Photo by Stephanie Carpenter/Nebraska Communications

B1G Opportunity Awaits Huskers at Conference Championships

By NU Athletic Communications

The No. 6/7 Nebraska men’s gymnastics team has the opportunity to make history this weekend at the 2017 Big Ten Championships in Champaign, Ill. The Huskers are looking for their first Big Ten title since joining the conference prior to the 2012 season and the first conference title since the team won the Big Eight Championship in 1994.

"We're at a very exciting time. This could be the closest Big Ten Championships I've ever been a part of," Head Coach Chuck Chmekla said. "All the other years there's been clearly teams that are No. 1 or No. 2 and then there's been clearly teams that are No. 6 or No. 7. This year, everybody is really close. It's going to be an epic battle and we're up for the challenge and we're ready to go...it's going to be really close. It's going to be a hard-fought battle and it's definitely going to come down to who hits the most events and who sticks dismounts."

The 2017 Big Ten Championships, hosted by Illinois, will be held April 7-8 at the State Farm Center. The team and all-around finals will take place on Friday, along with the individual qualifiers. Saturday will serve as the individual finals. Competition is set to begin at 7 p.m. both days and will be televised live on BTN, BTN2GO and the BTN2GO mobile app. For complete championship information, including tickets, visitor guides and a complete schedule of events, visit http://www.bigten.org/sports/m-gym/spec-rel/big10-m-gym-championship-17.html.

Big Ten Championship History
Ohio State is looking for consecutive titles after claiming the 2016 Big Ten Championships.

Individually, all but one conference champion from 2016 returns this season to try and defend their title. OSU’s Sean Melton is looking for back-to-back titles on floor, parallel bars and in the all-around. Fellow Buckeye Alec Yoder, placed first on pommel horse in 2016. Michigan’s Anthony McCallum claimed first on vault last season, while Alex Diab (Illinois) took home the still rings title.

Illinois has the most Big Ten team titles (27), followed by Minnesota (21) and Michigan (17). Illinois also has the most individual conference titles with 155. Minnesota and Michigan are tied for second with 103.

Nebraska hasn’t finished higher than sixth and has never had a first-place finish since joining the Big Ten.

Inside the Competition
All seven Big Ten teams rank in the top 10. Ohio State is ranked the highest, holding the No. 3 spot in both the rankings and the Coaches Poll. Illinois ranks fourth, while Minnesota ranks fifth. Penn State is sixth in the rankings and seventh in the Coaches Poll, while Nebraska holds the opposite spot in both polls. Iowa is eight and Michigan is ninth.

Illinois Fighting Illini
Fourth-ranked Illinois is coming off a 417.350-415.250 loss to Ohio State on March 24. Freshman Sebastian Quiana, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week by the conference on March 27, won the event title on floor against the Buckeyes. Quiana posted the highest score on floor in the NCAA by a freshman so far this year, with a career-best 14.950. Chandler Eggleston and Jacob Light each earned a 14.750, sharing the vault title. On high bar, Tyson Bull scored a 14.750 to secure his sixth title on the event.

The Illini return five All-Americans this season including Bobby Baker, Alex Diab, Chandler Eggleston, Brandon Ngai and Joey Peters. Diab claimed the title on rings at the 2016 Big Ten Championships as a freshman, while Ngai placed second on pommel horse. Other gymnasts to watch are Johnny Jacobson, who took third on parallel bars at the conference championships last year and Michael Paradise who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on March 13.

Illinois is 11-4 overall, including 7-2 in the Big Ten. Justin Spring is in his seventh season at the helm of the Illini team. In 2016, he led the team to a second-place finish at the Big Ten Championships, missing first place by just under five points.

Iowa Hawkeyes
No. 8 Iowa recently fell to Penn State 420.400-414.000 on March 25. Despite the loss, Iowa won three event titles to highlight the meet, including senior Andrew Botto’s all-around victory (80.850). Freshman Andrew Herrador and senior Cory Paterson placed first on floor and high bar, respectively.

