Going for the glory

Defending conference champs ready to bring NCAA title home

Junior Michael Paradise earned 2018 All-American honors for the pommel horse. (Image courtesy of UI Athletics)
Defending conference champs ready to bring NCAA title home

The road to the 2019 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships ends in Champaign this year, when top collegiate powers will vie for the sport’s highest honors at the State Farm Center on April 19 and 20. 

The perennial powerhouse Illini will aim for the team’s first national crown since 2012, after finishing third in the NCAA the past two seasons. A home-gym advantage could go a long way toward keeping the national title plaque on campus well past the championship meet’s final day.  

Leading the defending Big Ten champion Illini squad is Head Coach Justin Spring, ’06 LAS, MS ’14 AHS, now in his eighth season.

Defending NCAA still-rings champion Alex Diab, a three-time Big Ten rings titleist, headlines a fantastic four of returning All-Americans on the Illinois roster. Johnny Jacobson is a two-time All-American excelling in vault and parallel bars, while third-year standouts Sebastian Quiana and Michael Paradise garnered prestige last year in floor exercise and pommel horse, respectively.

Decorated group and senior high-bar standout Ross Thompson brings veteran leadership to the team, while sophomore Max Diab, Alex’s younger brother, aims for more vault victories. Junior Jordan Kovach “looks like a different athlete” this year according to Spring, making the Oklahoman a candidate for a breakout Illini season.  

Australian Clay Mason Stephens quickly established himself as a rookie to watch in January after he won two event titles in a deep national field at the early litmus test known as the Windy City Invitational. The Illini won the Windy City invite in Chicago for the fifth consecutive season, outlasting three other top-10 teams.    

Freshman Michael Fletcher predicted that his team could be “world-class on floor and high bar.” 

The pressure will be on for the Illini, the Big Ten’s preseason favorite, as they look to defend their conference championship and use that momentum to make the late April weekend in Champaign one for the history books. With a talented roster of hungry competitors guided by Spring—himself an Illini student-athlete legend and now a decorated coach—this year’s squad clearly has what it takes to stay in the hunt until the end.