Ruggeri looks to add to impressive resume with NCAA Championships performance

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Ruggeri was on Team USA at the Pan-American games

By Kyle Diller

He’s just recently become a two-time Big Ten champion. He’s an NCAA champion looking to defend his title this weekend. He’s also a national champion. Success is just part of being Paul Ruggeri.

This week is another chance for Ruggeri to succeed, as he prepares to defend his NCAA high bar crown when the Big Ten champion Illinois men’s gymnastics team heads to Minneapolis, Minn., for the NCAA Championships that begin Thursday.

Ruggeri enters the meet after adding two Big Ten individual titles — the floor routine and parallel bars — at the Big Ten Championships on April 3 and 4 and playing a key role in leading the Illini to their first Big Ten title since 2004.

Ruggeri is clearly no stranger to success, and the good news for Illini fans is that he’s only a sophomore. With over half of his college career still ahead of him and a cabinet full of hardware, fans must wonder what’s next for the Manlius, N.Y., native to achieve.

“I just want to hit as many routines as I can hit on team finals and see how many event finals I can make,” Ruggeri said. “If I’m able to stay on the high bar I should definitely be able to maintain my title, and I’m hoping to pick up a couple others.”

But Ruggeri is aiming for more than just another NCAA individual title. Once the NCAA Championships come to an end, he will attempt to achieve his biggest goal, one which just slipped from his grasp three months ago — a spot on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.

It was a competition of triumph for Ruggeri at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas on Jan. 5 and 7 as he took the gold on the high bar, edging out 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Joseph Hagerty, 30.500-30.450, to become a national champion.

However, it was also a competition of heartbreak. Ruggeri suffered an injury to his meniscus earlier in the competition that eventually cost him a spot on the 15-gymnast U.S. Men’s Senior National Team. Ruggeri was the odd man out in a three-way tie for the two remaining spots on the squad. Had his injury not forced him out of three events, Ruggeri most likely could have earned enough points to make the team without depending on a tiebreaker.

“If it weren’t for his knee he would be on the national team. He would have made it on points. He only needed a few more points,” Illinois assistant coach Justin Spring said. “Floor is his best event. Had he have done floor, it wouldn’t have been a matter of chance. He would have qualified off points alone.”

The 2009 Visa Championships in August will provide Ruggeri another chance to make the Senior National Team. Ruggeri goes into the meet with the eyes of the national committee locked on him.

“The committee was there watching. The committee, my national team coordinator — they’re asking questions,” Spring said. “They’re focused on him. They’re ready to see him emerge as one of the country’s greatest and he’s going to.”

With 2008 bronze medalist Spring in his corner, it seems Ruggeri could be sprinting down the path to success. Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki has already made connections between the two.

“I think he is following in the steps of our former great Justin Spring,” Hayasaki said. “Who knows how far he could go? He’s got a reputation to be one of the greats.”

With coaches that are full of praise and the attention of the national committee on him, it’s no shocker that the Illini ace looks ahead to the Visa Championship brimming with confidence.

“I’ll definitely be confident. I only did two of my good events. To know that I have two more coming, it’s really good to know,” Ruggeri said. “I know that I’m right there and that if I train well enough and work hard enough it should be a goal I’m capable of grasping.”

But before he can focus all of his attention on another shot at the senior national team, Ruggeri has one final opportunity to add to his growing gymnastics resume — the NCAA Championships.