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Illini win Big Ten, individual awards
The scores were close, and everyone knew it. After two-and-a-half hours of intense competition, the Big Ten title came down to the last event: the floor routine. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign freshman C.J. Maestas had just finished a near-perfect routine, and now the competition was up to redshirt senior Paul Ruggeri.
Ruggeri had fallen twice on the high bar earlier in the day, an uncharacteristic mistake considering he is usually a top scorer in that event. But the team needed him, and so with just the floor and the title in front of him, he nailed his routine and secured the Fighting Illini’s fourth-straight Big Ten title.
“For me, just to have completed a successful floor routine, I was so happy I could [pull] it together for my team,” Ruggeri said. “At that time, it wasn’t about me at all; it was all about the team.”
The Big Ten title wasn’t the only award the Illini took home during the weekend of April 6. Maestas was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and won an overall title with a career-high score of 89.5.
“That was just icing on the cake,” Maestas said about winning the award.
Illini Head Coach Justin Spring also earned his second straight Big Ten Coach of the Year honor.
“I have to make sure that that award should be absolutely shared with my support staff,” Spring said. “Ivan [Ivankov] and Daniel [Ribeiro] complete the coaching staff, so to speak. We all have different mindsets on things and bring a different energy to certain situations, so I think that without the balance of both of them, we wouldn’t be the staff that we are.”
According to Ruggeri, Spring’s team-oriented attitude is something the Illini take great pride in, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to keep their Big Ten streak running for four years straight.
“We say it time and time again that we’re about being a family,” Ruggeri said. “We’re the closest team in the NCAA, and I really believe that and I know every member of our team believes that. That’s what really pushes us to the next level. It propels us to be the best we can be because we bring out the best in each other.”
According to Spring, the Big Ten win was important to the team, but the biggest competition of the year is still on the horizon as the Illini approach the NCAA National Championships, from April 20–21 at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla.
“We can’t take for granted that we’ve got [the Big Ten title] under our belt,” Spring said. “This team’s mission, this team’s ultimate vision of success for this year, is winning a national championship. And after talking to them, I absolutely think that they’re ready.”
According to him, the team may be ready, but they won’t win the title without a fight. The No. 1 Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions and the No. 8 University of Michigan Wolverines are going to come back with a vengeance after marginal losses in the Big Ten championship competition, Spring said.
“I know that Penn State and Michigan are not happy with the final results in the Big Ten,” he said. “I think that they went back angry and they’re going to show up as stronger and better teams at [the] NCAA Championships.”
The No. 2 University of Oklahoma Sooners and the No. 3 Stanford University Cardinal are also on the Illini’s radar in terms of competition, Ruggeri said.
“I think that Oklahoma and the gymnasts there are masterminds of doing clean, consistent gymnastics, and they’ve shown that time and time again,” he said. “I think that Oklahoma, Michigan, Penn State or Stanford are going to have that strategy.”
The team has been doing a lot of mental and physical preparation in order to train for the upcoming tournament, Spring said.
“So much of postseason is a mental game and being mentally prepared to take the weight of an NCAA Championship on your shoulders [during] every routine you do,” he said. “That’s really the essence of the NCAA Championships.”
With that kind of preparation, Spring, Ruggeri and Maestas all agree that the Illini have a legitimate shot at bringing home their first NCAA title since 1989.
“We’re coming off that big win at the Big Ten, but I can tell you, we’re still hungry,” Maestas said. “Half the job is done with, but we still have another half to go. The team and myself are going to do everything in our power to bring home a national championship.”