Big Ten champions seek to add complement with NCAA win

Illinois+Brian+Liscovitz+competes+on+the+parallel+bars+during+the+gymnastics+meet+against+UIC+on+Saturday%2C+March+7%2C+2009+at+Huff+Hall.+Illinois+defeated+UIC+357.85-342.8%0A

Illinois’ Brian Liscovitz competes on the parallel bars during the gymnastics meet against UIC on Saturday, March 7, 2009 at Huff Hall. Illinois defeated UIC 357.85-342.8

By Kyle Diller

It’s been a long journey, but the No. 3 Illinois men’s gymnastics team is now on the brink of competing for its season-long goal — its first NCAA Championships title in 20 years.

Having already locked up the Big Ten title, the Fighting Illini travel to Minnesota to compete against the country’s best in the NCAA Championships from April 15 to 17. From day one of the season, the team has had its sights set on the two major championships, and it’s halfway there. Thursday will mark the Illini’s final test in their chase for glory.

“We’re at the point where we’re starting to hit our peak,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “I don’t believe we hit our peak at the Big Ten Championships. I believe this team could perform better than what we did at Big Ten.”

No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 Oklahoma will provide the Orange and Blue with their toughest competition on the road to their first NCAA title since 1989. No. 4 Michigan, with whom the Illini are Big Ten co-champions, could also be a road block on the final leg of the gymnasts’ journey.

“Of course we’re looking at Stanford and Oklahoma right now,” sophomore Paul Ruggeri said. “They have just as much potential as we do, so it all depends on who hits.”

The NCAA Championships will also be Hayasaki’s final chance for success with the Illini, as he is set to retire following the competition’s conclusion.

A victory in Minnesota would send Hayasaki off on a high note with his second NCAA Championship title.

The Illini enter the tournament with two reigning Big Ten champions, junior Luke Stannard and Ruggeri, as well as sophomore Daniel Ribeiro, who is currently No. 1 in the country on the pommel horse.

“Most of all I’d like to hit my events for the team. If I can contribute, that’s really important,” Stannard said. “We’ll be really optimistic about winning an NCAA title. We definitely didn’t do our best (at Big Ten). We expect to do better.”

Ruggeri, an All-American, will compete as the reigning NCAA high bar champion and is looking to defend his title while adding a few extra pieces of hardware to his trophy case.

“NCAA Championships is always tough. It’s the toughest competition of the collegiate championships,” Hayasaki said. “There are a lot of talented gymnasts around there. It’ll be tough, but I think we’ll have maybe more than a few guys challenge for that title.”

The Illini struggled in their first three events at the Big Ten Championships, but Hayasaki believes his team has learned from its mistakes in Ann Arbor, Mich., and will be an even bigger threat in Minneapolis. It seems only perfection is acceptable for the Orange and Blue.

“We’re looking for strong events on all six events,” Hayasaki said. “Our goal is to hit 36 out of 36 routines, and I don’t think any team has ever accomplished that in NCAA Championships.”