Jeff Huth: Gymnastics storylines
In each of the last two years, an Illini freshman has won an NCAA individual title. Will Chandler Eggleston extend that streak?
There’s legitimate reason to speculate, considering that the Jamestown, N.C., native is the Big Ten’s reigning floor exercise champion and enters nationals ranked second in the event. Eggleston also is ranked fourth in vault as he attempts to follow in the footprints of two teammates who won NCAA titles as freshmen: C.J. Maestas, the 2012 champion in still rings, and Fred Hartville, the 2013 champ in vault.
“These super-talented freshmen that we bring in, I chalk it all up to managing expectations,” Illini coach Justin Spring said. “And I think that Chandler doesn’t quite grasp how competitive and special and unique it is (to be) a freshman Big Ten champion. I don’t think he even realizes that’s even a big deal at all. He just kind of is doing his thing, which is cool in some ways. It doesn’t allow the pressure of competing for the team at the NCAA Championships or the Big Ten Championships to affect him. He’s just having fun.”
It’s an unburdened approach seen in “the best competitors overall in sport,” Spring said. “In the moment, the gravity of the situation doesn’t really sink in. They’re just having fun, (and) they’re going to compete their best because it’s not a big deal.
“And then, at the end, it was a big deal.”
In gymnastics, it usually isn’t a question of whether an athlete will be injured, but when. According to Spring, himself a frequent visitor to the operating table during his competitive career, “almost 40 percent” of all gymnasts will require surgery during or following any given season.
Two of the Illini’s current best can attest to the toll the sport can take on a body. Maestas, a three-time All-American, missed the entire 2013 season due to a triceps injury. Hartville has dealt with patellar tendinitis each of the past two seasons.
“It was a problem his freshman year, but we were able to manage it better,” Spring said. “This year it’s so bad we’ve already got surgery scheduled (for both knees after the NCAA meet).”
The knee problems help explain why Hartville has not duplicated the success he experienced as a freshman and why the defending NCAA vault champion is ranked 10th in his signature event. “He’s not at his physical peak,” Spring said.
Meanwhile, Maestas is performing at perhaps 80 percent of his scoring capability, according to Spring, not because he hasn’t recovered from his injury but because he wasn’t able to start training until just before the season. In a sport in which the routines are so intricate and challenging, gymnasts don’t simply pick up where they left off before being injured, particularly for an elite all-arounder like Maestas.
“The routine development that gymnasts have to do, it’s not like a week in the process,” Spring said. “One skill may take 50 turns to master for some people, possibly 2,000 turns to master. And there’s 10 skills in each routine of six events, (so) you’re looking at tens of thousands of turns to be perfect.”
Due to his late start on training, Maestas was forced to lower the base level of his routines this season. It’s a credit to the redshirt sophomore, his coach says, that Maestas has performed as well as he has. The 2012 NCAA all-around runner-up enters his second collegiate national meet ranked third in all-around and still rings. “Fortunately for him, (his) baseline is still very competitive with the rest of the country,” Spring said.
There’s no hiding from a bad routine this week. Until March 1, teams could drop the lowest score of their six entrants in an event. It wouldn’t count against the team’s total. When the calendar turned to March, the rules changed. A team can enter five gymnasts in each event, but all five scores count. It’s commonly referred to as the “5 up/5 count” scoring system. It wasn’t in effect in 2012, when the Illini won the NCAA team title. Last year was the first time the national meet used the unforgiving rule. The bottom line? “We cannot make errors more than little errors here or there,” Spring said. “Big mistakes aren’t acceptable at this point.” The scoring change has made a big impact on how daring a gymnast might be, the UI coach says. Spring likens it to the impact to what would occur if basketball changed the scoring rules for three-point shots. “It would almost be like a basketball team where, yes, three-pointers count three points for you, but a missed three-pointer counts actually negative three,” he said. “So how much more cautious and how much more restraint are you going to have taking those risky shots? It definitely changes the strategy of competition a lot.”
If the Illini are to finish among the top three, Spring expects his team’s performance in pommel horse to play a decisive role. Illinois enters ranked fourth in the event — its highest among the sport’s six disciplines.
“It’s where we can separate ourselves from some of the top teams,” Spring said. “It’s where we really need to shine and do well. We can’t make mistakes on other events, but our horse team really has the potential this year.”
One major reason the UI coach has such confidence in this unit is it’s composed of pommel-horse specialists. The Illini’s five NCAA entrants in the event — Logan Bradley, Matt Foster, Chad Mason, Cole Smith and Jacob Tilsley — will compete only in pommel horse. Each has one task, one focus, this week.
Mason enters with the UI’s highest score of the season (15.350). The senior placed third in the Big Ten individual event finals in the event.