Men’s gymnastics “a team to watch” as new season approaches

By Kyle Diller

After a season that saw the team finish second in the Big Ten and third in the NCAA Championships, the No. 4 Illinois men’s gymnastics team begins 2009 aiming to conquer both competitions.

With four All-Americans returning from last season’s team, including 2008 NCAA National High Bar champion and sophomore Paul Ruggeri, the Illini certainly seem capable of accomplishing the massive goals head coach Yoshi Hayasaki has set for the team.

“Our goal hasn’t changed, particularly the upperclassmen that they are looking forward to the end of the season competitions, Big Ten Champions, winning the Big Ten, winning the National Championships,” Hayasaki said. “That’s always been their ultimate goal the last four or five years.”

Along with Ruggeri, the Orange and Blue have last year’s Big Ten Pommel Horse Champion, sophomore Daniel Ribeiro, and fellow All-Americans senior Ross Bradley and junior Brian Liscovitz at their disposal.

While the talented Illinois squad is proven on the big stage of the NCAA Championships, the coaching staff also has a distinguished member in Illinois alumnus Justin Spring, who returns after an eventful summer that saw him walk away from the Beijing Olympics with a bronze medal. Ivan Ivankov, the 1994 and 1997 World All-Around Champion and two-time Olympian, joins the Illini for the 2009 season as a visiting assistant coach.

The Orange and Blue will kick off their season by traveling north to Chicago to compete in the Windy City Invite, hosted by No. 12 University of Illinois-Chicago. The Illini will meet head-to-head with the majority of their Big Ten opposition, with the exception of No. 5 Penn State.

“The Windy City meet is very big because we can really see what our competition is going to be like because most of the Big Ten teams will be there,” said senior Chris Lung. “It’s the first week of the year so it will really show where we’re at.”

Hayasaki feels good about his team going into the season following all the hard work they’ve put in during practice.

“The first meet of the season is always tough for anybody, especially freshmen who have not ever competed in a collegiate meet,” Hayasaki. “They all had good training in the fall, so we’re getting to the point where we can compete against anybody physically; it’s just a matter of how mentally we can face the challenge of the Big Ten competition.”

“We should be a team to watch this year,” Ruggeri said. “I think that we should definitely be on the top of the podium this year (at the NCAA Championships).”