Men’s gymnastics fourth despite season-best score

by Ben Goessling

Through four events at the Big Ten Championships on Friday night, Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team trailed defending conference and national champion Ohio State by fewer than two points. A seemingly impossible victory was within reach.

Feeding off an enthusiastic home crowd, the Gophers stormed to their best performance of the season on vault and finished a surprising second on parallel bars to move within striking distance of the Buckeyes. With its two best events left, fifth-ranked Minnesota positioned itself to pull off a stunning upset in a meet featuring six of the nation’s top eight teams.

But miscues on the floor exercise and pommel horse doomed the Gophers’ title hopes, as Minnesota slid all the way to fourth with a score of 214.525. Ohio State cruised through the last two events to win by three points with a 218.1 score.

Sophomore Eric Steele provided Minnesota’s only event victory by winning the vault for the second straight year.

While the Gophers were less than half a point behind second-place Michigan and still turned in their best performance of the season, the team left the Sports Pavilion with thoughts of what might have been.

“On floor and horse, we had an opportunity to win (the meet),” head coach Fred Roethlisberger said. “We got through our weak events, but we just let it go on those two events. We survived on high bar and parallel bars, but we have to win it on floor and horse.”

Minnesota mounted a charge on the floor exercise after freshman Guillermo Alvarez and Steele posted scores of 9.6 and 9.325, respectively.

But junior Clay Strother, posted only an 8.9 on floor exercise, and further mistakes by the Gophers on pommel horse sealed their fate.

Strother finished third in the all-around and took second place on high bar and third on the vault in the individual event finals on Saturday night.

However, he failed to qualify for the finals on floor exercise and finished a disappointing ninth on pommel horse, leaving the defending national champion in both events without a medal in either one.

Roethlisberger was disappointed with Strother’s performance on the floor exercise and pommel horse, but added he was pleasantly surprised with Strother’s second-place finish on high bar, considering the event is Strother’s weakest.

“I didn’t even expect him to make the finals, so I guess there’s some justice there,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re starting to turn a corner on high bar, so we’re really happy with him placing second.”

Alvarez finished fifth in the all-around, won by Ohio State’s Raj Bhavsar, and took second place in the floor exercise on Saturday. Alvarez was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, joining Steele as the second consecutive Minnesota gymnast to win the award.

Roethlisberger expressed disappointment with his team’s fourth-place finish, but was enthusiastic about Minnesota’s chances to improve at the NCAA Championships taking place April 4-6.

“Third place at NCAAs is easily within our grasp, and I don’t feel like winning is that far out of our reach,” Roethlisberger said. “Ohio State is leading the pack, but if we fix our mistakes, we have a shot to win.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]