Despite being ranked No. 1 in the country, this weekend’s meet will remind the men’s gymnastics team that championships are not won during the regular season.
As they travel to the Midwest to take on the defending Big Ten and NCAA champion Illini, the Nittany Lions will reflect upon being one of only two teams to out-point Illinois last year, only to be outdone by them in the two postseason competitions.
“We feel really good about ourselves and we want to go there and show [Illinois] who we are,” said Felix Aronovich, who is coming off consecutive all-around titles in the team’s last two meets.
Illinois enters the weekend No. 7 in the country, marked by a season of inconsistency. In their loss to Iowa on Feb. 16, the Illini registered a score of 428.400. The following week, in a victory over Ohio State, they improved their total by more than 10 points to 438.600. Members of the Lions have taken notice of their performances and score totals.
“We really don’t know what to expect from them. They’ve had up and down scores this season because of injuries,” said team captain Parker Raque.
While they are not at full-strength, head coach Randy Jepson recognizes the Illini will be a threat to the Lions winning a 13th national championship this April.
“Illinois has been pretty injured and haven’t put it all together yet. As they continue to make improvements and get healthy, they’ll be very strong,” Jepson said.
Illinois head coach Justin Spring told FightingIllini.com that the team’s performances this season have been affected by gymnasts’ injuries and having little experience under their belts.
Saturday’s meet will mark the first time the squad competes outside of the East Coast, bringing new dynamics the Lions will have to adjust to. The Blue & White will fly to Indianapolis early Friday morning, followed by a bus ride to Champagne, Ill.
“Your bodies really take a hit sitting on the plane for so long,” junior Adrian Evans said. “You have to stay on top of your therapy.”
But Aronovich said he believes the Lions are more than capable to cope with the physical stress imposed by the long travel.
“A good athlete should be able to deal with any changes. We might be tired but that shouldn’t affect us,” Aronovich said.
Yet the situation also presents Penn State with an opportunity to benefit in the long run. They will be flying to Minnesota in the beginning of April to compete in the conference championships.
Raque said the team will need to overcome fatigue and physical stress from travel and hit their routines without missing a beat.
Along with the extensive travel this weekend, the Lions will also see new judges for the first time this season. Jepson said this opportunity gives his team a chance to compete in front of new judges from another region and make a statement.
Jepson added that the season is a process, and each meet provides the team an opportunity to refine and improve its routines, all culminating at the NCAA championships at the end of April in Rec Hall.
Now it would be sweet revenge for Penn State to knock off the defending national champions, but the end goal is still months away.
“These meets don’t mean anything when it comes to a championship at the end of the season,” Raque said. “We want to be ready and win.”