CHAMPAIGN — Michigan won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2013 and 2014. The Wolverines followed that up with a fourth-place finish in 2015. Since? Michigan hasn't even made it to the Super Six team finals.
Michigan snapped that streak Friday afternoon, posting a score of 408.389 to win Session I at State Farm Center and advance to the Super Six. Stanford and Nebraska also advanced.
"I think Stanford is a little better team than us, so for us to come in and pull the upset I'm very happy about that," Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. "Having won this session will give them a lot of confidence they maybe didn't have. Some of the guys, had they not made it (Friday), would graduate without having made the Super Six and you certainly don't want that."
Michigan got going with a 71.766 on vault and capped its win on what has been its strongest event with a 71.432 on floor exercise. Golder said he might end up tinkering with his lineup for today's team finals, though.
"We maybe will talk about our lineup and just see if we want to make any adjustments to that because we didn't have a perfect meet," he said "We have backups off the bench that were barely edged out, and maybe we'll give some of them an opportunity. Hopefully it will help us."
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Big Ten all-around champion Cameron Bock posted the top result in the all-around during Friday's Session I competition. The Wolverines' sophomore scored an 83.731 to edge out Minnesota's Shane Wiskus and Stanford's Ryan Sheppard — the only other two gymnasts to top 80 points.
Golder called Bock's performance "just steady." Bock's highest score was in vault at 14.333, and he finished second in high bar (13.800) and third in both still rings (14.066) and pommel horse (13.466).
"You know, everything could have been better," Bock said. "It definitely wasn't the absolute best day I could have had, but I hit 6 for 6, so that's pretty decent. I'm happy."
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Illinois' practice home is Kenney Gym. The Illini compete at Huff Hall during the regular season. Moving to State Farm Center for the NCAA championships? Shouldn't be a single difference, according to Spring.
"I think any coach would say the same thing," he said. "You're supposed to bring a competitive attitude and pretend like you're at a meet when you're getting your job done at practice."
That makes the competition simply "business as usual."
"Do what you've always done," he said. "Do what you've trained. It's one of the quotes we throw out all the time, 'You don't rise to the occasion in competition. You rise to the level of your preparation.' If you've prepared to compete like a champion every day back in Kenney Gym, you do your job again here."
Spring's gymnasts have bought into that idea.
"If you practice well and are hitting routines and everything is going right, it should be like that in the meet," freshman Michael Fletcher said. "You've just got to take that mindset from the gym and bring that here."
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Competing at State Farm Center — at home — is a clear advantage in Spring's opinion.
"There's something so calming about when you look up in the stands and see your best friends or your professors or your other fellow student-athletes," he said. "The DIA is a very close-knit family from swimmers to football and basketball and baseball player. They're all going to be here. I think that's a really cool and unique opportunity for these guys to perform in front of their friends and their peers."
It can make a difference simply by the atmosphere in the arena. Spring said there's an extra energy his gymnasts can tap into and could have the opposite effect on their competition.
"When you hit a routine and this crowd gets amped about that set, the other teams weren't watching but they heard the momentum that Illinois is doing really well," Spring said. "That energy a crowd can give — that confidence and swagger through a competition — it's a grueling meet with six events. That can really turn the tide."
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Handling the pressure of the NCAA championships — particularly in today's team and event finals — isn't something the Illinois coaching staff is overly concerned about with its team.
"There's really nothing you can say to kind of relieve that," Illini assistant Daniel Ribeiro said. "They know that no mistakes are allowed. They know they have one shot. They know all these things, and they've been training with these elements all season or throughout their career. They know how to handle the pressure. We have a tough group, so I'm not too concerned about that side of things."
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Ribeiro is now a decade removed from his first national championship. The former Illini won the 2009 pommel horse title before capping his Illinois career with another in 2011. Heading into the final event of the season, Ribeiro's own experiences are something he can share with the team.
"This was a pretty big moment," Ribeiro said of his first title. "That was my dream, and our athletes they have a lot of similar dreams.
"Sharing my experience and my journey and how I got there is kind of big in teaching them the path and how to get there. How to sacrifice. How to bring that next level of work to get to where they want to be, which is at the top here at the championships."
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The planning for hosting the NCAA championships began as soon as Illinois found out it would host. The biggest issue? Making sure State Farm Center wouldn't be double-booked.
Logistically, the Illinois event management staff has spent the last year working on the hosting plan. Zach Acton, the interim director of event management, took the reins when now-former associate athletic director for event management Holly Stalcup left the department to run the College Football Playoff.
"It has been kind of a crazy last couple weeks since Holly transitioned out," Acton said. "Obviously really excited for her, but we had a lot going on already. We had a lot of hands in this planning already, so myself and our team all had a little piece of the puzzle so far. When she left, it was a pretty smooth transition."
Hosting major gymnastics events at State Farm Center the past couple seasons — like Big Ten championships the past two years for women's and men's gymnastics, respectively — made the preparation for this weekend easier.
"Doing gymnastics the last few years in this building, it's not quite as intense if it would be the first time we've done it in a while," Acton said. "We had the same podium and same company last season when we hosted women's Big Ten gymnastics championships.
"The podium is not actually a requirement, but we learned last year the podium setup looks a lot better. It looks a lot clearer from the seating standpoint. It makes it pop a little more."
Acton and his staff took on more of a troubleshooter role once qualifier action started Friday.
"The planning, for the most part, all happens prior to the event start," he said. "Once we get that first event going, things kind of settle in for us."
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Illinois senior Alex Diab was named the 2019 Specialist of the Year by the Collegiate Gymnastics Association late Thursday night. The award is given annually to the top gymnast in the country on any one event. Diab is the defending NCAA still rings champion and won his fourth Big Ten title in the event earlier this month.
Diab holds the Illinois program record with 30 career still rings event titles. He is the only Illini and just second Big Ten gymnast ever to be a four-time conference champion in the event. Diab set the Illinois still rings record with a 15.200 on March 2 in wins against Stanford and Minnesota.
Two other awards were presented Thursday. Oklahoma's Yul Moldauer won the Nissen-Emery Award — given to the top senior gymnast in the nation — while Stanford's Brody Malone earned Rookie of the Year honors.