The Hawkeyes are 6-10 on the season, including 2-9 in conference competition. Their only Big Ten victories came on March 4 against Penn State in the triangular meet with the Nittany Lions and Nebraska and on March 20 against Nebraska. Other conference losses include Illinois (twice) Ohio State, Minnesota (three times) and Michigan.

Gymnasts to watch include seniors Andrew Botto, Cory Paterson, David Spanier and Mark Springett and junior Dylan Ellsworth.

Iowa is led by seventh-year coach JD Reive. In 2016, Reive led the Hawkeyes to a fifth-place finish at the Big Ten Championships.

Michigan Wolverines
Ninth-ranked Michigan scored a season-high 414.950 and swept all seven individual events en route to a victory over No. 17 UIC (368.600) in its final home meet of the season on March 25. Anthony McCallum (floor, vault, parallel bars - tie), Samuel Su (pommel horse), Ryan Dunning (still rings), Jonthan Chin (parallel bars - tie) and Marty Strech (high bar) combined for all six event titles, while Emyre Cole won the all-around. As a team, U-M tallied season highs for the team score and on pommel horse, vault and floor exercise.

Michigan enters the competition with an overall record of 8-7, including 3-5 in the conference. The Wolverines defeated Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. U-M fell to Ohio State (twice), Illinois (twice) and Penn State.

Kurt Golder enters his 21st season as the head coach of the Wolverines. Last season, Golder produced three All-Americans, including Dmitri Belanovski and Anthony McCallum who return in 2017. McCallum claimed the title on vault at the 2016 NCAA Championships and the 2016 Big Ten Championships as a freshman. Another gymnast to watch includes Anthony Stefanelli, who placed second on floor and third on vault at the conference championships last year. As a team, Michigan finished seventh at the Big Ten Championships last season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
The No. 5 Golden Gophers are coached by Mike Burns who is in his 12th year at Minnesota. Minnesota recently defeated Nebraska in Lincoln on March 25, posting a score of 426.950. The score is currently the third-highest score in the country this season. Minnesota notched season-high scores on floor (72.800), still rings (70.700), vault (73.600) and high bar (71.600) against the Huskers. Justin Karstadt claimed the title on still rings, parallel bars and in the all-around. Joel Gagnon earned the high bar title. Karstadt claimed Big Ten Gymnast of the Week and NCAA Gymnast of the Week for his efforts against the Cornhuskers. Karstadt also earned a share of the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year award, announced earlier this week by the conference.

Minnesota is led by seniors Zach Liebler and Mitchell Soukup. Liebler is a three-time All-American after placing eighth on floor and seventh on vault at the 2016 NCAA Championships. Additionally, the Pine Island, Minn., native took third on floor at the 2015 NCAA Championships. He currently ranks 16th in the vault rankings. Soukup is a still rings specialist for the Gophers, averaging 13.725. Other gymnasts to watch include returning All-Americans Joel Gagnon and Justin Karstadt, along with Yaroslav Pochinka, Jalon Stephens, Vitali Kan and Alex Wittenberg.

Minnesota is 12-9 this season, including 5-5 in conference competition. Victories include Nebraska, Iowa (three times), UIC (twice), Air Force, Nebraska, UMN Club Team, the Canadian National Team, Ukraine’s National Team and Arizona State. Losses include Illinois (twice), Ohio State (twice), Michigan, Oklahoma, Stanford, the Japanese National Team, Stanford. Last year, Minnesota placed third at the Big Ten Championships behind Ohio State and Illinois.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Third-ranked Ohio State comes into the competition as the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten, behind No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Stanford. Led by seventh-year Head Coach Rustam Sharipov, the Buckeyes finished the regular season with a 417.350-415.250 win over Illinois on March 24.

Ohio State is 10-2 this season, including 7-1 in conference competition. The team’s only two losses came against Illinois and Oklahoma. The Buckeyes topped Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and UIC at the Windy City Invitational to open the season. Ohio State also beat Michigan, Minnesota and UIC again, as well as Penn State, Illinois and the Ukraine National Team.

