Gymnasts finish third in NCAAs



By Daniel Johnson

Going into their last event on the final day of the NCAA Championships, the high bar, head coach Yoshi Hayasaki and the rest of the Illini knew they would have to earn everything.

The team was jockeying for the national title and was in second place at the time. National rivals Stanford and Oklahoma were neck and neck with the Illini, but the two teams had an advantage that proved to be the difference. Oklahoma was going into what Hayasaki said was its best event, the still rings, and the same went for Stanford, its best event being the vault.

“The last event we knew it would be extremely difficult to make a run with the way that things shook out,” Hayasaki said Sunday. “But as close as the scores were, with the teams being so close to each other in the scores, it really made things exciting.”

The Illini had made a conscious effort all year to not look at the scoreboard before events, but the gymnasts admitted they might have been sneaking in peeks before the high bar.

“You always try not to look at the scoreboard, we just want to be able to compete and not put more pressure on ourselves, but I think we were looking some,” freshman Paul Ruggeri said. “We just weren’t talking about it to each other. High bar hadn’t been our best event all year, and we knew that the other teams probably had an advantage, but it’s not like that was going to make us not try.”

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Unfortunately for the gymnasts, the excitement of the event would not be completely fulfilled, with the Cardinals and Sooners posting higher scores than the Illini. Oklahoma took advantage of its event and finished with a team score of 363.200 to earn the team title. Illinois’ score of 359.750 garnered a third-place finish; the Illini finished fifth last year and placed second the year before that.

“We always knew that we had the potential to be where we were to finish in the Championships,” senior Jon Drollinger said. “It’s a great honor and a great day for Illinois gymnastics.”

Individually, the Illini fared just as well, with seven gymnasts earning All-American honors and Ruggeri winning the national title on high bar. Ruggeri, who was ranked No. 1 in the event during the season, cited his team and those helping him throughout the season as the reasons he earned the honor.

“Everyone that has helped me this year – coaches, trainers, the guys – they all made this possible,” he said. “It didn’t really surprise me too, for the team to do as well as it did, and for myself to win the title, because I’ve never worked harder for anything in my life.”

Hayasaki was impressed with Ruggeri’s composure in the event, given his ranking and reputation coming into the Championships.

“When you are ranked as high as Paul was on the event throughout the season, people notice, and there was definite pressure on him,” Hayasaki said. “But he showed the teams there that he is capable of a phenomenal performance.”

Other Illini earning All-American honors were Drollinger on rings, Brian Liscovitz on parallel bars, Daniel Ribeiro on pommel horse, Wes Haagensen on parallel bars, Tyler Yamauchi on vault and Ross Bradley on high bar.

“We set an agenda at the beginning of the year to do as well as we did in the team championships and then to be able to get All-American titles, as well,” Hayasaki said, “It comes as no surprise to me to finish the way that we did.”