No. 4 Illini men’s gymnastics shares Big Ten title with Michigan

It was a hard-fought battle in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Orange and Blue, but a late rally Friday earned the No. 4 Illinois men’s gymnastics team a share of the Big Ten title with Michigan. It’s the Illini’s first title since 2004.

“The Big Ten is very tough to win. We’ve been second place so many times, we’ve been knocking on the door,” Hayasaki said. “But winning it is certainly something that makes you very proud of the guys. It’s good to see another Big Ten trophy for this team.”

Host Michigan, ranked fifth in the nation, started the night off by taking a quick lead in the team competition. Going into their final event, the Illini gymnasts trailed the Wolverines by 2.35 points, but a season-high score from the rings team earned Illinois enough points to draw even with Michigan and a share of the Big Ten Championship.

Delighted with its success, the team reflected on what the title meant to the Illini faithful and praised its fans for cheering it to Big Ten success.

“Obviously I would love to say thank you because we do definitely have the best fans,” sophomore Paul Ruggeri said. “They’re part of the team too, they deserve a ring.”

Ruggeri added to his personal achievements by taking the crown in both the floor routine and parallel bar events. While the All-American is currently the reigning national and NCAA champion on the high bar, Ruggeri had not yet earned a Big Ten honor.

“It feels good because last year I wasn’t able to do that,” Ruggeri said. “It was really nice to be able to hit some routines in finals. It’s a thrill.”

Junior Luke Stannard also earned his first individual Big Ten title as he took the pommel horse crown. Stannard’s teammate, sophomore Daniel Riberio, was looking to make it back-to-back Big Ten pommel horse titles, but it was Stannard who came out on top to inherit Riberio’s title. Saturday also marked the first time since 1989 that Illinois took three or more individual crowns in the tournament.

Stannard and Ruggeri each earned first team All-Big Ten honors to compliment their individual crowns, but in all their success, the two gymnasts remain grounded and paid tribute to their teammates as they celebrated.

“Unbelievable. I can’t even put it into words,” Stannard said. “We’ve worked so hard this year, and we’ve made so many sacrifices, and we pushed each other in the gym. Every person on this team is a part of it. It was a really a special thing to be a part of.”

The Big Ten Championships have been a season-long goal for the Illini, and now with the title secured and championship rings on their fingers, the gymnasts head home wanting more — an NCAA Championships title.

“Sometimes winning the Big Ten title may lead to a letdown, but that’s something that shouldn’t happen to this team,” said Hayasaki, who also earned an honor, taking home the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. “I think this team was aware of this from the beginning. We’re going to go for the Big Ten title first, then the momentum should carry through our training, and our goal is to do as good as we can in the NCAA Championships.”