It’s time to take this show on the road.
After posting its highest score of the season at home last Sunday against No. 1 Stanford, the fifth-ranked Michigan men’s gymnastics team will face No. 6 Illinois tomorrow in Champaign.
Huff Hall will be a stark contrast to familiar Cliff Keen Arena for the Wolverines, so Michigan coach Kurt Golder briefed his gymnasts on the atmosphere they’ll likely face.
Michigan can expect some intense heckling from the Fighting Illini crowd, which is especially close to the pommel horse and high bar. A women’s gymnastics meet is scheduled to take place at the same time as the men’s meet, adding to the chaos.
But assistant coach Derek Croad doesn’t expect the atmosphere to faze the gymnasts.
“Most of the competitors here, when they’re doing routines, they don’t hear anything,” Croad said. “All they hear is the movement of their body, their hands moving, them running down the vault runway.”
Illinois hopes to bounce back from some trouble in its past few meets. On Feb. 23, the Fighting Illini finished fifth at the Pacific Coast Classic while the Wolverines took fourth. Last weekend, competing with a short lineup, they squeaked out a win over No. 7 Iowa, which turned in its best performance of the season on Senior Day.
Saturday will be Senior Day for the Fighting Illini. And unlike the Iowa meet, where some of the team’s top gymnasts rested, Illinois will be putting its best lineups on every event.
In addition to its veteran stars, seniors Wes Haagensen and Tyler Yamauchi, Illinois has two outstanding freshmen: Daniel Ribeiro, currently ranked No. 1 in the country on the pommel horse, and all-arounder Paul Ruggeri.
Croad said he thinks Ruggeri is currently on top of his game, and the statistics back him up. Ruggeri is ranked No. 2 on the floor exercise, No. 3 on the high bar and No. 8 in the all-around.
But the Wolverines are in top form as well, even boasting their own No.1 athlete – junior Joe Catrambone, who is ranked first on the high bar.
The sharpened focus that led them to a strong performance in the loss to Stanford hasn’t dissipated. Not only have the gymnasts improved their hit percentage in this week’s practice routines, but several are working to upgrade their difficulty as the Big Ten and NCAA Championships approach.
Michigan’s performance at Illinois may be an indicator of its potential at the Big Ten Championships in State College in early April. Putting up a big away score would be a huge confidence boost, and with a performance like last Sunday’s, a high team total is likely.
“If we do exactly what we did (against Stanford) away, with a few select changes, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to happen,” Croad said. “The guys just have to tell themselves that they can do it. From the atmosphere the past couple days, I don’t think they’re doubting themselves.”