Monday, March 11, 2013

The Illini's Match-Play Meet Reviewed: The Student Perspective

For quite some time, the gymnastics world has been buzzing about Justin Spring's match-play meet format. Will it work? Will people like it? Will it over-simplify the complexity of men's gymnastics? 

Unfortunately, I was not able to travel from San Francisco to Champaign-Urbana to see the meet, so I asked a few gymnastics fans to write their reactions. This post was written by Alison Melko, a senior at the University of Illinois and, as she notes below, a men's gymnastics fan in training. Enjoy!


I have a confession to make: I’m not as much of an expert on men’s gymnastics as I am with women’s. I could probably name every single female Olympic All-Around champion since 1964, but I might be able to name only one or two of the men in the same category. Perhaps it’s because I was re-introduced to the sport as a whole in 2007 by the movie Stick It, or maybe it’s because I have an unashamed ladycrush on Alicia Sacramone. It’s hard to ignore the men’s side of things, though, when you have guys like Superman Kōhei Uchimura sweeping a quad’s All-Around titles and the beautiful, beautiful creature that is Epke Zonderland swinging high bar.

I’ve already been to a decent chunk of women’s gymnastics meets during my 4 years here at the University of Illinois, but the only time I’d seen our men compete was during the dual meet against Iowa a few weeks back. So while the rest of my friends sat at home and screamed obscenities at their TVs as the Chicago Blackhawks had their winning streak thoroughly decimated by the Colorado Avalanche, I made myself a cozy little nest in the student section bleachers of Huff Hall in Champaign and settled down to watch the Illinois vs. Minnesota “Match Play” meet.

While women’s teams still use the “perfect 10” scoring system, NCAA men’s gymnastics uses open-ended scoring with separate difficulty and execution components. For the seasoned international gymnastics fan, this system isn’t really too hard to understand, but for the casual viewer, it can be pretty confusing. In a pre-meet interview, Illinois head coach and 2008 Olympic team bronze medalist Justin Spring explained that he wanted to try the new format to “create a little bit more investment, a little bit better understanding for the fans, and overall a better competition that people really like and can kind of make for a more exciting gymnastics meet.”

The meet’s format was the brainchild of Spring and his assistant coach, Daniel Riberio. Instead of each team competing on each apparatus separately, both teams would compete on the same event at the same time. Two gymnasts from the opposing team would compete directly against each other, and the judges’ would determine which gymnast’s routine was “better,” awarding that team a single point. The first team to reach 16 points would be the winner. The crowd would not be shown any official D-scores or E-scores.

(Official scores WERE recorded – after all, NCAA ranking is still a thing that exists.)

Gymnastics meets are not nearly as crowded of an event as men’s basketball or football, but a decent-sized crowd turned up for the meet nonetheless, including a small chunk of dedicated Minnesota fans. We were given small orange flags to cheer on our team and to wave whenever we scored a point. Normally I would be on my feet, screaming and cheering along with the rest of the students, but instead I was that awkward girl huddled over a laptop and typing furiously while screeching in frustration over U of I’s horrible WiFi.

Illinois competed first, putting up talented freshman Joey Peters up on floor. He hit a great routine that opened with a double Arabian and finished with a triple full, much to the delight of his team and the Illinois fans in the crowd. Minnesota answered with Matt Frey, who also threw an Arabian (or two) into his routine. The judges scored Frey’s set higher, and the first point of the meet went to Minnesota. We Illinois fans were not particularly happy about that one, and we let the judges know it.

Illinois actually went on to win the rotation, scoring 3 points to Minnesota’s 2. I ditched the laptop for a minute so I could do the Oskee Wow Wow with my fellow students. (Don’t know what that is? Look it up. We’re awesome.) Pommel horse was next, and I’m going to level with you guys: I know next to absolutely nothing about pommels except that Krisztián Berki is a god. The crowd seemed to really enjoy watching the routines, though, and the cheers grew louder and louder with each one. At the end of the rotation, Illinois was leading 6-4, and we celebrated with another round of Oskee Wow Wow.

Rings were another crowd-pleaser, and I had a good time trying to see how many variations of Maltese crosses were performed. It was during this rotation that the Illinois fans lost interest in booing whenever Minnesota got a point – they were saving their energy to cheer increasingly louder whenever the signal judge raised that little orange flag to signal an Illinois point. The crowd seemed to be genuinely enjoying the meet and having loads of fun.

Vault, one of my favorites to watch, was a huge surprise – Illinois took all five points and swept the event! Our team was leading 14-6 going to parallel bars, putting the win within our grasp. Minnesota won the first point, but we rallied back to take the second to make the score 15-7. Minnesota snatched up the next two points, which was starting to piss off us Illinois fans that were thirsty for a victory. Cameron Rogers of Illinois went head-to-head with Minnesota’s Adam LaFleur, and when that orange flag went up and gave us the win, there was much rejoicing among the Illinois contingency.

Even with the meet already decided, high bar went on like any other meet. Illinois didn’t have a single fall, but Minnesota counted three, and two of those were from just one routine. At the end of the day, Illinois steamrolled over Minnesota, 21 points to 9. Welcome to Champaign, Gophers!

I’ve seen larger crowds at gymnastics meets, but I honestly can say that I have never experienced such a unified and excited crowd at a gym meet. Normally at men’s meets, when a score is posted, there’s usually a scattering of applause and maybe a few cheers. I’ve overheard other students talking to each other, wondering if a 14.100 is a good score or if it means we’re in trouble. Even I, the girl who requested several days off work so she could watch the 2012 Olympic gymnastics competitions live, sometimes have problems understanding the score totals. I’ll admit, it was strange for me to not see scores posted at all, but the grand majority of the crowd didn’t seem to have any problem with it.

That, essentially, means that the different structure did exactly what it was supposed to do. People didn’t have to get caught up in a scoring system that made no sense to them – they were simply able to sit back and enjoy the difficulty, beauty, and originality of gymnastics. They were more easily able to engage themselves with the performances and feel the thrill of competition. There’s no guarantee that another meet like this one will ever be put on again in NCAA gymnastics, but to spread the love and enjoyment of the sport, I hope it will.

Stay tuned for the next review. In the meantime, here are some related links:


  1. Love this blog. One quick point on Alison's review, though: Although the bracket system is being attributed to Justin Spring, the idea (officially referred to as the "head-to-head bracket system” by the NCAA Rules Committee) long predates him. Cliff Gauthier at William & Mary has been proposing this (and an alternative) head-to-head scoring system since the early 1980s. The NCAA Rules Committee adopted it this year because a critical mass of NCAA coaches (including Justin Spring and others, though not Mark Williams) signed onto the concept. To be sure, Justin's enthusiasm, marketing, and willingness to use it have been one of the reasons for its adoption.

    (Parts cross-posted at Coach Rick's blog.)

  2. Nice post. I like the way you start and then conclude your thoughts. Thanks for this information .I really appreciate your work, keep it up