Head coach Yoshi Hayasaki's freshman class looks to lead Illinois back to the forefront of collegiate gymnastics.
Dec. 3, 2007
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After announcing the signing of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation last week, head coach Yoshi Hayasaki and the Illinois coaching staff now turns its focus to the 2007-08 season and the highly touted freshmen class. The contingent includes one of the best classes to come through Illinois under Hayasaki's tenure and is made up of Nate Luketin (Roselle, Ill./Lake Park), Kyle Moe (Champaign, Ill./Champaign Central), Roger Pasek (Sleepy Hollow, Ill./Dundee-Crown), Daniel Ribeiro (Chestnut Ridge, N.Y./Northern Highlands Regional), Paul Ruggeri (Manlius, N.Y./Fayetteville Manlius) and Johnny Schell (Gaithersburg, Md./Gaithersburg).
The young group will then complement quite possibly the most talented senior class in the nation. That group includes high bar All-American Ross Bradley, who sat out last season with a shoulder injury, rings specialist Jon Drollinger, six-time All-American and reigning Big Ten Gymnast of the Year Wes Haagensen, 2007 high bar All-American Chris Silcox and three-time All-American and 2007 Big Ten Vault titlist Tyler Yamauchi.
The 2007-08 Illinois men's gymnastics season officially kicks off this Friday when the men and women's teams host their annual Mixed Pairs competition at Huff Hall on Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. The annual competition gives fans a chance to see both of the program's talented freshman in their home debut, as well as their returning talented All-Americans before the two teams open dual competition in January.
Nate Luketin // Roselle, Ill. // Lake Park
An Illinois native, Luketin has already spent two years on the campus of the University of Illinois as a member of the Flippin' Illini Gymnastics Club team and was a Dean's list honoree in both 2005 and 2006. As one of the top gymnasts for Flippin' Illini, Luketin was the 2007 pommel horse champion at the NAIGC nationals.
"The varsity team is just a whole different world of gymnastics," Luketin said. "There's always someone there pushing you to be better and I just love the level of competition. The chance to just be around all of this talent everywhere is great."
Luketin, who started his gymnastics career in high school, was a three-year varsity letterwinner in gymnastics at Lake Park, where he was coached by Rick Orna and Keith Matune. In 2004, he was a state qualifier on pommel horse as well as serving as team captain.
"When choosing colleges, I originally considered Illinois because it had a great gymnastics team," Luketin said. "At the time, I wasn't really good enough for the team, but it was kind of in the back on my mind from the start."
Perhaps looking to earn a spot in the lineup on pommel, one of the weakest events for the Illini last season, Luketin also was a 2005 state qualifier on high bars and parallel bars, while he placed 18th on pommel horse. Luketin joins the team as a junior by classification, but will be a freshman in eligibility.
"I just want to bring everything I can to this team,' Luketin said. "I mean, anyway that I could benefit the team, I would love to do it."
Kyle Moe // Champaign, Ill. // Champaign Central
A gymnast direct from Champaign, Moe is staying close to home as he fulfills his dreams of competing for the University of Illinois.
"I lived in Champaign all my life, and I did gymnastics here, so I have always wanted to be on the U of I team," Moe said. "I knew a lot of the guys growing up and a lot of the guys were my coaches when I was training and doing Junior Olympics."
As a graduate of Champaign Central High School, he was a three-year varsity letterwinner in golf, while he was coached in gymnastics by Jonas Contakos. A competitor in the gym and the classroom, Moe was a three-time Academic All-American and four-time Junior Olympics participant. His experience on the junior level is what Moe hopes will land him a spot in the Illini lineup.
"I just hope to make lineup on any events I can," Moe said. "Right now, I'm training for four events mostly, so I'm just hoping I can count my scores and just contribute. Even if I don't make lineup, I want to be there to just cheer them on."
Moe `s top accomplishments include notching an eighth-place individual finish in the all-around at the 2007 State Competition as the only representative from his club team.
However, while the allure of a top-notch program and tradition rich gymnastics team at Illinois enticed the Champaign product to stay close to home, the family atmosphere of the squad is what affirms Moe that Illinois was the right choice.
"Everyone gets along and are such good friends here," Moe said. "Everyone does pretty much everything together. We are like one big family."
Roger Pasek // Sleepy Hollow, Ill. // Dundee-Crown
Pasek comes to Illinois after a tremendous career at Dundee-Crown High School and in the junior national ranks. In gymnastics, Pasek was coached by club and high school coaches Scott Sheridan, Mike Califf and Steve Merena.
At Dundee, he was a varsity letterwinner in gymnastics all four years, opening his string of state titles by taking home the pommel horse state championship and finishing runner-up in the all-around as a junior. From there, he was a three-time state champion as a senior, earning crowns on pommel horse, high bar and parallel bars.
"I am focused on becoming an All-American, but before that, I want to pretty much help the team out as best as I can," Pasek said. "Nothing is better than an NCAA Championship as a team. So I will do whatever I can do to help the team. Hopefully I can help them in floor, pommels and vault this year, but I know I have to see and hit everything I am doing. With that, hopefully I can help us win that national title."
Pasek added to his high school success with his runner-up finish in the all-around as a junior by finishing second again as a senior. Overall, Pasek finished his high school career winning 22 Illinois state medals. The feats are what made this Illinois native a perfect fit for the Orange and Blue.
"One of the huge factors of why I choose Illinois was the team," Pasek said. "The guys are awesome here and it's a great school. At Illinois, you are pushed to get a good education and it has one of the top teams in the country. This team also is probably the best group of guys I've ever met."