Ohio State is looking for consecutive conference team titles after claiming first place at the 2016 Big Ten Championships. Six-time All-American Sean Melton is looking for back-to-back individual titles on floor, parallel bars and in the all-around after earning gold in all three last season. Three-time All-American Alec Yoder also has the opportunity for a repeat title, after placing first on pommel horse last year as a freshman. Other gymnasts to watch include All-Americans Alex Wilson, Seth Delbridge and Jake Martin. Martin earned a share of the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year award, announced earlier this week by the conference.

Ohio State’s strongest team event is pommel horse as it ranks second with a four-score average of 70.350 and a high of 72.250. Yoder is the highest-ranked Buckeye as he holds the No. 2 spot in the pommel horse rankings.

Penn State Nittany Lions
The No. 6/7 Penn State Nittany Lions won their last two meets of the regular season against Michigan and Iowa, bringing their regular-season record to 11-4, including 3-4 in the Big Ten. Victories include Nebraska, Army West Point (twice), Arizona State, Navy (twice), Springfield (twice), Temple, Michigan and Iowa. Penn State lost to Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio State.

Penn State is led by lone All-American Leroy Clarke, Jr., as well as fellow seniors Jeremy Munn, Christian McSwain, Dominic DiFulvio and Franz Card. The Blue and White also have a pair of freshmen standouts in Sam Zakutney and Favian Valdez. The pair has combined for all but three of this season’s Big Ten Freshman-of-the-Week honors.

Penn State’s highest-ranked event is pommel horse. The Nittany Lions rank third with a four-score average of 70.250 and a team high of 72.350. DiFulvio is the highest-ranked individual, as he ranks sixth on still rings. Other Nittany Lions in the top 10 include Clarke, Jr. (seventh, pommel horse and eighth, parallel bars) Stephen Nedoroscik (eighth, pommel horse) and Zakutney (ninth, parallel bars and ninth, all-around).

Led by Randy Jepson, Penn State is looking for its second conference title in three years, as they claimed first at the 2015 Big Ten Championships. Last year, the Nittany Lions took fourth.

Last Time Out
Led by three individual titles and five season-high team event scores, the Nebraska men’s gymnastics team scored 425.550 on March 25 against Minnesota at the Bob Devaney Sports on Senior Night.

The Huskers sent Austin Epperson, Coleman Tokar and Sanjaya Roy off in style as their team score is currently the fourth-highest score in the country. Despite the terrific score, the Huskers fell to the Gophers, who earned 426.950.

For the second consecutive week, All-Americans Austin Epperson and Anton Stephenson earned individual event titles. Stephenson claimed the vault title after posting 15.05 on the event. The sophomore produced just the second 15.0 score for the Huskers of the season, as he notched a 15.10 on Feb. 26 against UIC. Epperson made his last home meet count. The Allen, Texas, native claimed the floor title finishing with a 14.85. Antonio Castro also grabbed the pommel horse title with a season-best score of 14.90. Epperson and Castro each set new team-high scores on their respective events.

Huskers in the Rankings
Nebraska ranks sixth in the Coaches Poll and seventh in the rankings with a four-score average of 412.583 and a high score of 425.550.

NU holds the No. 5 spot in the floor rankings and the vault rankings. The Huskers rank in the top 10 on all other events, except from high bar, where the team ranks 11th.

Anton Stephenson and Antonio Castro are the only Huskers in the top 10 individually. Stephenson ranks sixth on vault, while Castro is 10th in the pommel horse rankings. Stephenson also ranks 14th on floor and 21st on parallel bars.

Other Huskers in the top 25 include Chris Stephenson (12th, all-around), Austin Epperson (12th, floor), Daniel Leal (T16th, parallel bars) and Heath Anderson (19th, still rings).

Next Time Up
Nebraska hopes to qualify for the 2017 NCAA Championships April 21-22 in West Point, N.Y. The top 12 teams in the country following the conference championships will advance to the NCAA Championships.

B1G Opportunity
Nebraska looks to claim its first Big Ten title since joining the conference prior to the 2012 season and its first conference team title since 1994, when the Huskers won the Big Eight Championship. The last individual conference title came in 2002 when Josh Rasile placed first on vault at the MPSF Championships.

Home Sweet Home
The past two season, the home team has claimed first at the Big Ten Championships. Ohio State took the title in 2016, while Penn State claimed first in 2015.

