Illinois upsets top-ranked Oklahoma

_Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Paul Ruggeri competed in and won a title for the rings event when in fact he did not compete in the event. The Daily Illini regrets this error._

Five events into Saturday nights men’s gymnastics meet at Huff Hall, No. 2 Illinois trailed No. 1 Oklahoma 290.3-288.4. The Illini knew it would take something special to beat the top-ranked team in the country on their last event, the high bar.

One after another, the gymnasts delivered, beating each others’ scores. Junior Vince Smurro scored a 14.0, then senior C.J. Padera took a 14.2. Sophomore Jordan Valdez and junior Austin Phillips scored 14.4 and 14.8, respectively. Then, freshman C.J. Maestas scored a 15.6 in a routine he had never hit during competition. With each routine, Huff Hall got louder and louder. By the time senior Paul Ruggeri came up to anchor the event, the entire gym was focused on him, the last performer of the night. His teammates started a slow clap as Ruggeri began, and they jumped up and down during every pass of his 50-second routine. Ruggeri performed flawlessly in a watered down version of his set, good for a 16.0, just .125 shy of his career high, and enough to push Illinois (349.8) to a win over Oklahoma (347.7) and No. 7 Michigan (339.1).

“Obviously, you could hear the excitement by the crowd,” Ruggeri said. “Gymnastics isn’t that exciting, but when it’s the last event and everybody keeps hitting, hitting, hitting and everyone’s getting higher and higher scores, it’s exciting for us and the crowd.”

Earlier in the meet, Illinois head coach Justin Spring was worried as the Illini got off to a rough start, hitting few routines on the first three events — floor, pommel horse and rings.

“I did expect them to come in fired up, turn it on and hit some events a little better than we started,” Spring said.

Illinois had a weakened lineup for the meet, which Maestas said featured about 85 percent of its full strength. Next weekend is the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, and Illinois’ top athletes were resting their bodies. Illinois’ top three all-arounders, Ruggeri, Maestas and senior Tyler Mizoguchi, only competed in three to four events each.

Maestas said it was fun to give his teammates a chance to shine.

“It was fun to know, ‘Man, they can get it done too, they got our backs no matter what,’” Maestas said. “It was nice to watch them enjoy it, to let them have a fun time.”

Those national team members who did compete at the meet held control, capturing all seven event titles.

Oklahoma’s Jake Dalton was the only all-around competitor at the meet, and he took event titles on floor, rings, parallel bars and the all-around. Michigan’s top all-arounder, Sam Mikulak, only competed in the pommel horse, where he won the event title. Ruggeri rounded out the mix with a title on the vault. This win boosted him to 60 career titles at Illinois, fourth on the all-time list, passing Spring’s mark of 59.

“And it was well deserved,” Spring said with a laugh. “I said it from the beginning, Paul is just outstanding. I said it when he was a freshman, he is going to come in and beat any record I ever set.”