Men’s gymnastics ready to fight for Big Ten title

This season, any member of the Illinois men’s gymnastics team would likely offer the same answer in response to a question about an upcoming meet.

He would describe the long-term strategy the team has been devoted to — the course drawn at the beginning of the year by the coaching staff that would lead to peak performances when they counted.

With the Big Ten Championships set to take place Friday, the year-long plan will begin to reach its conclusion, leaving the Illini feeling confident about their chances.

“I feel like we’re all really prepared,” sophomore Tyler Mizoguchi said. “We all have one goal in mind and that’s to win Big Ten Championships. It’s been our goal the whole season, and it’s about time to make that dream come true.”

When the six Big Ten teams converge in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend, No. 3 Illinois will attempt to win its second straight title and exact a measure of revenge after sharing last year’s championship with No. 4 Michigan.

During the individual event competitions Saturday, several Illini are poised to come away with honors.

Senior Luke Stannard and junior Paul Ruggeri will both look to defend individual titles — Stannard on the pommel horse and Ruggeri on the parallel bars and high bars.

Entering the meet, Ruggeri ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten on both events, as well as the all-around.

Stannard sits at No. 2 on pommel horse behind teammate junior Daniel Ribeiro.

While the individual accolades are nice, they take a backseat to the team’s success.

“I’ll be much more comfortable on Friday, which is team finals,” Ruggeri said. “I don’t really place emphasis on my own performance; it’s just more of do what I have to do for the team.”

Though many Illini are dealing with minor ailments, they’ll all be available for action Friday and Saturday.

Illinois has topped its previous high score in each of the last three meets, and associate head coach Justin Spring believes it’s a realistic goal to take another step forward.

“Even looking back at (last week’s score of) 362.25, it was a great score but you can go back and pick out whole points here and there that we lost,” Spring said. “We have the potential to be a 365 team, even with a few mistakes here and there. We’d obviously have to have a great day, but we have the potential to go mid-360’s, and I think the team’s ready to do it.”

The plan has come to fruition, and all the pieces are in place for the Illini to make a run for the championship.

The hours spent in the gym and the carefully premeditated training schedules should put them at the top of their game.

“We need to relax and compete the way we’ve been training,” Spring said. “They just need to do what they’re capable of doing. We’ve done all the preparation; they just need to believe in their training.”

All that’s left to do is hit the routines when it matters most.

“It will be successful as long as we hit,” Ruggeri said. “If we hit, they’re not going to beat us.”