Men’s gymnastics stretches to new heights

Paul Tuggeri performs on the parallel bars Tuesday. Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

They’re already roaming the hallows of Kenney Gym like they own the place – tackling the worn pommel horse, among other things, like it’s nothing, while treating face-plants, twists and sprains with veteran smiles and screams.

They’re already used to the place.

Stepping onto the floor exercise mats, mounting the high bar or the parallel bars, these guys know the history and the faces that have preceded them here at Illinois in the bright, electric complex. But they’ll be forming their own legacies when they have the chance.

Don’t wonder why, as they begin to make their mark, the newest additions to the men’s gymnastics team already know how to carry themselves as gymnasts:

They’re that good. And they’re not out of line for acting like it.

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“It’s a great class,” men’s gymnastics head coach Yoshi Hayasaki says, looking on as the six newest additions to his team worked out last Thursday. “They’re really fitting into the program.”

Lingering next to the likes of Wes Haagensen and Tyler Yamauchi, two of the team’s top seniors, are the apparent heirs to their thrones. Seniors Michael Boyer and Chris Silcox need only turn around to notice the stacked 2007 freshman class that has stepped in, ready to give the current roster the boost it needs to claim its first National Championship in 18 years.

Their names are Paul Ruggeri, Daniel Ribeiro, Roger Pasek, Nate Luketin, Kyle Moe and Johnny Schell.

One’s an artist inside and out of the gym, seeing the mats as one of the many surfaces he can tame, aside from canvas. One, without sugar-coating it, could be the best competitor on pommel horse this school will ever see.

Of the three Illinois natives, one is the state all-around champion, the fifth in the last six years to join Illinois. Another is a walk-on from the Illinois club gymnastics team, a “Flippin’ Illini” alumnus that made the leap from recreational athlete to Division I powerhouse contributor. The other grew up in Champaign, always hoping he’d be where he is now.

The last one, after practically ripping his wrist apart on high bar a few weeks ago, may not see action until next year.

The artist

The 5-foot-8, 140 pound Paul Ruggeri is no doubt the most celebrated of the Illini’s 2007 recruits and projects to become the team’s top all-around performer in the next few years. He’s also one of the most artistic, having earned silver and gold awards in New York art competitions as well as being an avid crocheter of hats. He knows knitting isn’t the most popular thing to do, but he stands by his work

“It keeps me relaxed when I’m bored,” he said. “It gives me something to do, even if it is a grandma thing.”

All-American Tyler Yamauchi has seen the hats on some of his teammates, but still doesn’t know what to make of it.

“Yea, Ribeiro wears one around,” Yamauchi said. “It looks like a deer hunting hat. It’s knitted nice but he just picked a bad color; it’s too bright. He was wearing one around that was brown, it had a thing that went through your ears, had tassels coming down the sides. He was like ‘I crocheted it. Oh, I guess you guys don’t do that around here.'”

Fashion faux pas aside, Ruggeri’s talents on the mats have him primed to take over once near-all around champion Wes Haagensen graduates after this season.

“We certainly brought somebody like Paul in here so that he could step in once Wesley Haagensen is gone,” Hayasaki said. “We needed somebody like that and I think Paul fits right in that category.

“He’s a very balanced gymnast and we expect him to be contributing in all-around events,” Hayasaki added. “He’s a hard worker, he’s dedicated to the sport, and he has a lot of desire to become a top gymnast not only on the collegiate level but in the USA.”

Ruggeri said he’s ready for the challenge.

“Of course I’d love to put myself in (Haagensen’s) shoes and once he’s gone we’re going to need somebody to step up in all around,” he said. “I’m going to try to start doing that this year, but we’ll see.”

The horse whisperer

Daniel Ribeiro will get a chance from the very beginning to have an impact on the men’s gymnastics team, stepping in as its best pommel horse performer. The team’s worst event one season ago immediately becomes a strength with the addition of Ribeiro, whom Hayasaki says is already one of the best in the event worldwide.

“He’s so accomplished in that event and right now can compete against the best of the best in the U.S. and internationally,” Hayasaki said. “He’s very exceptional and we certainly need that, especially in that event.”

If Illinois had fielded a consistent pommel horse rotation last year, there’s little doubt it would have placed better than fifth nationally, surely competing for the national title. With Ribeiro on board, expectations are soaring.

“My goal is to help the team win the National Championship, but other than that I want to get at least All-American, if not a National Championship in pommel,” Ribeiro said. “I see myself fitting in great, being friends with these guys for the rest of my life. The class above me and the class below me are a great group of guys. That’s our mind-set right now, that we’re going to win it all, nothing less.”

Mr. Illinois

Roger Pasek was the Illinois high school all-around champion last year, joining current Illini Michael Boyer, Kyle Padera and Brian Hulbert as past champions on the team. Admittedly, there was a time Pasek saluted the Michigan flag, but he’s grown out of that phase.

“One of my cousins went to Michigan, and for a while I liked them, but that was before I really understood much,” Pasek said. “Since I started looking at schools, it’s been Illinois all the way.”

And now that he’s here?

“That’s the biggest thing you notice, that this is a great group of guys,” Pasek said. “When I came here on my recruiting trip, everybody was there. In other places, the whole team doesn’t come for that, but here, every guy was there. It’s awesome. If you want something to do, you just call up one of the guys and they’re up for anything.”

The walk-on

Nate Luketin competed for the Flippin’ Illini men’s gymnastics club over the last two years and was the squad’s top pommel horse finisher at the NAIGC Nationals. Now, he steps in along with Ribeiro to shore up the event for the Illini.

“I started gymnastics my sophomore year of high school and all these guys have been doing it since they were much younger,” Luketin said.

“That’s a huge accomplishment for me. And to win pommel horse last year, I’m really proud of that. I’d love to get a spot competing, that’d be great. There are a lot of guys, so there’s tough competition.”

Does he have any advice for club athletes hoping to someday walk on to a Division I sport?

“Just do your best, never give up, and stay motivated,” Luketin said.

The hometown boy

Kyle Moe is a Champaign native and said there was never any doubt where he wanted to attend school; Illinois was always his first choice.

“I just knew a lot of guys on this team. It was pretty much my only option,” Moe said. “I’m from Champaign and I just wanted to come here and stay in town I guess. I think I always wanted to come here.”

Still rings and parallel bars are Moe’s two strongest events, and he’ll compete for time in the rotation at both.

However, a spot in the still rings rotation could be his most likely destination.

“That’s probably my best chance of making it into the lineup, at still rings,” Moe said. “There’s a lot of guys fighting for these spots.”

Man of steel

After sustaining an injury in his right wrist a few weeks ago doing a high bar routine, it appears Johnny Schell, a three-sport athlete in high school, won’t see any action this season.

A metal rod in his arm effectively relegates him to strictly motivational duties after being recruited as a floor, vault and high bar performer in Maryland, his home state.

“It really sucks, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Schell said.

“My role is basically to support them, and honestly, to just do the best I can to motivate these guys. I won’t be back until around April.”