While Illinois state medals were accomplishments in themselves, Pasek did not stop there as he won national titles on parallel bars, pommel horse, floor exercise and high bar at High School Nationals in 2007. However, since joining the Illini and working out with the team all fall, Pasek knows he can continue to expect more down the road this season.
"I have been so impressed with just how close this team is after working out with them this fall," Pasek said. "Everybody is with everybody all the time. That's what sets this team apart from a lot of other teams. A lot of people say that this team is closer than any other team in the country, and it is definitely true. Everyone is always there for everybody else. It's just great."
Daniel Ribeiro // Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. // Northern Highlands Regional
One of the most talented recruits in the country and in the Illini freshman class, Ribeiro was coached by Genadi Shub at the US Gymnastics Development Center II. In 2005, he made his first finals appearance in the all-around at Junior Olympic Nationals, while he finished runner-up on pommel horse. Yet, while his accomplishments make Ribeiro a perfect fit for Illinois, it was the team that convinced him to come to Champaign.
"On my recruiting trip, the guys really made me feel at home," Ribeiro said. "I love the guys, and they're the ones that really got me to come here. I went to a lot of different schools, but ultimately what brought me here was the team atmosphere and the team chemistry was really awesome. We have a really good chance to win a National Championship too."
Ribeiro added to his 2005 performances by repeating in the all-around finals and took silver on pommel horse in 2006. Overall, the New York native dominated Junior Olympics in 2007, making his third straight finals in the all-around before breaking through the ranks to seal his first crown on pommel horse. Ribeiro also helped lead his team to the New Jersey State Championship in 2007, all of which is what the Chestnut Ridge product will use to hopefully earn him a spot in the Illini lineup this season.
"Personally, I want to be a consistent contributor on pommel horse for sure," Ribeiro said. "Horse is probably the real reason I'm here at Illinois. Other than that, I hope my scores can bump them up to get the number one spot and win a national championship."
With one of the best routines on horse going into the 2008 season, Ribeiro has his worked cut out for him with a deep roster for the Illini this season all competing for a spot in the lineup.
"The guys here are so talented," Ribeiro said. "There are twenty-one guys fighting for twelve spots, so there are possibly guys that were All-Americans last year that won't even be competing this year. Everyone is fighting for a spot and working really hard. Everyone is going to get better in the end to get us to the national championship because we are all pushing each other everyday."
Paul Ruggeri // Manlius, N.Y. // Fayetteville Manlius
Perhaps the future of Illinois in the all-around, Ruggeri enters the 2008 as one of the Illini's most well rounded gymnasts in the freshman class. Ruggeri's accomplishments do not just end in the gym, as he earned Academic All-America honors twice at Junior Olympics, while also earning Silver and Gold Keys and three honorable mention accolades for his portfolio from the Central New York Scholastic Art Association. However, Ruggeri's accomplishments in the gym are what make this Illini freshman one of the most heralded youngster's in the country.
"I looked at some other schools like Berkley and Michigan, but in the end, it came down to Illinois," Ruggeri said. "It's a really good academic school and I really liked the team."
Prior to Illinois, Ruggeri took home the gold on floor and high bar and the bronze on vault and in the all-around at the 2006 Visa Championships. A 2006-07 Junior U.S. National Team Member, Ruggeri also tied for second on floor and finished 12th in the all-around at the 2007 Winter Cup. Ruggeri also placed third on floor at the 2005 Junior Olympic Nationals, followed up the effort with a third-place finish on high bar and vault and a seventh-place outing on floor at the 2006 JO Nationals and was a three-time all-around finalist at JO Nationals from 2004-06.
"While I am here at Illinois, nothing would be better than a team national championship," Ruggeri said. "Along the way, I definitely would love to earn All-America honors as well."
While Ruggeri's goals are high for his individual and team career at Illinois, the time spent with the Illini so far has already confirmed that he made the right choice of where to call his gymnastics home.
"So far, it has been a great experience working out with the team this fall," Ruggeri said. "The most amazing thing about this team is how often we are always together. It's like a family here at Illinois."
Johnny Schell // Gaithersburg, Md. // Gaithersburg
Schell comes to Illinois after not only having a strong gymnastics career, but a strong stint as a member of the swimming and diving team at Gaithersburg High School. There, he set multiple pool records, led his team to a Divisional title in 2004 and finished fourth at Counties that same season. As for gymnastics, Schell was coached by Carlos Vazquez at Capital Gymnastics National Training Center and was a Junior Olympics Nationals participant every year since 2003, except 2005 due to injury
"While at Illinois, I'm hoping to get into all around," Schell said. "I know my main events are floor and vault, but we have a pretty good floor and vault team, so I really want to get into high-bar and hopefully even pommels and rings."
In 2003, the Maryland native was a finalist in the all-around and finished sixth during event finals on parallel bars. An all-around contributor throughout his Maryland high school career, Schell also was a finalist on vault, parallel bars and high bar in 2004. He then continued his streak of success in 2006, advancing to finals on floor, vault and high bar. In 2007, he was a finalist on floor, vault and high bar to conclude a heralded high school career.
"I had kinda already decided on a college before I came to Illinois," Schell said. "But, then I talked to Yoshi [Hayasaki, head coach] and Justin [Spring, assistant coach] and they convinced me to come out and visit. I came out and realized Illinois has a good business school. I liked the campus, and I got along really well with the guys. Everything about Illinois made me want to come here after my visit."