Men’s gymnastics primed to defend No. 1 ranking

Though the 350.650 the Illinois men’s gymnastics team posted in last weekend’s win against Minnesota didn’t quite match its lofty goals, it was plenty to propel the squad back to a familiar position: No. 1 in the national rankings.

But with a road meet at No. 5 Penn State looming Saturday, the Illini refuse to be satisfied with their current level of performance as they continue to work toward a national championship.

“Being No. 1 is fantastic,” associate head coach Justin Spring said. “We love it, it brings great attention to the program, but the team knows as well as the coaching staff that being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean anything until you get to the NCAAs and have a great meet.”

This weekend’s trip to State College, Pa., will be the next step in Illinois’ road to the championship, and the travel involved poses a challenge.

But the way junior team captain Daniel Ribeiro tells it, even the early flight and road environment are necessary steps toward NCAA glory.

“It’s good to get used to it now,” Ribeiro said. “We have three away meets in a row, then we’re going to be away for Big Tens and NCAAs. It’s good to get used to it and to compete under circumstances that aren’t the best. They can only make you better.”

With the ultimate goal in mind, the Illini are taking all their accolades in stride.

“It’s great exposure,” Spring said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

That work continues Saturday night, when Illinois will field a slightly different lineup against Penn State. Senior Chad Wiest will be limited by an arm injury, and freshman Yoshi Mori will also be slowed down by the coaching staff following a rough meet against Minnesota.

“You can definitely tell he’s tired, you could see it in our home meet against Minnesota,” Spring said.

“He’s super-competitive, he’s not happy about it and he wants to do all-around again, but I think he needs a break a little bit, so we’ll be resting him on a couple events.”

Even with the team below full strength, the Illini won’t admit to being worried about the highly ranked Nittany Lions, instead focusing their efforts on their own performance.

“Our goal is to win a championship, so the competition is really more of a competition with ourselves,” said junior Paul Ruggeri, who snared Big Ten Gymnast of the Week honors after winning in the all-around last weekend. “We’re going to be trying to post a bigger score than we have in the past.”

According to Spring, the eventual goal for the team is to get to a 90 percent hit rate (executing routines without falling), and the team was at 78 percent against Minnesota.

“Something I know the team and the coaches are definitely trying to get the guys to do is hit on the same day and put up a score that hasn’t been even close to reached by the other teams,” Spring said.