The Illini won their first NCAA team title since 1989 and first for any Illinois program since 2003.
July 8, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The 2012 Fighting Illini strung together an unforgettable season, highlighted by their first NCAA team title since 1989 and the first national championship for any Illinois program since 2003. The Orange and Blue also took home their fourth straight Big Ten crown and knocked off the top-ranked team in the nation three times throughout the season en route to a 28-2 overall mark.
The squad produced two NCAA event champions, 11 All-America honors, three Big Ten individual titles, two All-Big Ten selections, the Big Ten Gymnast and Freshman of the Year and its fourth-ever Nissen-Emery Award winner. Head coach Justin Spring was named National Coach of the Year after notching his third straight Big Ten Coach of the Year honor.
Illinois opened the season ranked second in the nation behind 2011 runner-up Oklahoma and was picked to finish first in the Big Ten. After finishing second at the Windy City Invitational behind conference foe Ohio State, the then-No. 4 Illini bounced back with a road win over Iowa. The following weekend, ranked second once again, they knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 7 Michigan in a showdown at Huff Hall.
Less than a week later, the still No. 2-ranked Illini sent six gymnasts -- Paul Ruggeri, Anthony Sacramento, Tyler Mizoguchi, Austin Phillips, C.J. Maestas and Michael Wilner -- along with volunteer assistant coach David Sender to compete at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas for the chance to secure a spot on the 15-man senior national team. There, Maestas finished third on rings, while Ruggeri placed second on floor, both earning spots on the national team. After a nearly three-year hiatus, Sender took second on vault and third on rings to earn a place as well.
The team got back in action the next weekend with a decisive 10-point victory over in-state rival UIC. Despite the win, the Orange and Blue fell to No. 3 in the national rankings, which are based on scores rather than victories. After slipping in the rankings, the squad also slipped in its following meet, coming up just short at No. 2 Penn State.
Two weeks later, No. 3 Illinois returned home and got back on track with a senior-night victory over No. 5 Ohio State at Gym Jam 2012, hosted alongside the women's team. After the win, the Illini never looked back, defeating Minnesota and Nebraska in a tri-meet before downing Iowa once again, this time without Ruggeri, to close out the regular season. Meanwhile, Ruggeri brought home high bar silver for the U.S. at the 2012 World Cup in Cottbus, Germany.
After a nearly three-week-long break, the fourth-ranked Illini traveled to Iowa for the third time in 2012 to compete for their fourth straight Big Ten title. The Orange and Blue extended their reign atop the conference and became the first team to four-peat at the Big Ten Championships since Minnesota accomplished the feat from 1977-80. In addition to capturing Illinois' 27th conference title in program history, the most for any Big Ten school, Maestas won the all-around, becoming the first Illini to take the crown since Wes Haagensen in 2007.
Nine Illini advanced to individual event finals, including seniors Ruggeri (FX, VT, PB), Sacramento (SR), Kyle Moe (SR) and C.J. Padera (HB), junior Yoshi Mori (PH) and Phillips (HB), sophomore Jordan Valdez (HB) and freshmen Maestas (FX, SR, PB, HB) and Mike Wilner (SR).
The following night at event finals, Ruggeri won on floor and broke the Illini vault scoring record to bring home two titles, marking his fifth and sixth conference crowns all-time. Meanwhile, Maestas finished runner-up on floor, rings and high bar and earned Big Ten Gymnast and Freshman of the Year honors, becoming Illinois' first Gymnast of the Year since Haagensen in 2007 and first Freshman of the Year since Mori in 2010. With their stellar performances, both Ruggeri and Maestas garnered first-team All-Big Ten recognition.
After a week off, the Illini traveled to Norman, Okla., for the NCAA Championships. On the eve of competition, Ruggeri became the fourth Illinois gymnast to win the prestigious Nissen-Emery Award at the College Gymnastics Association/NCAA Championships Banquet. The award, which is presented each year, recognizes the top senior male gymnast in the nation. Additionally, assistant coaches Daniel Ribeiro and Ivan Ivankov garnered Central Region Assistant Coach of the Year honors.
The Illini were ranked fourth heading into day one of the championships and competed in the evening preliminary session along with host and top-ranked Oklahoma, No. 5 Minnesota, No. 8 California, No. 9 Temple and No. 12 Air Force. The Orange and Blue came out on top, followed by Oklahoma and California. The three teams joined Session I qualifiers No. 6 Michigan, No. 2 Penn State and No. 3 Stanford in the team final the following night, marking Illinois' 10th straight year in the Super Six.
During team finals, the Illini clawed their way back from a two-point deficit in the final two rotations of the night to win the 2012 NCAA Championships with a season-high 358.850, including a school record-breaking 60.750 on pommel horse, to edge host and top-ranked Oklahoma (357.450), which finished second in the field of six. The win marked Illinois' 10th NCAA team title in program history and first since 1989.
Nine Illini qualified for individual event finals, led by Maestas on pommel horse, rings and parallel bars. Ruggeri advanced on vault and parallel bars, while Chad Mason, Cole Smith and Mori advanced on pommel horse, Sacramento on rings and Padera and Phillips on high bar.
Less than 24 hours after helping the Illini to their first national title in more than two decades, Maestas became Illinois' first-ever NCAA still rings champion, while Ruggeri matched his career high on vault to earn his fourth NCAA individual crown and career first on vault in his final performance for the Orange and Blue. Ruggeri also finished third on parallel bars and Maestas sixth on pommel horse to each earn All-America honors on those events.
Five other Illini finished in the top eight on their respective events to earn All-America honors, including Mori (fifth; PH), Phillips (eighth; HB), Valdez (fifth; HB), Mason (eighth; PH) and Sacramento (eighth; SR). Overall, Illinois totaled 11 All-America honors, nine during event finals and two in the all-around (Maestas and Mori) during team finals.
The Illini celebrated the season at their annual awards banquet, where Maestas was named Most Valuable and Ruggeri Most Outstanding. Three-time All-American Maestas and nine-time All-American Ruggeri led the team with 20 titles apiece. Ruggeri ended his career ranked third all-time at Illinois with 75 titles.
Smith was selected as Most Improved after shattering his career high on pommel horse by seven tenths of a point with a 15.250 to help the Illini win the NCAA team title and earn his first career All-America honor. Padera earned the Yoshi Hayasaki Consistency Award after spending the year in the national top-20 individual event rankings and was ranked 20th on both high bar and parallel bars going into the NCAA Championships.
Junior Vince Smurro, 2012 high bar All-American Jordan Valdez and freshman Josh Wilson were voted team captains for the 2013 season. Sophomore Alex Varga garnered the team's Scholar-Athlete Award, while Mori took home the Fighting Illini Attitude Award.
A few weeks later, Maestas earned yet another honor, garnering Fighting Illini Newcomer of the Year recognition, which is given to the top male and female freshman athletes at Illinois.