Illini fans make noise in a sea of crimson and cream: men’s gymnastics wins NCAA title

NORMAN, Okla. ­— The majority of the 2,699 fans at the team finals of the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships on Friday night was dressed in Oklahoma crimson apparel.

The Sooners were the hosts at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla., and the favorite to win.

The crowd kept gaining energy with every Sooner routine but suddenly became silent during the final rotation.

Oklahoma kept making mistakes on high bar, while Illinois, the team in second, continued to hit its rings routine and came through with the win “358.850-357.450”:

“I didn’t even know Illinois was in the running,” a Stanford fan exclaimed as the scores flashed onto the screen. “It just got really quiet in here really quick,” another said.

The Illini were prepared for the heavily biased crowd, knowing it was something that hurt their squad when it took 2nd to the Sooners at the same venue six years ago.

“We’re athletes, we’re used to it,” senior Paul Ruggeri said. “It’s distracting sometimes when you’re trying to do a set and one of the other guys lands their routines and everybody’s screaming. You’re like, ‘Ugh, I still gotta go,’ but you don’t really let it get to you because then you’re in trouble.”

The Illini had some fans of their own, a group of about 50, mostly family members with some alumni and significant others scattered in the mix as well as two athletes who didn’t make the lineup (freshman Nick Sacramento and sophomore Andrew Margolis).

They worked to combat the Sooner crowd with most fans losing their voices.

“There were Oklahoma fans on both sides of us so it was hard,” said Cindy Maestas, mother of C.J. Maestas. “We just tried to be louder than them and lost our voices in the process.”

Cindy travelled with her entire family to the meet — her husband Craig and their three children.

“We would never miss this, it’s such an exciting time,” she said.

Craig was nervous the entire time, sometimes unable to watch, while Cindy remained calm.

“I knew that they just had to be calm and do their routines,” Cindy said. “I knew if they hit it, they would be OK.”

Once the final scores were made official, the Illini fans were “possibly as excited as the guys,” said Kathy Ruggeri, mother of Paul.

Or not quite.

The fans started off an “I-L-L…” chant but were left with no response, the gymnasts were too busy celebrating on their own, lost in the moment.

“They haven’t been able to win it for the past couple years,” Kathy said. “Each and every one of them wanted it so badly and to be there when they accomplished their goal was amazing.”

The second attempt at cheering worked better, as all that was heard in the Lloyd Noble Center were the back-and-forth screams of “I-L-L…, I-N-I,” and the fans of other teams quietly shuffled out, stopping only to wish those in orange congratulations.