Men’s gymnastics relaxed heading to Big Ten Championships

It was all fun and games before the men’s gymnastics practice Tuesday. There was a sense of complete calm in the gym, no anxiety or worry as the gymnasts kicked a ball around and tried to see how long they could keep it in the air.

The No. 4 Illinois men’s gymnastics team heads to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Friday to compete in the Big Ten Championships. While the team enjoyed a game before practice, once practice started there was complete concentration — the gymnasts knew they have a Big Ten title to bring home.

“This is what we’ve been training for,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I don’t think anyone has any second thoughts about that. They did everything they can do and they look very good right now.”

The Big Ten is one of the nation’s toughest conferences with all six of the competing schools ranked in the top 10 nationally. The Illini ended their regular season undefeated.

Illinois has been in a Big Ten Championships drought since 2004, which the team agrees is far too long for a program of its caliber.

“The guys are really gearing toward Big Tens,” Hayasaki said. “In the past, I think a lot of emphasis was on NCAA Championships. It’s been my goal always to win NCAA Championships, but I’ve been gearing a little bit more toward the Big Ten this year simply because we want it because it’s been a while.”

The Illini have a reigning Big Ten champion in sophomore Daniel Ribeiro. The All-American won the pommel horse in the 2008 installment of the tournament and looks to be a shoe-in to win again as the No. 1-ranked gymnast in the nation on the event.

“It still feels so far away, but it’s right here. It came up so fast,” Ribeiro said. “Nothing special, just do what we do. If we do what we do we should hopefully come out on top.”

While he is not a reigning Big Ten champion like teammate Ribeiro, the Illini have the talent of sophomore Paul Ruggeri, the defending NCAA and national champion on the high bar.

“To be honest, all the Big Ten teams are decent this year,” Ruggeri said. “This is going to be one of the best Big Ten Championships in terms of competition because the teams are going to all be really close, but I would say our closest competition is Michigan.”

The Illini will also have the advantage of having already won in Ann Arbor this season when they defeated Michigan on March 14. Illinois has targeted Michigan as its main threat for the Big Ten Championships.

“I think what really gave these guys a boost of confidence was when we went to Michigan,” Hayasaki said. “It’s a very difficult situation competing in Michigan, but we were able to beat Michigan there at their home, but at the same time, we know it wasn’t the best of Michigan.”