Nagai steps up for Gophers to replace injured Russell as women squeak out a victory

Nagai filled the void after Russel twisted her knee in her first event.

The No. 20 ranked Minnesota women’s gymnastics squad came into its first home meet on Saturday against New Hampshire with a healthy and visibly excited roster.

It didn’t take long, however, for that to change.

In the team’s first event of the evening, sophomore Alexis Russell twisted her body gracefully into the air, but then ungracefully twisted her knee on the landing.

“The force of the landing was pretty significant,” co-head coach Jim Stephenson said of Russell’s fall. “Your first thought during an injury is of the individual. But then as a coach, our job is to put a full lineup in.”

The injury to Russell seemed to hurt the Gophers’ morale early on more than it did their overall score, as junior and meet MVP Carmelina Carabajal picked up the slack with a victory in the all-around to seal the Minnesota’s 191.650-189.300 win over the Wildcats.

“It was awesome,” Carabajal said of the Gophers’ first home victory of the season. “There is nothing like a home meet with another team in here to fire us up. It was a great feeling.”

Replacing the injured Russell in her other two events was freshman Yuri Nagai, who was not scheduled to compete in any events Saturday prior to the meet.

Nagai stepped in during the next event following the vault without even the slightest look of anxiety, nabbing the Gophers’ highest score in the bars with a 9.650, good for second overall.

“I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” Nagai said about her sudden insert into the lineup. “But it felt really fun and great.”

Minnesota’s strongest events of the night were undoubtedly the floor exercise and the beam, as the team scored a meet-high 48.250 in both.

Senior Amanda Miles also picked up the Gophers’ highest individual event score this season with a 9.850 on the floor exercise, capping off an overall solid start to the 2008 season.

“We are starting off looking better than we did at the end of last year,” Stephenson said. “The big difference this year is that we have great back-up people. You could see how we needed that tonight.”

Men steal road victory

Nearly everything was close about the Minnesota men’s gymnastics team’s victory over Illinois on Saturday.

The No. 7 Gophers came into Champaign, Ill., to face No. 8 Illinois, and their close rankings were justified by the back-and-forth scoring lead that each team had for a period of time.

But ultimately, the slightly higher ranked Minnesota (3-4, 2-3 Big Ten) squad squeaked out a narrow 344.400-343.850 win over the Illini.

“It was a close one,” head coach Mike Burns said about the meet. “It wasn’t a great performance by either team, but we were thrilled to walk out of that gym with a victory.”

The vault was far and away the event that carried the Gophers over the top in this meet, as senior Mitchell Mays’ score of 16.500 was good enough for the high score of the night and added to a 62.800 team score on the event.

In addition to his win on the vault, Mays placed second on the rings with a solid routine that earned a score of 14.750 points.

“Mitchell performed his signature vault, he did an excellent job,” Burns said. “He’s been doing great there all year.”

To add to Mays’ strong performance, sophomore Cole Storer won the high bar with a score of 14.700 and placed third on the floor exercise with a total of 14.550, while junior Kit Beikmann recorded his second straight pommel horse win with a score of 14.950.

Added pressure was placed on Beikmann, Burns said, because of the Illinois student section being placed only a few feet away from the pommel horse.

“The student section was extremely rowdy and unruly,” Burns said. “They kept chanting ‘whoa’ to try and make Kit fall off the horse when he was concentrating. But after he successfully completed his event, he stared down the student section. That quieted them down.”