix scoring, how to fix judging,” Spring said. “How can we make it more about one team against the other? I campaigned for this change and sought rules that would make it work. They allowed us to run this head-to-head competition against Minnesota. The goal was to beat the other guy you were competing against and win a point for your team.
“We are such a small coaching base (17 collegiate teams), and everyone has a hard time not arguing for their own pro program instead of looking at the system as a whole and what is best for NCAA gymnastics. The most important thing we can do is find a more fan-friendly format and put people in seats.
“About 50 percent agreed with me last year, but it’s another thing to vote for it and have to basically change the rule book. My ideal next move is to have every school compete in a March match-play event. You don’t get a feel for the format until you’ve done it.
“Against Minnesota, when the fans heard ‘Point Illinois,’ they cheered. They understood. They got it,” Spring said.
Issues remain. How can the time of meets be reduced to less than two hours? What do you do when one team reaches 16? How do you change traditional thinking?
The UI coach has a firmly established reputation as 2012 National Coach of the Year and has become a force for change. He has revolutionary ideas for the sport, and he’ll continue to push them forward. You might say he has become a lobbyist in a push to eliminate the kind of shortcomings that led wrestling to the Olympic chopping block.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.