Youthful men’s gymnastics team has heightened responsibility this season

The 2018 National Championship runner-ups lost 10 seniors, and will look to a large freshman class to keep the team on top.

<p>Freshman gymnast Shane Wiskus performs on the pommel horse during a meet on Jan. 27, 2018 at Maturi Pavilion. </p>

Max Ostenso, Daily File Photo

Freshman gymnast Shane Wiskus performs on the pommel horse during a meet on Jan. 27, 2018 at Maturi Pavilion. 

Paul Hodowanic

Last season, the Gophers men’s gymnastics team reached their ultimate goal. 

The team qualified for the NCAA championships after a strong regular season and ultimately came in second overall — the best finish for the Gophers since 1990.

“That was probably the most fun I’ve had at a competition,” senior Michael Harris said. “Making sure that happens again is really important, and hopefully we can have the same outcome this year.”

The Gophers will rely on a much different cast of gymnasts this year, as last year’s team lost 10 seniors to graduation. The result is an infusion of youth, as nine new freshmen were added to the roster. The freshmen will be tasked with picking up some of the responsibility the senior class left. 

“It’s a lot of pressure put on us. From the start, we’ve realized we are filling spots, but it’s not like we are replacements for them,” freshman Garrett Kasiski said. “We are making our own legacy by being here and trying to bring us all up together.” 

The Gophers hope that legacy can include similar results, if not better than last year. 

“I think we will be better than last year’s team,” freshman Eric Nakamura said. “We want to be better than last year’s seniors and not just keep it at the same standard, but we want to raise the bar for this team and we want to achieve more than they did.” 

Six of the nine freshmen have competed in at least one of the first two meets this season, with more nipping at the heels to get their shot. 

At this week’s practice, the team only had a few spots locked in for their upcoming match on Saturday against Michigan. The rest of the spots would be decided through competition throughout the week.

“Every week is a battle for lineup, especially for freshman,” Kasiski said.

“It’s fun though, it’s a healthy competition,” freshman Danny Yoon said. “It’s not breaking friendships, we push each other.” 

Head coach Mike Burns said he believes this competition will lead to better performance by the freshmen and the rest of the team, regardless if the freshmen win. 

“The key is, can the freshmen push these guys up to a point where maybe they don’t make the lineup, but they are pushing hard and making the other guys get better,” Burns said. “It’s easy to focus on the top five guys on each event, but the most important guys are the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth guys that are pushing to make the lineup and make sure these guys [keep] looking over their shoulder … and it forces them to maintain their high standard so we can continue to go out there and do a good job.” 

The upperclassmen have taken note of the infusion of youth into the team, which has changed their outlook on the team. 

“Last year we tried to focus on what we could do best, and now, this year as upperclassmen, we are trying to focus on what they can do best,” said senior Vitali Kan. “If we lead by example and teach them how to do their jobs, then collectively we will be ready for Big Ten’s and NCAA’s and put up the same if not better results than last year.”

The team has begun their season with back-to-back third place finishes. Going into last week’s Windy City Invitational, the Gophers were ranked No. 5 nationally. The team is hoping the freshmen continue growing and compete so that last year isn’t the peak, it’s the beginning.