Going for Gold
Several Huskers are experiencing regular individual success this season. Eight different NU gymnasts have claimed at least one individual title this season, including Antonio Castro, Daniel Leal, Chris Stephenson, Anton Stephenson, Connor Adamsick, Austin Epperson, Jordan King and Kyle King. Of those eight gymnasts, five (Castro, Leal, Anton Stephenson, Chris Stephenson and Epperson) have claimed multiple titles. The Huskers look to continue the success and grab first-place finishes this weekend.

Element Groups
The 2017 roster includes only two seniors in Austin Epperson and Coleman Tokar. The team has depended on its largest class - the nine juniors, to help the seniors lead the team both inside and outside of the gym. The upperclassmen are getting help from a talented group of underclassmen. Sophomores Jordan King, Anton Stephenson and Heath Anderson, as well as freshmen Jake Bonnay and Evan Hymanson are all regular parts of the Husker lineups.

Vaulting to Victory
Vault has been consistently the Huskers’ best event this season. It’s the only event that NU has scored at least 70.0 or more in every meet this season. The only 15.0 scores for the Huskers this season came from Anton Stephenson on the event on Feb. 26 and March 25. As a team, Nebraska has set a season-high score on the event the past four consecutive meets.

Strong Floor & Iron Horse
Last season, floor and pommel horse were consistently two of the Huskers’ best events. The team broke the school record on both events last season, while Kyle King and Ethan Lottman broke the individual records on floor and pommel horse, respectively. This season, the Huskers are continuing the trend, thanks to consistent performances from Chris and Anton Stephenson, Antonio Castro, Kyle King, Jordan King, Connor Adamsick, Jake Bonnay, Travis Gollott and Austin Epperson. The Huskers earned season-high scores on both events in their final regular season meet.

Double Trouble
Brothers Chris and Anton Stephenson have been nightmares for the competition this season. Although this is the second season the brothers have been on the team together, Chris was out most of last season with an injury. Now that both Chris and Anton are regularly in the lineups, the duo has been dynamic for the Huskers. The Stephensons combine for 11 individual titles so far this season and hold the highest scores on three events and the all-around. Additionally, Chris placed in the top 15 at the Winter Cup Finals on Feb. 18, while Anton was the first Husker to break the 15.0 mark this season after scoring changes prior to 2017 typically lower scores by 0.5. His vault mark of 15.10 is the second-highest vault score in the country. Both Chris and Anton have claimed Big Ten Gymnast-of-the-Week this season at least once. Chris on Jan. 23 and March 6, and Anton on Feb. 27.

Back in the Swing of Things
Nebraska is enjoying the return of several gymnasts who were injured in 2016. Juniors Travis Gollott, Chris Stephenson and Brenon Sommers are regular parts of the lineups on many events for the Huskers. Gollott has competed on pommel horse in every meet so far this season for the Huskers. Stephenson has been a steady all-arounder and earned Big Ten Gymnast of the Week twice this season. As a still rings specialist, Sommers is helping the team on that event. Andrew Zymball, who appeared regularly for NU last season but was sidelined by injury this season, saw his first action of the season against Iowa on March 20 and posted a 14.10 on vault.

Numbers To Know

- Big Ten Medalists: The 2017 Husker roster includes two Big Ten Medalists in Daniel Leal and Kyle King. Leal placed second on parallel bars in 2016, while King claimed the bronze medal on vault in 2015.

2 - Returning All-Americans: Nebraska returns senior Austin Epperson and sophomore Anton Stephenson, who both earned their first All-America award at the 2016 NCAA Championships.

11 - School Records: In 2016, the Huskers broke 11 school records, including total score, individual floor score and individual pommel horse record.

16 - Returning Letterwinners: The Big Red returns 16 letterwinners from last season, including two seniors and nine juniors. 

18 - Last NCAA Team Final: The 2017 Huskers look to make the team finals at the NCAA Championships for the first time in 18 years.

25 - Individual Titles: Nebraska has claimed 25 individual titles so far this season. Anton Stephenson has the most with seven and Antonio Castro has five.

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