Redshirt senior Paul Ruggeri will look to lead the Illini to a 2012 NCAA title.
Jan. 12, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinois men's gymnastics head coach Justin Spring returns for his third season at the helm for the Fighting Illini men's gymnastics team, which starts the season ranked No. 2 in the nation and No. 1 in the Big Ten. Spring will look to guide the 2012 Illini to the program's fourth consecutive Big Ten championship and first national title since 1989 after a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships last season.
"I think we have the most talented team we've had in 20-plus years," Spring said. "We're pushing early in the year to have huge start values. I'm not expecting anything huge from this team early. We're going to be a team that slowly grows and is a heavy hitter by the end of the year."
The Illini return a talented senior class, boasting two U.S. national team members, two NCAA champions, a combined four national titles and 13 All-America accolades.
"A lot of our depth comes from the senior class, especially with Paul (Ruggeri) in his fifth year, now wrapped in this giant mass of talented individuals," Spring said. "They'll certainly be the backbone with all of their experience. They set the tone for the program. They've been to meets before, so they know how to role through a competition, remain calm and compete well. Everyone is looking up to the them to do that."
Redshirt senior Paul Ruggeri, a seven-time All-American, three-time NCAA champion and current senior national team member, will return for a fifth year after missing most of the 2011 campaign due to injury. The Manlius, N.Y., native has already posted a solid comeback, capturing gold on high bar and silver on parallel bars last fall at the 2011 Pan American Games, where he also helped Team USA take home the bronze medal.
Fellow national team member Tyler Mizoguchi, a three-time All-American and reigning NCAA champion on parallel bars, had a stellar 2011 campaign, winning a career-high 10 individual titles and posting 26 top-three finishes. The Houston, Texas, native ended the season on a high note, capturing the title on parallel bars and finishing runner-up in the all-around at the NCAA Championships after placing third in the all-around at the Big Ten Championships.
Anthony Sacramento was solid in 2011 as well, earning his second straight All-America honor on still rings. The Libertyville, Ill., native also placed first twice on rings and in the top three 10 times throughout the season and was tabbed one of three team captains for the 2012 Illini.
C.J. Padera, 2010 Big Ten champion on parallel bars, garnered his first-career All-America accolade last season and recorded two first-place and 12 top-five finishes in 2011.
"Yoshi brings a huge component to this team," Spring said. "He will be doing all-around for us this year. He was not on his game last year due to a shoulder surgery, but he is back and stronger than ever. I expect big things from him this year. Smurro has come in and really exceeded my expectations. He has stepped it up and has the highest hit percentage of anyone right now."
Mori, 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, recorded 15 top-five finishes last season. The Irvine, Calif., native will vie for the top all-around spot along with Ruggeri and Mizoguchi.
Phillips posted a strong comeback in 2011 after coming off a season-ending injury in 2010. Last season, the Mahwah, N.J., native won two event titles, recorded eight top-five finishes and clinched Illinois' third straight conference title by hitting his high bar routine at the Big Ten Championships. Phillips will vie for a spot in the lineup in multiple events and will serve as tri-captain for the Illini.
Smurro, who transferred from William & Mary following the 2011 season, will look to make an impact on floor as well as push the lineup on parallel bars and high bar, while Brown will specialize on pommel horse.
"These guys are the very much needed first countable scorers," Spring said. "They are not necessarily the first routine that we're going to count, but as a whole, they will contribute a lot to what the team could be putting up this year."
Valdez is coming off an impressive freshman campaign, highlighted by finals appearances on both parallel bars and high bar at the Big Ten Championships. The Louisville, Colo., native will look to contribute on vault as well.
Rogers competed on every apparatus last season and was a solid performer on pommel horse, still rings and parallel bars. After a strong debut season, the Charlotte, N.C., native will vie for a lineup spot on pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and floor.
Varga showed consistency throughout 2011, competing on floor and vault in every meet while recording eight top-five finishes throughout the season.
Pommel horse specialists Smith and Mason and rings technician Margolis will strive to make lineup on their respective events.
"Wilner was the junior national champion on rings last year, and I think he's going to walk right into our lineup and compete," Spring said. "He's another factor of this being one of the strongest ring teams I've seen in my entire life. Another huge component of that is C.J. Maestas. He is a genetic specimen as far as strength goes, and that plays into his other events by allowing him to do big starts and big routines on everything."
Maestas, a standout all-around gymnast and current senior national team member, will lead the talented group of freshmen and look to contribute on every individual event and in the all-around. The Corrales, N.M., native recently joined Ruggeri and Mizoguchi at the Pan Am Games, where he came home with two bronze medals (rings and team) and just missed a third trip to the podium with a fourth-place finish in the all-around.
Wilson, a former junior national team member, will look to crack the lineup on floor, vault and high bar, while Wilner and Nick Sacramento, younger brother of Anthony Sacramento, will look to compete on rings and Tilsley on floor, vault and pommel horse.
Spring also made two additions to his coaching staff in the offseason. Daniel Ribeiro, a former Illini All-American and reigning NCAA and Big Ten pommel horse champion, will remain involved with the program as a student assistant coach, while David Sender will aid the squad as a volunteer assistant coach. The pair will join Spring and assistant coach Ivan Ivankov for the 2012 campaign.
The Orange and Blue will open the season on the road on Jan. 14 at the Windy City Invitational in Chicago. The Illini will host three home meets this season, as they welcome No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 Michigan to Huff Hall on Jan. 28 for a showdown of the nation's top three teams. The Illini will also host No. 12 Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 11 and No. 7 Ohio State on March 2 for Senior Day.
Illinois will look to capture its fourth straight conference title at the Big Ten Championships, April 6-7 in Iowa City, Iowa. Two weeks later, the Orange and Blue will head to the NCAA Championships, hosted by Oklahoma, April 19-21.
Coach Spring's Event Breakdown
Pommel Horse: "I think pommel horse is the only event that took a dive this year. It's an event where consistency is always a problem. We've got a lot of specialists, but we're going to be fighting on this event. We're still going to be in the mix."
Rings: "I think we have one of the most impressive ring teams in Illinois history. These guys are absolutely incredible and are unlike anything I've ever seen before. They have an amazing balance of strength and the ability to swing and do a good dismount, which is difficult for some of the stronger guys sometimes. I'm really excited about rings. It's going to be a very consistent event for us this year."
Vault: "This is an event where we could go big or really struggle as far as finding our place. Vault is one skill rather than a 10-skill routine. We have guys that can possibly do this big upgraded vault, but they have to do it consistently. It could be a big event for us, or we might have to back off a little bit."
Parallel bars: "We are a very strong team on parallel bars. We have anchors who are NCAA champions, and I think that our team could have a battle for the top three spots at the Big Ten Championships this year."
High bar: "High bar is anchored by Paul (Ruggeri), who could probably put up a score with a fall that could still win an NCAA title. It's a bold statement, but he is truly one of the greatest in the world on high bar. Having him as an anchor is fantastic. He is complemented by a bunch of other guys who might not have his start value but are close. We have a really strong high bar team. We just need to focus on keeping these start values and hitting consistently. If we can do that, we'll be one of the strongest high bar teams in the country."
Floor: "We've got an unbelievable lineup doing start values in the mid-16s. In the past, we've had one or two guys who are in that range. We have five guys now doing NCAA championship-winning sets as far as starts, but to win NCAAs, you have to be able to do the routine very well. We're not quite there yet, but we're doing high-value starts already. It's very exciting to see how this floor team is going to progress."