Illini sure they’ll see the best again

Donald Eggert The Daily illini Illinois Luke Stannard competes on the pommel horse at the gymnastics meet against Penn State University, Saturday Feb 14, 2009 at Huff Hall.

Donald Eggert The Daily illini Illinois’ Luke Stannard competes on the pommel horse at the gymnastics meet against Penn State University, Saturday Feb 14, 2009 at Huff Hall.

By Kyle Diller

The No. 6 Illinois men’s gymnastics team may not have won the Pacific Coast Classic, billed as the preview to the NCAA Championships, but its dream for NCAA domination is far from over.

Because a Japanese all-star squad took first, the Illini won’t match up against the Classic champions in the NCAA Championships. But they will face stiff competition in the NCAA Championships from the second- and third-place finishers, No. 3 Stanford and No. 2 California, respectively. Stanford led the college teams with a score of 356.900, while Illinois posted a score of 350.550 to finish fifth in the seven-team invite.

“We put up our second-highest score (of the season) without Paul Ruggeri,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I think it’s an accomplishment in itself the way they performed, certainly that spot without Paul has really made a difference, but I think with him we could be huge.”

From the beginning of the season, the focus of the Illini gymnasts has been an NCAA Championship. It might seem that a fifth-place finish against many of the nation’s highest ranked teams would put a shadow over that goal, but come the end of the season when these teams meet again, a lot will have changed.

Since his Big Ten pommel horse title in 2008, many have associated Illinois pommel horse with the name Daniel Ribeiro. But Saturday night it was junior Luke Stannard who found glory on the pommel horse, as he tied for first with a career-high score of 15.200.

“We definitely have high hopes and we’re definitely still shooting for an NCAA Championship,” Stannard said. “Teams are going to peak later in the season. We’re hoping they’re peaking earlier than us, but we’re going to expect them to get better, just like us. Our potential and where we’re at right now leaves more room for improvement than some of the other teams.”

The emergence of Stannard on the pommel horse could prove key for the Illini, as they are proving the depth of their squad. The most obvious sign of their depth has been Illinois’ success despite the loss of Ruggeri.

“We certainly felt that, not having him,” Hayasaki said. “But, on the same token, without him I think we really did a good job. To have him return to the lineup will make a huge difference.”

Ruggeri could possibly be the deciding factor when the Illini match up against the nation’s best once again. The sophomore was forced to miss out on the Classic due to meniscus surgery, but the reigning NCAA and national high bar champion will be back in action for the most important time of the year – when championship titles are up for grabs in April.

The loss of Ruggeri has allowed freshmen an opportunity to step up and fill the void. And while a national champion leaves big shoes to be filled, the team’s rookies have risen to the challenge. All-around competitors Tyler Mizoguchi and Austin Phillips have performed exceptionally, as they placed fifth and sixth, respectively, in the all-around at the Classic against some of the NCAA’s best. Phillips exuded confidence, believing the Illini can win the NCAA Championships.

“I think, Big Tens, I think we have that in the bag,” Phillips said. “I think for NCAAs we’re going to have to pull it together, but I think in the end we’ll make it.”