Travis Romagnoli will be a candidate for the nation's top award, the Nissen Award, given to the best collegiate gymnast.
Jan. 13, 2000
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Although the 1999 season ended with the disappointing loss of two-time national champion Travis Romagnoli to a hand injury, the Fighting Illini squad which had the potential to improve on their third-place national finish of 1998, now find themselves with a stronger, deeper squad for the 2000 campaign. Illinois head coach Yoshi Hayasaki returns for his 24th season at the helm of the nationally ranked Illini program. Hayasaki has led nine teams to the top-10 nationally as well as an NCAA Championship team in 1989 and runner up in 1988. He has tutored 33 All-Americans, four national champions and two Olympians.
With only the loss of All-American Kyle Zak and parallel bar specialist Kurt Hettinger, the Illini have the nucleus of a team which was vying for a national championship. The Illinois squad now looks at a team with eight and nine competitors deep in most events. Back for the Illini is seven-time All-American Travis Romagnoli, as well as NCAA qualifiers Leo Oka, Linh Hoang, Eric Nishimoto, Sean-Paul Crawford and Greg Cook.
Along with the seasoned veterans of the 2000 squad are seven newcomers who have the chance to contribute immediately to the team. Among the freshman class are New Mexico state champion Nathan Torres and Bob Spelic, a Pennsylvania state champion.
The Illini return exceptionally strong rotations on pommel horse, parallel bars and floor exercise. On pommel horse all six competitors remain from 1999, including three horse specialists and all-arounder Hoang who qualified for NCAAs on the event. The Illini could be as experienced as 10-deep on parallel bars with all-american Romagnoli and NCAA Qualifier Cook returning to lead the squad. Romagnoli and sophomore Crawford lead the campaign on floor with another experienced rotation returning this season. Competing in the Big Ten, the toughest conference in the nation, the Illini will have to square up with the likes of defending national champion Michigan, runners-up Ohio State and the nation's fourth place team, Penn State to be successful in 2000.
The team's lone senior, Romagnoli, will be a candidate for the nation's top award, the Nissen Award, given to the best collegiate gymnast. Among those also vying for the award are Iowa's Todd Strada, BYU's Guard Young and Nebraska's Jason Hardabura.
Here is an event-by-event look at the Illini in 2000.
Senior all-arounder Travis Romagnoli will be back to lead the Illini squad this season. Romagnoli, who was on pace to defend his all-around national title in 1999, suffered a season-ending hand injury prior to the Big Ten Championships. With a summer and fall season of intense rehabilitation, he will once again be in position to be one of the nation's best all-around collegiate gymnasts.
However, the pleasant surprise of the '99 season was the emergence of all-arounder Leo Oka. Oka stepped up to the challenge as the team leader posting scores of 56.925 at Big Tens and 57.80 at the NCAA Regionals. His score at the conference championships earned him all-Big Ten honors and his performance at regionals was good enough to qualify for the NCAA Championships as an all-arounder.
During the offseason, junior Linh Hoang put the finishing touches on his high bar routine to make him the team's third all-arounder. Hoang, who had been strong for the Illini at five events will now become a very valuable asset as an all-arounder. He qualified for nationals on pommel horse and was a finalist on vault at the Big Ten Championships.
The Illini will look to a group of nine gymnasts this season who will vie for spots in the floor exercise, seven of which were in the lineup last season. Among those returning are junior Jonathan Ham, who was a floor finalist at the conference championships and sophomore Sean-Paul Crawford who qualified for the NCAA Championships in the event.
In addition to the all-arounders, juniors Greg Cook and Eric Nishimoto will also look to maintain their spots in the lineup. Sophomore J.G. Ketchen and freshman Nathan Torres look to be contributors on the event as well.
The Illini set a new school record on pommel horse at the NCAA Regionals last season with a score of 38.675 and return all six competitors at the event. The squad looks to have nine gymnasts contributing on horse, including specialists Matt Gill, Paul Linnenburger and Eric Wills. Gill scored a 9.70 at regionals, while Linnenburger posted a 9.45. Hoang posted a career-high 9.80 on the event at regionals to qualify for nationals. Illinois will see Romagnoli jump back into the horse lineup as well as Nishimoto and Oka. Freshman Robert Spelic and Mike Filla also should make an impact in the event.
What was once a weak event for the Illini may soon become one of the strongest. All-arounders Romagnoli, Oka and Hoang will be a stable force on rings, but will be pushed by the strength of sophomores J.G. Ketchen and Crawford and junior Nishimoto. However, three freshman have proved to be strong enough through fall workouts to break into the rings lineup. Torres, who was a high school standout on rings, will vie for a spot as well as Spelic and Filla.
The Illini may not be deep, but the quality of athletes returning on vault will be the key this season. Illinois has two nationally ranked vaulters returning, including seventh ranked Eric Nishimoto who was the runner up at the Big Ten Championships and an NCAA Qualifier in the event. Hoang was ranked 14th in the nation and also qualified for finals at Big Tens. The Illini will also have returnees Ketchen, and all-arounders Romagnoli and Oka. The squad will also rely on newcomers such as Torres and Shaun Chaiyabhat.
Parallel bars will be the Illini's strongest event this season with as many as 10 deep. Before his injury, Romagnoli was ranked first on p-bars. He placed first on the event in seven different meets last year. Oka was a finalist on parallel bars at the Big Ten Championships, placing fourth. In the final polls, Oka ranked eighth in the nation. Junior Greg Cook qualified for the NCAA Championships and finished the season ranked 13th.
With the injuries that plagued the Illini last season, the high bar unit took the biggest hit. Romagnoli has once again Illinois strongest routine on high bar. He was ranked second in the nation prior to breaking his hand. Ham, Crawford, Oka and Ketchen were regulars in the event last season, joined by Cook and Hoang who filled in for the injured athletes. All seven gymnasts return this season with more difficult routines on the way. The Illini will also look to newcomer Bob Spelic, who showed excellent talent on the event in high school.