Loochtan on the rebound


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Over the course of the week, DI staffer Charlie Green will provide an in-depth look at five core individuals on the Iowa men’s gymnastics team who typically combine for more than 50 percent of the team’s points. Each athlete holds a defining characteristic that contributes to the team’s successes in addition to his quantitative contributions in competition.

Things just haven’t been the same for junior Matt Loochtan since he tweaked his back a few weeks ago in practice.

Although he competed in the team’s opener, he reinjured himself and was limited for the next two meets to rest and heal up.

He is arguably the most talented man on the team, and the Hawkeyes need Loochtan to hit his stride in the near future to make the squad that much more dangerous.

“That’s what I need him to do,” head coach JD Reive said. “To get in there and be the baller he can be, do those harder routines, and put up the 15s that he’s capable of doing.”

Last year at nationals, Loochtan finished seventh on the still rings, earning him All-American honors. He is the only Hawkeye on the roster with that distinction, and he did it as a sophomore.

Last season, he knew he was going to hit every set. He was that confident. But in the early part of this season, he has shown skepticism before routines — possibly a result of fewer sets practiced in the wake of his back injury.

And because his opportunities to practice are down, so is his morale, but Loochtan looks ahead.

“I’m hoping to add more than 3 points to our total score,” he said. “On floor, I can put on another 2 or 3 points by itself.”

In 2013, Loochtan’s freshman season, the Hawkeyes advanced to the NCAA team finals by just 0.2 of a point. If he learned anything from that season, it’s how pivotal the little points can be when the final score is tallied.

“Every tenth counts,” Loochtan said. “That year, any one stick or step could have fluctuated, and we would not have made it.”

But Loochtan hasn’t been giving the team those tenths. On the vault, Reive prefers to include two routines with higher start values. While they are harder to execute, if done successfully, it rewards the team with more points.

On Feb. 7 against Illinois, Reive gave the nod to Loochtan to try the more difficult vault, but he fell on his landing. He received a 13.950 — a less-than-stellar score from an All-American.

But what Loochtan can do is impressive. He owns the school record on the floor exercise with a 15.650, previously set by Matt McGrath in 2011. But this year he has averaged just 13.400 in three routines — down more than a point from his average last season.

Currently, the junior from Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, accounts for 9.05 percent of the team’s points, good for fourth on the team.

His importance is of the highest caliber; his skills can mean the difference between a middle-of-the-pack and a great team in the sport’s toughest conference.

 “Athletically, he’s one of our powerhouses,” freshman Anthony Van Aacken said. “As his back starts to get stronger, I think you’re going to see him put up some huge numbers.”

The coaching staff continues to push Loochtan to get better, physically and mentally. This year the parts are in place — they just need their All-American back to his normal self.

Despite a few lackluster performances, Big Ten and national foes should be wary. The junior showed some promise against Illinois on Feb. 7, scoring 14.400 on the floor exercise and 14.850 on the still rings.

Junior all-around gymnast Jack Boyle, who came into the program with Loochtan, knows as well as anyone how pivotal Loochtan’s performance is going forward.

“He helps us out on our weak events; he’s kind of the perfect gymnast for our team,” Boyle said. “I don’t think he understands how huge he is for us; he gets us some real big points.”

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